Snipe hunting is an old joke, a fool’s errand considered to be a practical joke. Those of our generation remember it, but you younger woodworkers may not. It’s been around for a long time, and the first suggestion of it dates back to the 1840s. There is no such animal as a snipe.
Planer snipe, though, is not a joke. It’s real and a real annoyance when it happens. It can make us have to start all over again on woodworking projects, even.
Let’s dig in (pun intended, but won’t become obvious unless you read on).
How Do Planers Work?
A planer is a power tool with a flat, enclosed bed on which a board rides as pressure rollers from above pull it through the machine and under a spinning blade that removes material in a uniform way.
The bed serves as a flatness reference, and the spinning blade removes material along the top of the board to create that same degree of flatness. The bed adjusts its height to set the amount of material to be removed, usually to a thickness that meets your project’s needs. The point of the exercise is to trim boards to a uniform thickness from one end to the other.
We remember an incident in junior high school shop class that we’ve mentioned before. Mr. Davis lost a part of his right hand’s index finger and some of his middle finger in a planer accident. It happened right in front of us, and blood and flesh went flying out of the planer on a couple of students. One student even puked. Mr. Davis calmly said, “I’ll be back later,” and went to the nurse’s office and later to the hospital.
In short, planers are dangerous if you are not careful. The blade spins quickly and removes material just as quickly.
What is Planer Snipe and Why Is It Bad?
When the board first enters the planer chamber, it is drawn inward by one of two pressure rollers until the board is in enough for the second roller to engage with the board’s surface. If the bed height adjustment is not carefully set and instead is set for too deep a cut, the first roller can lift the board slightly, causing too deep a cut and too much material removed at the front end of the board.
The same thing can happen as the board is leaving the cutting chamber when the one roller engaged with the board lifts the other end slightly, causing too much material to be removed from the board’s back end.
The result, then, is a slightly thinner beginning and end of the board. These little dig-outs, if you will, are what is referred to as a snipe. As you can see, this defeats the purpose of the planer – to set a flat surface. Depending on the extent of the material removed at the front and back end of the board, it will at the least need to be sent through the planer again, or further planed by hand if the snipe is very shallow.
How To See Snipe
If you suspect snipe, or if you simply want to make sure there is none, you can do a couple of things to find out the answer:
- Spray some mineral spirits on the front and back end of the board to show any extra material removed;
- Use a raking light, shining on the board at a low angle to display any rise on the board and amplify any shadow effect.
If these tests show no snipe, you’re all set and can continue with your project. However, if you find a snipe, you’ll need to take some remedial action that will probably involve running the board through the planer again with some additional measures taken.
How To Prevent Snipe In A Planer
The better action would be to prevent planer snipe in the first place. Here are a few thoughts on preventing snipe in the first place.
Scrap pieces. Run scrap pieces at the beginning and end of the workpiece through the planer. Let the snipe affect those sacrificial pieces rather than the project piece.
Support side rails. Attach a support rail to each side of the board and let the pressure rollers latch onto them as the board is pulled through the planer chamber.
Lift. Lift the back of the board ever so slightly as it the first pressure roller engages with it, letting go when the second roller engages. This will keep the board flat on the reference bed of the planer. Then, lift the front end ever so slightly at the other end of the planer chamber as it comes out for the back end.
Again, this will keep the back end of the board flat against the bed. Ever-so-slightly can’t be emphasized enough so as not to contribute to any snipe. You simply want to keep the board level on the flatness reference bed.
Cut the ends. If you leave the workpiece just a bit longer than the project needs, and snipe occurs, you simply cut the ends off. If no snipe occurs, you still cut the ends off, but at least your board is flat and level. While this might seem wasteful, we’re not talking about a foot of extra length.
If sniping is going to occur, it’s only at the beginning and end of the board, not at multiple places along the span. The pressure rollers are only inches apart, not feet part, so the amount of snipe will not be great.
Be patient. Don’t try to remove too much material at once. The bed of the planer is adjustable, and by setting the height in increments, removing only a little bit of material at a time, and running the board through several times, you reduce the possibility of snipe occurring.
Proper maintenance. When we keep our power tools in good working order and clean, they perform well for us. The same is true for planers. Be sure to clean the cutter head from time to time; remove any sap residue that might have gathered on either the cutter head or the table bed; remove sawdust and chips after every use; and apply an occasional coat of paste wax to the bed so boards will slide smoothly under the cutter head. All of these measures will keep the planer in good condition and reduce the chances of snipe.
Know your planer. Every power tool comes with an operating manual. Take the time to read the one that came with your planer, and make sure you follow both operational guidelines and maintenance suggestions. This is good practice for all of your power tools, actually, so take it to heart.
A Few More Tips On Preventing Planer Snipe
Sometimes showing is better than telling. We found a video with a couple of more ideas on steps you can take to minimize snipe. It’s not long and is worth viewing if you’ve encountered snipe problems in the past.
Of course, planer snipe is not the end of the world, but it can be frustrating. Take steps to reduce the chance of it happening, and your project will be fine. Just be more careful than Mr. Davis was back in our junior high school class.