For years many American woodworkers have looked to Europe for quality hand tools. Chisels and saws from England, wooden planes from Germany, carving tools from Switzerland and Sweden. But we have usually stuck close to home when it comes to big power tools. We look to Delta, Powermatic, Craftsman and Jet for our table saws, band saws, jointers, planers and shapers. Though an increasing number of these are imports from Taiwan and China, these machines are almost all copies of home-grown models.
Given our admiration of European tools, it has long puzzled me why more Americans haven’t adopted one of the most common fixtures of European shops, the combination machine. Merging from two to five basic woodworking machines in a single unit, these machines are ideal for home shops where space is often at a premium. And even if your shop is roomy, a combination machine can offer features, capacity and quality found only on top-of-the-line stand-alone machines.
European-style combination machines sold in the United States come in three basic types. One combines a table saw and shaper. Another combines a jointer and planer, with an optional horizontal mortiser. The third merges all these tools: table saw, shaper, jointer, planer and (still an option) horizontal mortiser. These five-function machines are sometimes called 5-in-1s, and are available in a wide range of sizes and prices. The Zincken MIA4, for instance, offers a 6" table saw, 6" jointer and planer, a shaper and a horizontal mortiser, all run by a single 1hp motor and selling for about $750. At the other end of the market is the Felder CF7-41. For about $13,000 you get a 12" table saw with state-of-the-art sliding table; a 16" jointer and planer; a 1" reversible, tilting-arbor shaper; and (for an extra $1,000 or so) a horizontal mortiser. Three separate 3hp motors drive the five tools.
I grew up with American-style machines in my dad’s shop and knew nothing of combination machines until I worked in English shops as a young man. Sold on their value, I looked for a combination machine when I moved back to the states in the mid 1970s. Finding none, I reverted to the readily available stand-alone models, still hoping I’d eventually find a combo.
In the early 1980s, I began to see ads for European combination machines in woodworking magazines. Since then, I have owned two 5-in-1 machines, one small and one mid-range. My experience leads me to believe that while combination machines aren’t for everyone, many more American woodworkers ought to consider them seriously.
For years, working out of borrowed or rented garages, barns and basements, I used a Zincken Compact 21 (or ZC-21), with a 9" table saw, 8" jointer/planer, a shaper and a mortiser. It took up less space and weighed less than a Delta Unisaw and was only a few hundred dollars more expensive. Lightweight and compact, it is an ideal tool for workshops that share space with ping-pong tables or cars. Mounted on a homemade rolling platform, mine easily wheeled out of the way when not in use.
Most important, it gave me all the basic machines I needed for solid-wood projects. The table saw ripped 1"-thick oak without lugging; 2" if fed slowly. Its simple sliding table crosscut accurately and conveniently. The 8" jointer/planer ensured that my material was flat and uniformly thick. The horizontal mortiser cut neat accurate mortises between ?" and ?" wide and up to 2" deep. And the shaper profiled edges, cut joints and also functioned as a router table. With this small machine I was able to build everything from jewelry boxes to 6′-long trestle tables, including cabinets and chests of all sizes.
Of course, the machine has its limitations. The table saw is small; the jointer tables are short. A Delta Unisaw and 8" jointer are without doubt superior. But together they cost about $2,500. Moving down-market, a 10" Grizzly contractor’s saw and 8" jointer cost about $1,100. Buy either pair, and you still don’t have the planer, mortiser or shaper incorporated in the ZC-21.
My ZC-21 served me well in a number of less than commodious workspaces. But when I finally bought my own house and was able to build a 500-square-foot shop next to it, I found myself hankering for something bigger. Though I’m a fan of combos, I don’t deny there are advantages to stand-alone equipment. Even Morrie Kilberg, whose company D-M International distributes Zinckens in North America, recommends stand-alone machines to people with the space and money. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I bought a Grizzly 10" cabinet table saw and 8" jointer and refurbished an old Parks 12" planer. I kept the Zincken for shaping and mortising and for fine jointing and planing. In some ways, I had the best of both worlds.
But, a year ago when I got the chance to buy a bigger combination machine, I jumped at it. Since I first saw the Robland X-31 advertised about a decade ago, I have wanted one. An 1,100-pound machine, the X-31 incorporates a 10" sliding-table table saw, 12" jointer/planer, a heavy duty shaper and a horizontal mortiser, all powered by three 3hp motors. After traipsing 600 miles (each way) and parting with about $4,000 (a new machine costs $6,000 plus shipping), I rolled my used X-31 into the shop and sold my stand-alone table saw, jointer, planer and the trusty old Zincken, recouping half the X-31 purchase price. The X-31 occupies about 36 square feet near the center of my shop. Selling the other machines opened up space for a drill press, band saw and dust collector (as well as room for the family’s bicycles). Though it weighs half a ton, the machine can be moved with relative ease by means of a three-point caster system.
The X-31 is not without faults. But, taken individually, each of its machines are a step above every stand-alone equivalent I’ve ever owned. The machine is vibration free and the 3hp motors are more than adequate whether I’m ripping 3" maple or planing a 12"-wide piece of oak. The table saw and jointer fencing arrangement is problematic (more about that later), but the sliding table is a joy to use.
Advantages and Disadvantages
A comparison between the combination machines I’m familiar with and equivalent stand-alone machines is useful, but not always straightforward because woodworkers’ needs and preferences are so varied. The strength of the Zincken ZC-21, for example, is not that it is a better table saw than the Delta 8" bench saw, but that it provides a good-quality jointer, planer and shaper as well, allowing you to store an entire woodworking machine shop along the wall of your garage.
It is easier, I think, to compare larger combination machines with their stand-alone counterparts. These combos offer 10" or 12" table saws and 12" jointer-planers and spindle shapers all powered by meaty motors. In my experience, these comparisons are at worst a draw and frequently yield a decided advantage to combos. The Robland X-31 outperforms stand-alones in several areas, and I’m confident that the Mini-Max, Hammer and Euro-Shop 5-in-1 machines of similar capacity and price share these advantages. In some instances, these machines exceed the X-31.
A sliding table is a standard feature of all these combos and of none of the American-style cabinet saws — advantage clearly to the combos. (Some smaller bench saws now offer standard sliding tables.) The X-31’s 3hp motor and heavy frame produce vibration-free operation, more so, I must say, than most Unisaw-style machines I’ve used. Other table saw features are, for the most part, a toss up.
The fencing systems on some combos, however, fall short of their stand-alone competition. As currently sold, the X-31 uses a single two-sided fence that slides on a round guide bar attached to the end of the jointer outfeed table. One side of the fence is a rip fence for the table saw, the other serves the jointer.
While accurate, the fence is ungainly, heavy and awkward to set up. This is better than some of the fences I’ve used, but it’s no match for a Biesemeyer or a fence on a stand-alone jointer. (Not all combos have fence problems — Felder fences, for instance, are superb.)
This fencing arrangement, with its guidebar-mounted fence mimicking common American setups, is the latest in a series of attempts by Robland to adapt the fencing to American tastes. As a used machine, my X-31 came with the original European fencing, which I like better. A small but sturdy and accurate aluminum fence mounted to the front of the machine handles rips up to about 10" wide. Attaching a larger center-mounted fence to the edge of the jointer outfeed table accommodates rips up to about 2 feet wide. The same fence, mounted on the table saw table, serves the jointer.
All these combos have powerful, versatile, large capacity shapers served by the sliding table. Combination shapers are equalled in stand-alone machines only in the mid to upper price ranges.
Jointer and Planer
In combos, these machines share the same cutterhead. To use the planer, you swing the jointer tables out of the way, rotate a blade-guard and dust-extraction head into place and wind up the planer bed. The change-over takes about 30 seconds. Both machines are sturdy, vibration-free and accurate. My X-31 planer takes a 1/8" cut on a 12"-wide maple board without lugging. You need to look among the mid-to upper-priced planers to find ones with similar capacity and durability. The Robland’s 55" jointer tables are somewhat shorter than standard stand-alone models, but more than adequate. And its 12" width is unobtainable for less than $2,000 in a stand-alone machine.
Horizontal mortisers are available on all the 5-in-1 machines discussed here. All run off the jointer-planer cutterhead, which is tapped for a chuck that holds the bits. Sturdy sliding tables with in-out, side-to-side and up-and-down movement bolt to the jointer-planer frame. While heavy, the tables can be attached and removed in seconds. Stand-alone horizontal mortisers are hard to find. Most woodworkers use some form of hollow-chisel machine. Among the hollow-chisel mortisers I’ve used, I find the horizontal mortiser preferable to drill-press attachments and to bench-top ram-style mortisers and a toss up with industrial floor-model mortisers. The horizontal mortiser makes a clean, accurate cut with little burning.
Isn’t it a nuisance to shift from one function to another? Dealers tell me this is one of the most common concerns Americans have about combination machines. The answer is both yes and no. I won’t pretend that shifting between the table saw, jointer and planer on either my Zincken or Robland is as convenient as moving between three stand-alone machines. There are the fences to deal with, mortising tables to attach and the little dance required to shift between jointer and planer.
But the inconvenience is slight and the time “lost” is insignificant to me. No change-over from one function to another takes more than a minute or two. Once set up, rotating a knob on the Robland selects the function you want to power. (Only one machine can operate at a time). The single-motor Zincken has an ingenious and well-engineered mechanism that engages the proper belt to select a machine. In short, the many advantages of the machines outweigh, for me at least, the minor inconveniences of changing tools.
Combination machines have many attractions, but the one at the top of the list is space saving. If you need to squeeze an entire cabinet shop into a closet, a small combination machine like the Zincken C-21 or its little brother, the MIA4, is ideal.
Space considerations don’t necessarily decrease as shop size increases. I appreciate the space I save with the X-31, but that’s not why I bought the machine. I could buy (and have bought) less expensive machines. But the X-31 and other combos in its class provide better quality and capacity than other machines I could buy for the same money. (A Unisaw with aftermarket sliding table and a 12" Grizzly jointer alone would cost about $4,000.)
Much as I like my 5-in-1 machine, I have to admit that I think the ideal combination machine setup would involve two machines: one a combination table saw and shaper, the other a combination jointer-planer-mortiser. Separated in this way, the fences cease to be an issue. I frequently move between the table saw and jointer — rip, joint an edge, then crosscut to length. Even if it only takes 30 seconds, changing over from table saw to jointer repeatedly can be irksome (you learn to plan your work better). Separating the machines eliminates this problem.
At this point, many readers may be saying, “Well, that sounds wonderful, but I’m not made of money.” No doubt about it, laying out $5,500 to $8,000 for an X-31 or similar 5-in-1 combination machine is a daunting prospect. A fair number of woodworkers have that much money (or more) tied up in machinery. But few of us spend $6,000 all at once.
So how might a combination machine fit the budget as well as the dreams of the frugal majority among us? Many woodworkers already have a table saw and a great many do without a shaper or build a router table to cover their shaping needs. If they’re unhappy with what they’ve got they’re much more likely to upgrade to a $700 Grizzly or $1,500 Unisaw than a $3,300 combination table saw-shaper.
When it comes to jointers and planers, however, I think far more American woodworkers should consider a jointer-planer combination. When working with solid wood, the importance of flattening stock in initial preparation can’t be overstated.
For years 6" jointers were the largest affordable option for most home shops. Recently Delta, Grizzly and several others have offered 8" machines for around $1,000 or less. My 8" Grizzly was a good machine, as was the 8" jointer-planer on my Zincken. But neither was wide enough. I longed for at least a 12" jointer so I wouldn’t have to rip up and reglue wide boards. The least expensive 12" machine I could find (a Grizzly) cost more than $2,000.
But, for about $2,700 I could buy the Robland 12" combination jointer-planer (and would have done that if the used X-31 hadn’t appeared). Two equally heavy duty, high-quality 3hp stand-alone machines would cost considerably more. Grizzly’s 12" jointer and 15" planer cost almost exactly the same. Delta’s 8" jointer and 15" planer run about $2,250. And the stand-alones take up twice the space. Finally, for an extra $600, you get a dandy horizontal mortiser. Like I said, more woodworkers ought to take a serious look at combination machines. PW
Sidebar: The Combo Chronicles
Despite the fairly recent appearance of European models in the American market, combination machines are not new here. Cincinnati’s Parks Machine Co., for example, manufactured combination machines at least as early as the 1920s. The Parks Planing Mill combined a table saw, 12" jointer, 22" band saw, shaper, swing cut-off saw and hollow-chisel mortiser, all driven by flat belts connected to a 5hp motor.
This behemoth was not, of course, the kind of thing you’d put in your basement or garage. But the market for home-shop woodworking was incubating and in 1928 the Delta Specialty Co., a Milwaukee firm then just nine years old, offered the Delta Handi-Shop, which harnessed a 9" lathe, 8" disc sander and 6" table saw to a ? hp electric motor.
A few other American manufacturers produced combination machines (most common were table saw-horizontal borer combos) for the industrial and home-shop markets but they didn’t catch on. The Shopsmith is, of course, the exception, selling some half a million tools since its invention in the late 1940s. But the Shopsmith, with its combination of lathe, drill press, small table saw, horizontal borer and disc sander, addresses other needs than the European-style machines and does not include two of the tools basic to solid-wood woodworking, the jointer and planer.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, there were sporadic attempts to market European combination machines here. But for the most part Americans who wanted one had to order a machine from Europe or go there and bring one back.
In the mid 1980s, Torben Helsjoy (pronounced Hels-hoy) began to sell the Belgian-made Robland machines. A Danish woodworker, Helsjoy came to the United States in 1982 on a hitchhiking adventure that ended in California, where he set up a small custom cabinet shop. Disappointed with the machines available here, he returned to Denmark and bought a container load of Roblands. Back in California, he began to market the machines out of his cabinet shop. In 1987, he became a full time machinery dealer. His company, Laguna Tools, sells a range of European machines, some stand-alone, some combination. Robland is his prime supplier. The X-31 is their most popular combo (they also sell 16" models) and Helsjoy estimates that he has sold about 3,000 X-31s to date.
A few years after Helsjoy set up Laguna Tools, Morrie Kilberg, general manager of D-M International in Canada, began selling Italian-made Zincken machines. Today he is Zincken’s North American distributor. More recent additions include machines made by the Italian manufacturing giant SCMI (sold under the names MiniMax and EuroShop) and a Czech firm, Rojek. Garrett Wade sells the Swiss-made Inca jointer planer. A small but high quality benchtop model, it features a 10?"-wide cutterhead and 42"-long tables.
The Rolls Royce of combination machines sold in the United States are made by the Austrian firm Felder, which have been distributed here since the early 1980s and since 1996 by the manufacturer’s subsidiary, Felder USA. Founded, like Robland, in the mid 1950s, Felder makes a full line of woodworking machines that it distributes around the world. They include 5-in-1 combination machines (12"and 16" machines, rated by jointer-planer capacity) as well as table saw-shapers and jointer-planers (with optional horizontal mortiser). Felders are beautifully designed and made machines with all sorts of refinements: micrometer-adjusted fences and planer tables; reversible, tilting shaper spindle; a marvelous sliding table. Such quality doesn’t come cheap. The Felder CF 7-31 Ecoline C, a 12" 5-in-1 machine, runs about $10,000 (with the horizontal mortiser), a big jump above $6,000 you pay for a Robland X-31. I’m an admirer of the X-31, but I also think the prices accurately reflect the difference in quality between the two machines. It’s no surprise that far fewer BF 6-31s have been sold in the United States than X-31s. But, what is intriguing is that 70 percent of the sales of both machines have been to amateur woodworkers.
Felder has recently introduced a less-expensive line of machines made by its Hammer division to compete head to head with Robland. Felder used to be alone in the upper reaches of the price scale — a fully loaded Felder 16" 5-in-1 machine might easily fetch $20,000. But Laguna has just jumped into this rarified market with an Austrian-made Knapp 5-in-1 that retails between $20,000 and $35,000 depending on options. They’ve already sold 10 — all to amateurs.
Sidebar: Sources for Combo Machines
(manufacturer and distributor) Zincken, D-M International 1100 A Wallace Ave. N Listowel, Ontario N4W 1M5 519-291-5342
EuroShop & MiniMax (Italian). Eagle Tools, 2217 El Sol Ave., Altadena, CA 91001. 800-203-0023. www.eagle-tools.com
Inca (Swiss). Garrett Wade, 161 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013. 800-221-2942. www.garrettwade.com
Robland (Belgian) and others. Laguna Tools, 2265 Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. 800-234-1976. www.lagunatools.com
Rojek (Czech). Tech Mark Inc., 7901 Industry Drive, North Little Rock, AR 72117. 800-787-6747. www.tech-mark.com
Roger Holmes is a professional woodworker based in Lincoln, Nebraska.