Format-4 Exact 63 Thickness Planer Review
Looking for true efficiency and performance in woodworking machines, the decision was obvious to purchase Felder's Format-4 Exact 63 thickness planer.
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As I close in on six years of a former hobby becoming my full time career, I’m ready to make a major investment into upgrading my machinery. Until now, we’ve expanded and upgraded our equipment slowly, in stages, by purchasing used on Craigslist. As frustrating as it was to go slowly, it allows us to hone in on our processes and streamline our workflow, as well as stay out of debt! Now that we understand our business’ capacity requirements for a few primary woodworking machines, and we have a large order heading into production, we’ve pulled the trigger on replacing our current setup with a 20” surface planer (jointer), a 25” thickness planer (planer), and a 12’ sliding table saw! Par-tay!! Our optimal choice for a planer is the Format-4 Exact 63 thickness planer, but there’s more to this story.
There are a lot of industrial woodworking machinery manufacturers, but the list of manufacturers shortens quite a bit when you remove those who don’t make machines with capacities as big as I stated above. The list gets even shorter if you don’t want to purchase machines made in China. I’ll be honest: I’ve been a little spoiled in that one of my good friends has all the above machines from Martin (somewhat the Rolls Royce of woodworking machines). I frequently take boards to his shop to mill down when they’re wider than my 8” jointer could handle, or when I was waiting on replacement capacitors for my thickness planer motor, etc… Digital keypads, electric table height adjustments, power feeders, pop-open cutter block maintenance, European engineering, sleek design, ooh-la-la! How can I possibly get all these benefits without hitting the Powerball? One word: The Felder Group. Well, three words I guess.
The Name, The Trinity
After miles of research (yes, miles; I literally think you can measure how much I’ve read in mileage), I narrowed in on The Felder Group. Under The Felder Group, there are three brands: Hammer, Felder, and Format-4. Hammer is about 20 years old and considered their entry-level line where you’ll find great compact and combination machines for the hobbyist and small business professional. Felder is their standard line with decades of history making quality machines with great reputations. Format-4 is their new premium brand, specifically tailored to the high demanding professional. Format-4 also heavily focuses on CNC machinery and software.
The Felder Group machines are highly configurable and very competitively priced in this league. The customer service at the US headquarters in Delaware is top notch. My representative spent the time to educate me on all the options and worked to configure the machines properly for my specific use. He really put a great package price together, since I committed to purchase all three machines. Two of the machines were already in stock in the US, and the sliding table saw was being manufactured in Austria, a couple of months out. Here’s what I ordered: a Format-4 Exact 63 Thickness Planer, a Format-4 Plan 51 L Surface Planer (jointer), and the Felder K 940s 12’ Sliding Table Saw.
Shipment By Car and Cargo By Ship
While I patiently await my sliding table saw cargo by ship, my Format-4 shipment by car arrived on a dedicated truck. This doesn’t mean it’s the only machine on the truck, it means the truck is only loaded once, by Felder, and unloaded once, by me! Talk about service! The only shipping damage I’ve encountered with the furniture I make and ship, has come from mishandling of the crate during loading and unloading by terminal dock workers. It definitely put me at ease to know the only people ensuring proper strapping-down were the employees of the manufacturer. The Format-4 Exact 63 and Plan 51 L arrived together, both in perfect condition. I’m immediately shocked by how heavy each machine is on the forklift. The Exact 63 weighs in at over a ton.
At this point, it’s all I can do to keep working on the day’s goals, and not drop everything to wire up these new beauties. I’ll be writing up my experience with both of these machines, but I’m going to focus on the Format-4 Exact 63 first.
First Order of Business
Is it a planer or a thicknesser? That depends: do you call it soccer or football? What we call a planer in the US, others around the world call a thicknesser. What we call a jointer, they call a planer. I find it easier to call a jointer, a surface-planer and a planer, a thickness-planer. This limits the confusion. A thickness planer will not put a flat surface on a board where one does not already exist, it will simply give you even thickness. To get a flat surface, you start with a surface planer (a jointer) and then move to the thickness planer, indexing the flat surface downward onto the bed. By bringing the wood up into the cutter block you end up with even thickness and a coplanar flat surface on the top of the board. Now that we’ve solved that world problem…
Format-4 Exact 63 Setup
The setup on the Format-4 Exact 63 is about as easy as it can possibly be. My machine is configured with the 3 phase 7.35 KW S1 motor for the cutter block. This is roughly 10 HP and the S1 indicates continuous duty cycle. The amp draw is less than 30, so it’s easy to find the proper power cord to make an up-and-over extension to the wall outlet. Make sure to read your wiring diagram. You need to connect the high leg to the correct color (L1, L2, and L3 are different colors on each machine).
The slab is a little uneven underneath the Exact 63, and unlike the Plan 51 L, it did not come with any means for leveling. Shimming is a simple solution, but it would have been nice to see a native option for uneven surface accommodation. After reading the manual and understanding the Digi-Drive controls, I fired up the Exact 63 and adjusted the height for a test pass and calibration. I started by making two passes on a 2.5” board to take it down to 2.375”. A quick check with my digital caliper confirms the accuracy is spot on, no calibration needed. I’m not surprised.
Doowah Digi Digi Dum Digi Do
Speaking of Digi-Drive… boy, digital readouts take some getting used to after years of hand cranks and red pointer readouts! 1/8” increments are pretty simple to convert to 0.125, but when you start taking 1/16” passes and have to subtract 0.0625 from 2.375, it gets a little confusing. There are too many numbers in one of those numbers… can we all just go metric please?!?! Anyway, this is an area where I’ve really learned to appreciate the Digi-Drive feature.
Digi-Drive and Presets
Initially, I wasn’t going to spring for this over the Power-Drive, but the machine I wanted, which was in-stock, had this feature. Rather than waiting for a different unit from Austria, I upgraded to the Digi-Drive. Not only can I enter any specific measurement and have the machine automatically adjust, I can also program different incremental changes. This means that at the touch of a button, it will move up a specified amount at a time.
Furthermore, I have three saved height presets so I can recall them quickly. This makes repeated tasks easier, and the consistent level of accuracy means I significantly maximize my production efficiency. In particular I notice a remarkable decrease in time spent working on post-glue-up prep for tabletop finishing: i.e. leveling out lippage at the glue seams. Recalling precise thicknesses digitally provides a greater consistency in planing, which results in less lippage, which means less time sanding.
There are two limiting factors worth noting here, and I may be splitting hairs, but they seem like simple software modifications: first, it would be nice to be able to save more than three presets. I like using all three for repeatedly milling rough boards to the same dimension, but would like to do the same for planing after gluing. The Martin T45 has 99 presets, which to me seems like overkill, but I think a few more than three would be nice. Secondly, I notice that the incremental adjustments round to the nearest hundredth, not thousandth. I can’t imagine a scenario where this would be a problem, but it does seem like another easy fix.
A Wood’s Journey
The 7.35 KW S1 3 phase motor is no joke. It’s quiet, starts quickly, stops quickly, and hasn’t batted an eye at anything I’ve thrown at it. No wood has a chance of survival after entering beyond the kick-back teeth of the Format-4 Exact 63. From there, the suspended spiral tooth infeed roller won’t let go. The segmented pressure beam keeps even pressure on the roughest of boards, holding them down flat, and keeping them traveling straight into the cutter block. The Silent-POWER spiral cutter block shaves off such a perfect layer of wood, local barbers weep. The sand-blasted outfeed roller keeps the wood in place and traveling forward without ever wearing down. The SECOND sand-blasted outfeed roller lays down its life to prevent snipe. The wood has been born again.
Access to the entire thicknessing unit is very convenient. The whole top of the machine flips up like the trunk of a sedan. Once open, I’m immediately impressed by the size of the Silent-POWER cutter block. Two of the reasons I went with the Format-4 Planer instead of the Felder line was the weight of the machine and the size of the cutter block. Still, knowing it’s large is very different than seeing its size inperson. The Silent-POWER cutter block receives power via serpentine belt, and the chain driven infeed/outfeed rollers are all rock-solid. The build quality of this machine is absolutely unmistakable under the hood.
Shhhh… We’re Planing in Here
I would like to take a moment here to personally thank Richard Williams. I went into this transaction expecting to own a couple Tersa cutter blocks, but instead, I listened to his advice and ultimately decided on the Silent-POWER cutter blocks. I’ve owned many spiral heads from many different manufacturers and have had good experiences overall, but rotating the square knives can be so time-consuming. Planers/Jointers are dimensioning machines, hence you shouldn’t expect finish-ready results by any stretch. Some certainly leave less sanding work than others.
Silent-Power Over Spiral
Good spiral heads leave faint channels down the face of the wood. These channels tend to be easier to sand out than chatter from straight knife heads. Even with the proper setup tools, straight knives are hard to get perfectly even. The Tersa system is a straight knife cutterblock that is self indexing, so the blades end up in perfect alignment every time. And here’s the bigger selling point: it only takes about 30 seconds to change knives out. I watched my friend do this on his Martin machine and my face kind of drooped as I recalled my little bucket of solvent, removing the sappy residue from the spiral knives I had recently rotated.
In all fairness, he acknowledges the Tersa knives don’t last as long as he was pitched. At the same time, the change out is quick and the cut is pretty smooth. In addition, it is loud and some of his long “chips” stick on the screws in his dust collection ducting. Hearing Richard’s counterpoints about how infrequent I truly have to rotate the knives and how quiet and clean the cut is on the Silent-POWER proprietary cutter block, swayed me back in that direction.
Not only do the knives index at an angle, so they slice the wood rather than chop it, the knives themselves have a slight bevel to minimize the channeling effect of traditional spiral cutter blocks. The results are tear free and about the cleanest I’ve seen from any cutterhead. I’m sure this is also part of the machine design as a whole, but the Silent-POWER cutter block’s chip-ejection is superior. They’re picked up so cleanly that I rarely see spillage around the machine. Cheers, Rich! I love it.
Final Thoughts on the Format-4 Exact 63
If the table saw is the heart of a wood shop, the thickness planer is its main artery. I’m very happy with my Format-4 Exact 63 purchase, this is definitely a forever machine. The design, features, build quality, customer service, and most importantly, performance have all surpassed my expectations. My production times have decreased, hence better efficiency. As business owners, we love this. Most important, my results are more consistent, and I absolutely trust the Exact 63 to be a nonstop workhorse. Hell, the place looks more professional too!
To learn more about the Format-4 Exact 63, click here.