A Miserable Job


            Don and I stumbled into a miserable job last Thursday; one that should have taken us twenty minutes, but instead lasted all day. We have a DeWalt 13 inch planer. It gets most of its use during classes when students plane red oak stock into chair parts.  Because it  planes mostly narrow pieces of unseasoned wood, it continues to work well, even after the cutters have become too dull for other jobs.

            I discovered the blades were dull when I tried to plane some wood for a project slated for a magazine article. In my mind, this was no problem. Swapping the cutters is a quick job and on this machine — very easy. In no time, I had the top off the machine and had exposed the cutter head.  Each cutter is secured in place by a cover. A row of eight equally spaced screws secures the cover and cutter to the head, and creates even holding power.  I locked the head in position and placed the Allen wrench in the first screw. It wouldn’t budge.

            I tried the next and had same problem. I was actually twisting the wrench without being able to loosen the screw. I tried all eight screws on the first cutter cover. Not a one would budge. I was growing concerned. I wondered if it was possible the screws were left handed and I had forgotten this detail. I tried turning a couple clockwise, but with no success.

            Next, I turned the cutter head and tried the screws on the second face. Again, no luck.  Every one of eight screws was frozen. I turned the head to the third face. Same thing. By now, I was frustrated and perplexed. I heated the screws with a propane torch and sprayed them with penetrating oil. Still, no go. I repeated both steps. Nope. Same as before.

            Eventually, I called Don away from gluing seat blanks to consult with me. I also wanted a witness. I didn’t think anyone would believe  that I couldn’t change the blades on such a simple machine. Don tried and he too was unable to loosen a single screw. We took a break and when we got back I tried again. The first screw made an audible snap as it moved. Joyfully, I withdrew it and put it in the parts tray inside planer’s housing. I worked my way along the first blade cover and managed (with some effort) to loosen and remove all eight screws. I turned the cutter head and accomplished the same on the second side.

            I turned the head again to bring up the third side. I was able to loosen all but four screws. In the process, the Allen wrench cammed out of two of them, striping the hexagonal holes. I asked Don to try his luck. He applied so much torque he twisted the Allen wrench almost 90 degrees without loosening the other screws.

            After some kibitzing we decided to give the four screws a long and intense application of heat and a dash more of penetrating oil. Nope. That didn’t work. We concluded we had to attempt an Easy Out. With two stripped hexagonal holes, we didn’t have much choice anyway. We tried to drill pilot holes into the tops of the screws, but dulled bit after bit. I can’t imagine the screws were hardened, but they sure chewed up a lot of bits without us ever  making much of a hole.

            We gave up on the Easy Out and decided on a new tack. We would grind off the screw heads. This would allow us to remove the cover and replace the cutter. However, that would leave us with only four screws securing the third blade. I would have no choice but to hope that four screws would be sufficient. Don dug out the Dremel and mounted the grinder bit in it. The Dremel did grind away the screw head. However, the grinder attachment disappeared faster than the screw. I kept repeating to Don, “I’m glad you’re here to witness this. ‘Cause no one would believe this story. This is the longest change of blades in history.”

            Being chairmakers, Don and subscribe to the “get a bigger hammer” school of thought. If drill bits and the Dremel couldn’t cut  those screws, it was time to break out the cold chisel. After several whacks I looked at the results. I wasn’t making any progress on the screw, but the chisel was getting chewed up. I half expected Alan Funt to jump out and say, “Smile. You’re on Candid Camera.”

            I tried the chisel again with Don watching. The screw moved under the blow. “It moved,” I yelled. “I saw it move.” Don watched more closely as I took another hit. Sure enough. It moved again. Don grabbed a pair of pliers and with  little effort,  extracted the screw. I moved onto the next.  It took a bit of hammering, but sure enough, it let go too. The same happened with the third.

            One last screw was all that stood between us and completing this blasted job. You guessed it. This one was the granddaddy of them all. To top it off, we were in the machine room without air conditioning and it was now the heat of the day. Sweat was dripping off our faces. We tried heating the screw again and applying a liberal dose of penetrating oil. Our persistence finally paid off. After chiseling around the head from every position that would give me some purchase, the screw finally moved.  Don and I crowed in victory – man over machine. The blasted thing had not beaten us.

            After removing the cutter covers we examined them.  They are protected with a thick black paint, or perhaps japanning. However, under the screw heads was bare metal. I’m wondering if the finish had adhered the screws to the cover, because the threads were as clean as a whistle. Also, once a screw moved, it withdrew easily. Any way, Don and I swabbed each hole with oil before we reassembled. That process took the predictable 20 minutes.

            So, there is our story. A day to loosen 24 screws, and 20 minutes to change the blades.  Remind me to tell you someday about getting the bevel gear with a broken tooth off our monster, cast iron Taiwanese thickness planer.


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