Photos by Brent Stanley
Often labelled a dangerous power tool only suited to large commercial operations, used with proper procedures, modern guarding and tooling, the shaper can be the most valuable and flexible tool in your small shop.
In my small woodworking shop, not only do I design and build a wide assortment of furniture in many styles, I also produce custom cabinetry and timberframe structures and accents. Many people are surprised to learn that I use a shaper in almost every one of my projects and consider it an indispensable tool in my shop. Their surprise no doubt stems from the undeserved reputation that shapers have, as not only a very dangerous tool but also a tool only suitable to large commercial operations producing enormous volumes of product. In this article I will demonstrate that with modern tooling, guarding and proper techniques, the shaper is a more cost-effective, safe and practical tool for your shop than you might think.
At its core the shaper, referred to as a “spindle moulder” in the UK, is a very simple machine. While it superficially resembles a table-mounted router in that cutting tools protrude vertically through a table, the differences are significant, and it should be looked at as a completely different tool. A shaper typically has a cast iron table through which a heavy spindle projects that is belt driven by a large induction motor. The spindle will usually stay in the machine, and different cutters are mounted on the spindle according to the work being performed. There is usually a fence with independently adjustable infeed and outfeed plates that sometimes support a dust-collection hood as well as aids such as hold-downs and featherboards. The spindle projection above the table and RPM are usually adjustable as well, and more advanced models will have tilting spindles. Models are available in the $500-$600 range, whereas modern, high-end shapers are CNC controlled with motorized spindle height and fence adjustments and 15HP motors, and can cost as much as $60,000.
The shaper is the most versatile tool in my shop, and I routinely use it to mill rail and stile components, raise panels, and apply a chamfer of any angle. It is an excellent option for pattern or template shaping, applying any profile imaginable to a component, milling components to final width, cutting tenons, rabbets and grooves, cutting circular objects, milling tongue and groove profiles, lock miters and reproducing antique casing and sash components, to name just a few operations. While these operations can be carried out by other machines in the shop, a properly set-up and used shaper will perform many of these tasks more safely, more efficiently, and to higher degrees of precision and quality.
The shaper has a bad reputation for being a very dangerous machine. While horror stories abound of mangled hands, kickbacks, flying cutters and no end of other terrifying mishaps, it is my opinion that mishaps are a product of improper techniques coupled with inadequate guarding and antiquated tooling.
Woodworking tools all have the potential to cause harm if used improperly, and the shaper is no exception. While it is impossible to adequately describe safe work practices in a small article, there are resources available to new and experienced users that can help you understand the proper approach to executing cuts safely. As with many of the more advanced safety techniques for woodworking machines, some of the best safety literature is of European origin. I refer regularly to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) documentation and especially the book they recommend by Eric Stephenson – Spindle Moulder Handbook. I cannot recommend too forcefully that anyone new to this type of machine seek out reputable, modern information sources such as the above before working with a shaper.
Many lower-priced shapers, especially of North American design, will come with very old-school fences, limited to no guarding and often with no dust collection provisions at all. Too often people accept the design as adequate by virtue of it being a retail item, but there are a number of improvements to a simple machine that can be made with shop scraps, some glue and a few screws. While this article cannot cover all of the shop-made safety improvements possible to augment a rudimentary shaper, the important thing to know is that massive improvements to safety, dust collection and functionality can be made to a shaper with readily available materials and a small investment in time.
Though not essential, a power feeder is an excellent shaper accessory that offers safety by keeping hands further away from the cutterhead, but also reduces operator fatigue, improves milling consistency and can offer these same benefits to your other shop machines, such as your table saw and band saw. Though with proper setup and guarding, many operations can be completed safely on a shaper without a power feeder, since it’s usable to augment other operations in your shop with other machines, it’s a worthwhile investment.
Another popular myth surrounding shapers is the prohibitively high cost of tooling. While heads suitable for commercial operations can indeed cost a small fortune, modern options available from Europe offer superior safety, affordability and practicality.
Chip-limiting tooling is an important safety factor. Regulations in much of western Europe require tooling for manually operated shapers (even those with power feeders) meet certain safety requirements, the most important of which is that they are of chip-limiting design. In a nutshell, this design feature limits the amount of bite that the cutter can take on each revolution, so a kickback is much less likely to happen, and if it does happen, it is much less severe. Cutterheads of this style will also not pull your hand inwards if you accidentally introduce your hand to the cutting circle, reducing the severity of injuries. This style of tooling still requires the same attention to detail with respect to setup and guarding, but adds a very important layer of safety.
Sometimes referred to as limiter cutterheads or Euroblocks, universal cutterheads use inexpensive, replaceable HSS knives that produce a top-notch finish. Due to the superior cutting geometry of the heads, they routinely last for thousands of linear feet of material produced. Additionally, knives can be custom ground to match mouldings and profiles no longer available. The knives are typically cheaper than good-quality router bits, so by the time you have invested in a cutterhead and around 10 profiles, you have invested less than you would have in the same number of router bits. For even greater cost savings, some manufacturers offer combination cutterheads that give you a rabbet block and universal cutterhead in one unit. The rabbet block is the most used head in many shops, and coupled with template bearings serve as an excellent pattern miller.
The humble shaper has an undeserved reputation for being an inherently dangerous and expensive tool only suited to commercial operations. Though only now growing in popularity for smaller shops in North America, they are as common in European hobby and small commercial shops as band saws and jointers. Equipped with proper, modern tooling, they can be more cost effective than a router table all the while producing superior product with less dust and noise. And most importantly, when used with proper work practices, small shop owners will come to see the shaper as I do … the most versatile tool in the shop.