Many people think of the shaper as a big router table, when in reality the shaper has existed longer than the router. The router and later router table were invented to be a smaller version of the shaper. Both essentially do the same job, shaping edges of wood pieces, although the tools themselves are designed a little bit differently.
Some would say that with a good router and table, there is no reason to buy a shaper. That would depend a lot on what type of woodworking you do and how much you would use it. While a heavy-duty router and table can do just about anything that a shaper can, shapers are generally more powerful, with larger motors and better fences. Even the best extruded aluminum fences I’ve seen on high dollar router tables don’t match the performance you can get out of a shaper’s fence.
A shaper’s fence is almost always adjusted with a screw thread, unlike a router table, which usually has bolts through the table top. There is a separate locking screw, with a handle, to hold the fence in place. All of this is controlled off of a casting that is also the dust catcher and holds the guard. Each side of the fence is individually controlled, allowing micro-adjusting for full support of the workpiece on both sides of the cutter.
Shaper cutters are mounted on a spindle, rather than using a collet to hold the bit’s shaft. Longer spindles allow stacking cutters on the spindle, allowing multiple types of cuts, without having to reset the tool. The spindle has some vertical travel adjustment, allowing you to move from cutter to cutter, on the same project. This is very handy when using a shaper for raised panel doors or the rails and stiles for doors.
If you make your own raised panel doors or do extensive woodworking where edge profiles are an important part of your design, then a shaper would be an important part of your workshop.
For more information on what to look at in selecting a shaper, check out our shaper buyer's guide below. It will tell you the most important specifications to watch out for and what they mean to you.
Best Shaper Overall:
The shaper is a cabinetmaker’s tool that’s used to make raised panels for doors and molding edges on everything from cabinet doors to door rails and stiles. It spins a profiling bit at high speed to make these edges, which can range up to two inches high or deep.
A shaper is a commercial tool, designed for those who do high volume work. It’s like a router on steroids, or maybe better yet, a table mounted router on steroids. Both perform the same function, although the table mounted router is a substitute for the shaper.
Before the invention of the shaper, this type of work was painstakingly accomplished by woodworkers with molding planes. Having worked with those, I can guarantee you that not only is the process slow, but it’s difficult to get your profile even. The angle that the plane is held at makes a huge difference in how the finished piece comes out and if you make a mistake, you can’t really fix it.
Shaper bits differ from router bits as well. A router bit has a 1/4” or 1/2” stem on it, which goes into a chuck in the router. A shaper bit is designed to go over an arbor shaft. This is necessary for the larger bit. Arbors can vary from 3/4” to 1-1/4”, although the larger size is most common.
The most design consideration for a shaper is how quickly it cuts the material since a fast cut is necessary for a smooth finish. The shaper cutter is round and works to make a straight cut in relation to the length of the board. If the speed is too slow, you end up with a scalloped or rippled appearance; the same problem that routers, planers and jointers have.
In addition to this, the motor, table and fence are extremely important. With the amount of friction caused by the large cuts made on shapers, , a shaper will bog down if the motor isn’t large enough, making the cut inconsistent. The table also has to be extremely flat and smooth so that the workpiece will glide over it smoothly.
Unlike routers, shapers don’t use ball bearings on the cutter so a good fence is essential for making consistent cuts. The fence must keep the workpiece lined up correctly with the cutter in order to make consistent cuts. Most also have a miter gauge for pushing the workpiece through the cut. A miter gauge with a workpiece hold down clamp makes for a great combination, giving the woodworker very positive control over their workpiece as they pass it through the cutter.
A couple of these shapers have sliding tables which I personally like. The sliding table provides a much smoother cutting pass than sliding the workpiece over the table will. This helps with positive control, making the finished product come out all that much better.
Some of the larger shapers also have tilting spindles, which increases the range of profiles that they can create. The same cutters used at 90 degrees will produce much different effects when the spindle is tilted.
Powermatic makes this the largest shaper out there, along with the most available features I've seen. The sliding table travels a full four feet, and sports a very nice fenced miter gauge. Read Full Review
Grizzly has the largest selection of shapers of manufacturer. While this model isn't their biggest, it does provide a tilting spindle to increase cutting profiles. Read Full Review
Although Shop Fox has a 7-1/2 HP router, like the Powermatic, I chose this 5 HP model as being more practical for most users. The split cast iron fence allows you to dial in just the right amount of offset for any edge profiling job. Read Full Review
Grizzly makes the only three headed shaper I know of. This is great for production work, allowing you to set each head for a different cut and not have to change it. Since each head is individually powered, it's possible to work multiple stations at once. Read Full Review
Best Budget Shaper:
There aren't too many companies that manufacture shapers, and even fewer that manufacture anything that could be considered a budget shaper. The problem is that most people who can't afford a big shaper use a router mounted in a router table for smaller work. While that doesn't give them the full capability of a big shaper, it does most things rather well.
Nevertheless, there are some things that a router and table can't do, for which you actually need to spend the money on a shaper. Raised panels for doors is one that quickly comes to mind. While there are some routers that are powerful enough to cut those, and even some router bit sets for doing it with, most people who are going to do a lot of raised panels buy a shaper instead. However, for the guy who only needs an occasional one, a 3 HP router and table is enough.
That capability really diminishes the market for shapers amongst hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, leaving shapers as pretty much just a professional tool for cabinetmakers, door makers and furniture shops.
Nevertheless, there is always a woodworker out there who wants professional tools, even though he doesn't have a professional pocketbook. That's why we have created this list. I said that there aren't many out there, but there are a few manufacturers who still produce shapers which can rival a heavy-duty router and table for value.
The major difference between these and the router/table combination is that a shaper is much heavier duty. The table on all of these is cast iron, something that you won't find very often on a router table. The fences on these shapers are also heavier-duty than those that you'll find, even on the best of router tables. Then, of course, a shaper bit is configured differently than a router bit, with the spindle going through the cutter, instead of a shaft on the bit going into a collet.
These shapers use 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch spindles, unlike the bigger shapers which use 1-1/4-inch spindles. Even so, some have fairly long spindles, allowing you to stack bits. With a long spindle and good spindle travel, you can move the bits up and down for different cuts, rather than having to remove the bits and reset the shaper.
Besides smaller spindles, these shapers also have smaller motors and tables. That affects your work, if you are trying to work on large pieces or cut extremely fast. However, for the best quality finish, you should never use a shaper quickly. A slow cut will be a smoother cut.
Since this is supposed to be a budget list, I tried to limit it to shapers that were about $1,000 or less. That's hard to do, as you'll see, but there are a few on the market that fit that price range. Any of these would be a great addition to your workshop.
Shop Fox produces a 2 HP shaper that barely squeezes in the door as a budget shaper. Nevertheless, it's the most powerful one on this list. It also has an optional table extension, which makes it just about as big as the bigger shapers. Read Full Review
This is a very impressive shaper for the price. It gives you both 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch spindles, at about the price of a heavy-duty router and table. Read Full Review
This Jet shaper is very similar to the Grizzly mentioned above, with very similar specifications. However, the Grizzly has it beat on price. Read Full Review
The smallest shaper in Shop Fox's lineup comes with a 1 HP motor. Even so, it will still allow you to stack up to 3 inches of cutters. it also accepts both 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch router bits. Read Full Review
Shaper Buyer's Guide
The shaper is a specialty woodworking machine used for profiling the edges of pieces of wood. Generally speaking, they’re commercial tools, although it's not uncommon to find them in professional woodworking shops. Even a few home woodworkers have budget shapers in their workshops.
When I mention profiling edges, I am referring to things along the line of cutting rabbets and beading, as well as tongue and groove joining of boards. However, probably the most important use of the shaper is for making raised panel doors. The shaper thins and tapers the door panels, as well as profiling the door's rails and stiles for the panels to set into.
Shapers use a vertically-mounted motor driven spindle to hold the cutting tools. The spindles are designed so multiple cutting tools can be mounted on the same shaper together. The spindle is then raised and lowered through the table, allowing for the different cutting tools to get to the workpiece. Workpieces are slid across the table to be cut.
All shapers are essentially the same, varying primarily in size. When we refer to a shaper's size, there are several things to be considered including motor size, spindle size, and table size.
On our review lists, we separate shapers into two categories, best shapers and best budget shapers. While there are many details of difference between the best of the best and the budget shapers, the major difference is size. Larger shapers simply cost more.
Important Shaper Specifications
Since all shapers are essentially the same tools, you're not going to find a lot of differences in features to look at. The main thing you need to understand is the differences in the shaper's sizes, so that you know what you are looking at.
Shaper motors vary from 3/4 HP to 7-1/2 HP. The larger the motor, the more it can cut on a pass. Smaller shapers are likely to bog down when making deep cuts or when cutting dense hardwoods so by purchasing a larger shaper, you eliminate that possibility.
Shaper spindles vary from 1/2 inch up to 1-1/4 inches in diameter, with the larger shaper spindles on the larger machines. The spindle diameter and cutting tool spindle hole diameter must match for the tool to work safely. The spindle length can vary as well, ranging from 3 inches up to 6-1/4 inches. The longer the spindle, the more and/or larger cutting heads you can put on it.
Shapers allow vertical travel of the spindle (generally called spindle travel) adjusting the profile of the cut to the board, as well as choosing which cutter is being used when multiple cutters are stacked together. A few of the lager shapers also allow the spindle to be tilted which changes the profile that the cutting tool makes.
The table of the shaper must be extremely flat and smooth to allow the workpiece to slide over it for cutting. Most tables are cast iron with the top surface ground to make it smooth. The larger the table surface, the easier it is to keep large workpieces flat and exactly perpendicular to the cutting head.
A few of the larger shapers have sliding tables which eliminates any problem with the workpiece hanging up on the table and ensuring a smooth cut. This increases the accuracy of the cut as well as improving productivity.
The fence is one of the most important parts of a quality shaper. Unlike a router bit, cutters for shapers do not have any sort of pilot bearing. This means that if the fence is not used, there is no way of controlling how deep the cut extends from the edge of the board. The fence must be used to control the depth of cut, ensuring that the profile is maintained.
The best fences are cast iron and independently adjustable with digital readouts. Fences will also come with holders to hold down the workpiece and prevent it from lifting off the table surface.
The table will have a hole cut in it for the cutting head to come through. The size of this hole is important, as it will define the largest diameter cutting head you can use. Inserts are used in this hole, when using smaller diameter bits. For shapers that have large insert holes, a number of inserts will be provided.
The turning speed of the shaper may be important, especially if you are cutting woods that splinter easily or very dense hardwoods. On the smaller shapers, spindle speeds are fixed, while the larger ones usually are adjustable speed.
The motors on the larger shapers are also 230 VAC, rather than 120 VAC (normal house current). If you do not have the higher voltage wired into your workshop, you don't want to buy one of these higher voltage units.