Rojek MSP 310 Jointer / Planer Review [long]

Last month, there were some discussions here about jointer / planer combo machines. I've had a chance to work recently with a Rojek MSP 310 12" jointer / planer combo, and here's my review of it for those of you who might be considering one.
Summary:
Pros:    Solid, powerful machine that gives excellent results; great tech support (U.S.); competitively priced vs. other European jointer/planer combos. Cons: Abysmal manual; minor QA/QC issues; marginal aftermarket mobility kit. Special notes: 220 VAC and good dust collection system are essential.
General:
The Rojek MSP 310 can be seen here:
http://www.rojekusa.com/PHP/msp310m.php
It is a Czech-made, 310mm / 12" combination jointer / planer machine, which uses the same cutterhead and 3.6 HP motor for both operations. It is similar in design and capabilities to the Minimax FS-30 combo ($4,595) and the Hammer A3-31 ($3,495), but at a more competitive price (currently $2,500 with free shipping). Unlike most other jointer / planer combos (including the Rojek MSP 315 and MSP 415), however, the jointer tables on the MSP 310 are fixed and do not flip up for planing operations. Instead, transition between jointing and planing requires moving the dust hood (which fits into slots on the planer table during jointing, and attaches to the jointer fence during planing) and throwing a lever to engage / disengage the planer feed rollers. Conversion requires no tools and takes only a few seconds.
The MSP 310 comes standard with a 4 knife cutterhead, with a 3 knife Tersa cutterhead available as an option. While the 4 knife head reportedly gives spectacular results, I hate having to futz around with knife settings, and so I went with the Tersa. (For those of you who aren't familiar with them, a Tersa cutterhead uses reversible, specially-machined disposable blades that slide into matching grooves on the cutterhead and are secured by a block which centrifugal force locks into place. It takes under two minutes to change all three blades, with no jigs, measurement tools, or wrenches needed. The only downside is that the blades cost about 50% more than other disposable blades and cannot be resharpened.)
The cast iron jointer tables are each about 25" (50" overall), which some may find a little short but is long enough for my projects. (Extension tables are available as an option.) The outfeed table is fixed. The infeed table is a parallelogram design, with the depth of cut set by twisting a knob. The depth of cut indicator is on the left hand side of the infeed table, and is very easy to read. Fine tuning the infeed table (i.e., for parallelism with the outfeed table) requires a socket wrench and a little patience (and, of course, some precision measurement tools), but no shims are needed.
The planer table is also cast iron, just under 30" long and with grooves running lengthwise. (Extension rollers are available as an option.) Planing height is controlled by a handwheel that raises the planer table 2mm per revolution, with two locks to secure the table in place.
The jointer fence is extruded aluminum and about 5" high, and is adjustable from 90-45 degrees. Positive stop at 90 degrees is by a bolt with a locking nut. It also slides smoothly in and out, so you can vary where you do your edge jointing and thus even out the wear on the knives. The cutterhead guard is of the European style and very ergonomic. When face jointing, it is extended to cover the entire cutterhead with the height adjusted to allow the workpiece to pass under it. When edge jointing, it is retracted to expose just the amount needed for the workpiece to pass between it and the fence. When the machine is not in use, you can rotate the cutterhead guard out of the way and extend the fence all the way across the cutterhead, resulting in a very compact footprint.
The motor is a 3.6 HP 220V, single phase, braking motor, with a 5 HP three phase braking motor available as an option. Start and stop are by magnetic switches on a fixed front panel (which also includes an indicator light), plus a large "chicken switch" emergency stop button. A large rotary switch controls whether power is supplied to the motor or only to the motor brake. (Because the motor brake engages when there is no power, the cutterhead is locked in place when the machine is unplugged, and thus you have to have the motor powered up in this "safety" position to change knives, clean the feeder rollers, etc. For those of us in the habit of unplugging a power tool before getting your hands up close and personal with its business end, this takes some getting used to.) An optional switch makes the motor reversible (used only in mortising operations with a slot mortiser attachment, which is also available as a user-installable option).
Setup and Initial Impressions:
I ordered my MSP 310 from Rojek's US distributor, Tech Mark, Inc. (Little Rock, Ark.), and it was delivered by a lift-gate truck less than a week later. The crate was roughly 5' long by 4' high by 2.5' wide, and weighted about 1000 lbs. I'd hate to have to get this up or down stairs or through hallways, but fortunately it was a straight shot up my driveway into my shop with the truck driver's pallet jack. Be warned: this is a *very* heavy piece of machinery that is not designed to be disassembled, and I strongly recommend you have an engine lift, pallet jack, or other appropriate equipment available. Trust me, you and your neighbor or brother-in-law are not gonna be able to just muscle this one off the pallet and into place.
For all practical purposes, the machine comes fully assembled. The only things that need to be done are to add the fence mount (four bolts; wrench included), install leveling feet / bolts if necessary, attach two pieces of trim that hide the bottom 3" of the frame (not essential), and attach your preferred flavor of 220 VAC plug (not included) to the end of the power cord.
My particular unit arrived in good condition, with all cast iron surfaces nicely coated in Cosmolene and waxed paper. There were a couple of slight dings on the front and rear of the machine (probably from the forklift used to load the machine onto the pallet at the factory), but nothing that a couple of raps with a soft-faced mallet and a dab of touch up paint couldn't fix.
(Side note: in an e-mail to Tech Mark to confirm receipt of the machine in acceptable condition, I mentioned in an offhand fashion the slight dings on the machine (more in terms of indicating that the machine hadn't slipped inside the crate than anything else). A couple of days later I received a complementary can of touch up paint from Tech Mark! As you'll see below, this was very typical of the excellent, proactive customer service I gotten from them.)
Tech Mark offers a mobile base for this unit. However, the mobile base is just the Shop Fox G7314, which in my case was drop shipped directly to me from the importer, Woodstock International. While this unit generally gets good reviews, I'm not sure it's the best bet for this machine. When the machine sits atop this unit, the supplied trim for the bottom of the frame cannot be attached - it just won't fit. Additionally, the preset holes for this unit make it slightly oversized for this particular machine, which means you to have to shim the machine on one end and one side to keep it from moving on the base. Additionally, this particular Shop Fox unit had some obvious QA/QC problems, with large sections of paint flaking off during assembly to reveal lots of scabby rust underneath. (This defect is, of course, fixable with a wire brush and some Rustoleum, but it's still annoying.) With the machine firmly in place on the mobile base, it is mobile, but just barely and with considerable effort. Whether due to the sheer weight of the machine, the design of the mobile base, or perhaps the slight unevenness of my concrete shop floor, it takes quite a bit of effort to move the machine. On the positive side, however, once you get the machine where you want it and extend the "feet" of the mobile base with the screw attachments, it is rock solid. (Still, I may have to look into the Hoverpad that was recently written up in Popular Woodworking . . . .)
Out of the crate and set up on the mobile base, I wired the plug and checked the motor. Motor spun in both directions. Cleaned off all the Cosmolene and checked the outfeed table's orientation to the cutterhead. Parallel to within 0.001" per my dial indicator. Checked the flatness of the infeed / outfeed tables; both had some minor dips in places (about 0.004" in two places on the infeed; about 0.0025" in two places on the outfeed), but as pointed out in earlier posts here that's not enough to trouble with. Fence had a slight twist (lower right corner off by 0.0025; upper left corner off by 0.004) but probably not enough to worry about; fine tuned the fence to 90 degrees at the cutterhead. Checked the parallelism of infeed vs. outfeed, and found that the infeed table was off by 0.01". Looked in the manual for directions on how to adjust it and found . . . nothing. Not a word on how to adjust the infeed table, or for that matter what the anticipated tolerances were or how to fine tune the machine at all. Worse, the manual appeared to have been translated from the original Czech by someone whose first language was clearly not English. Fortunately, a phone call to Tech Mark got me a friendly technician who told me exactly what to do, and within minutes I had the tables parallel to within 0.001" and ready for some test cuts.
Hooked up my the machine to my dust system and tried it out. The first test piece was a two foot cedar 1x4. Face jointing, edge jointing, and planing went smoothly and produced a nice glassy surface. At this point, I decided to try something more difficult, and got an old four foot 2x6 that had a considerable twist and was loaded with pitch. The face and edge jointing went fine, but less than a few inches into the second pass the motor stopped. Completely. Dead. Checked the circuit breaker; no problem there. Unplugged the machine, removed the rear cover, got that awful, oh-crap-it's-fried smell of melting plastic. Checked the manual for the motor (which was actually quite good, unlike the manual for the machine), tried motor brake adjustments and tested the motor brake rectifier; no dice . . . motor would run for a few seconds and then overheat and blow the thermal overload switch. Long story, short version: defective motor. Another e-mail and phone call to Tech Mark; a new motor (indeed, it was a bit bigger than the original) was in my hands within four days. Pulled the old motor and installed the new one (again, it would have been nice to have had an exploded diagram in the manual!), but got the new motor installed without too much fuss.
Powered up the new motor and immediately felt a difference . . . we're talking serious power!
Next series of test pieces ran very smoothly, but edge joints weren't tight (slightly stave-shaped [about 0.004" proud in the center]). Again, a fine-tuning section of the manual would have been helpful, but a couple of phone calls with Todd at Tech Mark [who is very friendly and knows his product] solved the problem. Made the recommended adjustments and presto: light-free edge joints!
Observations and conclusions:
Comparing this machine with what most us are used to using is like going from a Kia to a Mercedes (or from a Jet lathe to a Oneway). Sure, the Kia is reasonably well made, and it gets the job done. But when you get in and close the door on a Mercedes, you just feel that "clunk" of particularly fine tolerances and sturdy construction, which you come to appreciate the more you drive it. And, of course, there's a good bit more power when you need it. So it is with the Rojek. With the exception of the fence (extruded aluminum, which seems to be pretty standard these days), everything about this machine is heavy duty and very sturdy. It runs quietly and with little perceptable vibration. Blade changes on the Tersa head are ridiculously easy.
Edge joints are dead flat, and according to my Starret combination square are right at 90 degrees all along the length. Planed thickness measurements are within a few thousandths of each other, both side to side and all along the length. Snipe is nonexistent.
The surface quality this machine put on the test pieces is extraordinary. Especially when you dial in a very slight finishing cut on the planer (a quarter turn of the handwheel raises the planing table about 1/64"), it's hard to find any planing marks. Of course, this is with brand new knives and relatively straight-grained wood, but from what I've seen so far the quality is what I'd hoped for.
This machine does come with some caveats. You will have to have 220 VAC service for it, and don't even think about it unless you already have (or are willing to install) fairly serious dust collection. (A Shop Vac and a trash can separator aren't gonna cut it.) And it is a very heavy piece of equipment, even with a mobile base.
The thickness indicator on the planer is hard to read accurately, both due to its design and location (and probably also to my aging eyes). I mentioned this to Todd at Tech Mark, and he suggested retrofitting the machine with the Digi-Planer digital read out (http://www.digi-kit.com/digiplaner.htm ). At under $50 for repeatable accuracy of 0.01", that sounds like a winner to me.
There were some very minor fit and finish defects (chipped paint in a few places, a misshapen threaded hole on the frame, the above-mentioned cosmetic dings) and of course the defective motor, but the folks at Tech Mark have stood behind the product and have been extremely helpful and responsive. Short of them flying in to service the machine personally <g>, I can't think of much more I could rationally ask them to do.
The MSP 310's manual is a joke, but that is offset by the availability of responsive technical support people at Tech Mark. Still, given how well Todd and the other folks at Tech Mark know these machines, I'm surprised that they don't just write their own version of the manual or at least an FAQ . . . as I suspect that most of the questions I have had are ones that most users have anyway.
Bottom line: if you're looking at a jointer planer combo (or for that matter a 12" jointer), the Rojek MSP 310 is definitely worth a look.
LKB in Houston 10-10-06
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