Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sets and Sensibility

I was in a tool store yesterday picking up some vacuum bags for my Festool CT33 shopvac. One thing is for sure, you don't want to run the vacuum without the bags, unless you want to pony up for new Hepa filters, etc. The do sell a re-washable bag, and while that is quite appealing, it is also $200 last time I checked. That part's not so appealing - - it's a cloth bag fer gawds sake! So I stick with the paper bags even though in time it will cost more. I sometimes get miserly and pull the stuff out of the bag so I can get a re-use, but that gets old after the first time. Tough call. Someone told me that it is possible to use a sheet of Tyvec® across the interior opening in lieu of a bag but I haven't tested this to see if it would work okay.

Anyway, while browsing around the store, something I invariably do when faced with rack after rack of shiny bits of gear, I noticed the new Festool large router, the 2200 model. Not the lightest lump of metal and plastic I've come across in a portable tool, but it seemed to have some nice features, including an improved depth setting rod adjuster. I looked in the container (yah, I know, 'Systainer') for the accessories, and noticed there wasn't much there. That seemed odd because my other Festool routers come with a bunch of accessories.

Later on, I came across another Systainer, which was labeled as an 'accessory package' for the 2200 router. I peeked inside and noticed that this router comes with a series of different base plates which 'click' into position, along with their edge guide, and a set of special guide bushings, which also 'click' into place. I noticed that these bushings were of a different configuration from the Festool ones I have for my 1400 router. Now, I don't use the ones I have, not at all, because of what I view as a basic design flaw in the product: they move slightly in the router once 'clicked' into position. If there is one thing you don't want to have with a guide bushing it is a movable one, as that ruins concentricity with the cutter and makes the cut line unpredictable, thus spoiling the cut surface.

Seeing the new type of guide bush in the accessories box, I immediately wondered if it might be not only new but magically improved from the type that I already have, so I sauntered on over to the display router, template in hand, and checked it out. In the newer large router, you have to un-lock the entire base plate and take it off before dropping the guide into place, then snap the base plate back on. I did that, and then checked to see if the bushing would move if I tried to wiggle it, and yes, it did. The system still sucks despite the re-design.

There's nothing wrong at all with the somewhat standard Porter Cable type of guide bushing. While my Festool 1400 router does have a template adapter that allows me to fit a PC guide bushing, as the adapter itself can still move around after being, ahem, 'fixed', it is no better.

Another thing about these Festool routers that is somewhat annoying is their base plates, which are some sort of bakelite-like plastic. You cannot see through it. I find that the transparent acrylic base plates, like Pat Warner's, are the go-to choice in my work. They allow you to see the surface you are working on, they are flat, they take a PC guide bushing without fuss and are relatively cheap. With a centering adapter I can make the bushing and base plate nearly very perfectly concentric with the cutter and that leads to better results. Why Festool has to come up with such a relatively complex system with these 6 different interchangeable opaque base plates which click into the router (and no other model or brand I might add) is a little mystifying at first.

But as I looked around the store more I began to see that this 'systems' approach is quickly becoming the gold standard, at least in terms of filling the various company coffers. I saw a Tormek grinder, for instance. I don't own a grinder, however if I did get one I might choose a Tormek, having tried one in the past and thought it was decent. Looking at the display, I noticed that the grinder itself wasn't all they were selling. Wait, there's more! Tormek has a whole series of attachments, each sold separately, which you can buy to sharpen different things. There's the axe sharpening jig, the scissors jig, the small knife jig, the large knife jig, as so forth. Then there's the Tormek machine cover, the optional buffing wheel, the dressing stone, and the friggin' t-shirt and branded line of aftershave too! I do exaggerate slightly of course, but I laugh just thinking about it.

I see the appeal of this system because I am personally somewhat vulnerable to the same sales approach. Since it makes sense that the accessories a company makes for its product would be purpose-designed for each application, function should be good. sometimes aftermarket stuff doesn't interface well, especially if it is rather generic in nature. It isn't always the case though that function of the factory-produced accessories is swell, as my above comment about Festool's template guides notes. Festool's router edge guides are nothing to write home about either, and mine see virtually no use at all. I would have much rather saved a few dollars and bought the router without any attachments, save for the collets, dust funnel, and power cord. But that is not how they want to sell them.

The other thing about this sort of systems approach, besides suckering you in with the promise of integrated function, is the 'collect the whole set' mentality it tends to encourage. This used to be a major weakness of mine, let me tell you. Take magazines like 'Fine' Homebuilding for example. Once I got into that magazine, I started accumulating them as I bought each new and fascinating issue. Then I found a stack of back issues one day in a used book store, and suddenly I was starting to build a set. Then I came across another 'collector' and acquired some of the earliest issues of FHB. I reasoned that I was forming a 'resource library' for myself and kept them all lined up in order, a row about 2 or 3 feet long at one point.

Then I moved house a few times, and faced with lugging about what had now become a fairly weighty collection of paper, and weighing the fact that new issues seemed to have less and less to say to me, and finding I was less and less interested in buying them (but kept doing so for a while anyway on the rationale that I was completing my precious set), I began to reassess. I realized that I was going a little mad actually with this collecting urge. I thumbed though all the issues and culled out those that had nothing of any real interest, and gave away these issues to a couple of friends. Might as well start them off on their own collecting madness, heh-heh! The ultimate revenge is mine!

Then I repeated that process a couple of times over the next few years and managed to cut down the 175 issues to about 25. And I still rarely look in them! I mean, once you've read and understood something, how many times do you really need to look at it again?

If you find yourself with this kind of problem and want to deal with it, try moving a few times and re-assess those heavy boxes - it worked for me. Anyone looking to buy Festool edge guides? - drop me a line :^)

6 comments:

  1. Great article. Lots of good review type info and also a really interesting read. "Aftershave too"... that was funny.
    brian
    www.toolking.com/brand/festool-tools/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Do you use Warner's acrylic plate on your 1400? You know, I don't use a router nearly as much as you do, and I'm beginning to think that it's because I've accepted a certain amount of imprecision in the tool. Maybe I need to reassess that. I took a look at his site. I especially like the edge guide. I might have to check my couch for spare change.

    Adam Palmer

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  3. Adam,

    yes, I do use Warner's plate on my 1400. Not for every routing task, but often enough. The Festool base is asymmetrical so the acrylic plate only mounts on there one way. I had to drill the mounting holes on the base plate to suit the 1400.

    A nice thing about the Warner base is that is has a smaller opening than the Festool, so there's less opportunity on smaller pieces of material for the router to drop down or get hung up on a corner or arris.

    I think all routers have a certain amount of inherent imprecision. In some plunge routers the 90˚ alignment between the base and the axis of the cutter shifts slightly when you plunge. Some routers have too much runout at the collet, and some have play in the posts, some fixed base routers do not mount the motor securely enough and there is therefore some play. A lot of routers have poor depth setting arrangements, and even worse dust collection.

    I settled on the Festool routers not so much for their precision alignment and stellar run-out, etc, which are only somewhat better than the average out there, but for the following reasons:

    -soft start electronically governed motor
    -good ergonomics
    -superb dust collection (a major plus)
    -one wrench collet tightening/loosening
    -it's relatively quiet in operation
    -fairly lightweight
    -the attached outboard shoe is very useful sometimes for times when you are working partially off of a surface
    -the depth adjuster is one of the best out there (it could be even better though!)

    Now, while there several sources of imprecision within the router itself, as noted above, these are minor in comparison to sources of imprecision that can crop up elsewhere in the cutting process, and this is where the router can really help you isolate the points of slop in the works and improve the results. It's a matter of being observant and willing to investigate things.

    For example, many brands of router bits are not of good tolerance or balance so it is hardly worth buying the cheapest tooling. Invariably, I use Whiteside or Amana. Avoid using dull tooling - this goes without saying, and also relates to good work practice with the router. It is primarily a fine trimming tool.

    If the stock you are working upon is not square, free from twist and straight, it will show up in the routing. if you are using some sort of router support and it is not flat or straight, it will show up in the cutting. If the guide bushing is not concentric to the cutter it will show up in the cutting. If the table supporting the wood is not flat and free from twist, and the wood can flex upon it, it will, you guessed it, show up in the routing.

    For all those reasons, a router is one of the most precise tools, if you know how to read the tea leaves, so to speak. If I have all my ducks lined up in a row, and I'm in a patient and observant head space, I can routinely achieve a +/- tolerance of 0.005" in my work. It's a source of satisfaction to me to get things to fit well.

    Joinery, after all, really boils down to getting precise interfaces between pieces. The router, once tamed, is a great route, excuse the pun, to achieving high quality fits.

    ~Chris

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  4. So, after reading through this and going through Warner's site, I sat down and took apart my Porter Cable router. the casting isn't even close to flat. Not only that, but the collet is off perpendicular. I don't know why I never checked it all out before. Yikes. At least my trim router is in good shape. I'm going to have to make do with that until the wallet fairy comes to fill my pockets. :)

    Adam

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  5. Man, did your post really speak to me. I have to admit to falling into the "system" trap hook, line, and sinker. I have always had a niggling bad feeling about some of my purchases, but told myself that building up "the system", would pay dividends in the future. I have my collections of every issue of Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking magazines that I have carried through 5 or 6 moves. I have a chunk of the Festool "system", part of which I never use - most of them being router attachments. I can't begin to tell you about the number of other tools I have purchased, just so I could have a complete set.

    It is unsettling to realize that I have been such a willing pawn of product marketing. I almost feel like I have just had an intervention.

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  6. Adam,

    if you get a granite surface plate and some 220 grit paper suitable for working aluminum, it is a relatively straightforward matter to flatten the casting down on the bottom of the Porter Cable.

    Mind you, I would suggest moving away from the PC routers, at least the plunge models, as their springs are too stiff and the depth setting rod mechanism i find to be well, poor. I do use their largest router as a slug in my router table however. PC motors and switches seem decent.

    David,

    well, I guess I'm not alone in this difficulty! Like I said, there is hope, and there is no problem selling back issues of those magazines either.


    I wonder where the whole collector mentality originates? What is the underlying psychology? Hmm...

    ~Chris

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