Friday, March 9, 2012

Tool Review: Jessem Mast-R Lift Excel II (Assembly)

It is when you assemble a tool that you learn a lot about both the product and the company's attitude towards it. A common flaw, incredibly, are instruction manuals which are, at best, cryptic translations. We've all been there. In Jessem's case, the instruction manual is written in house and by a native English speaker. It is neatly laid out, concise, and clear to read. Not flawless, but better than most.

That said, I was a bicycle mechanic for about 5 years in my early twenties, so wrenching on things, especially when Allen head bolts are involved, is second nature. Anyone handy enough to work with woodworking tools should have no problem assembling the Mast-R Lift Excel II. In today's post I'll walk through the assembly steps as a photo-document of the process, which should give readers a much clearer picture of the lift itself and the way it is designed.

The bolts are Imperial (inch) scale, and come with a light coat of lubrication out of the bag. I invariably put a dab of grease on bolted fastenings, either on the threads of the bolt itself, or in the tapped hole:


With the table mounted upside-down on sawhorses, it was easy to access the underside for sliding bolts into position:



The lift mechanism is bolted into place through the table top, instead of simply into the table top, which is a very strong means of mounting. Other less critical parts are attached on the underside of the table top, like the dust port. The first three bolts mount the lift's gear housing to the table, which indexes its position, then each of the two stanchions is bolted into place with two bolts per stanchion foot. For the time being, I did not fully tighten the bolts.

Then I mounted the dust port, which is held in place with 4 Phillips head screws:


Next up is the support bracket for the crank handle - notice the use of two sealed cartridge bearings:


One of the sealed bearings is for the support of the shaft of the crank handle, while the other one is for the parking brake mechanism. A cheaper product would have used bushings.

A closer look at the parking brake mechanism on the other side of the mounting bracket:


Here I've slid the crank handle shaft onto the support bracket and am eye-balling the fit of the shaft end into the collar:


It was then I discovered a problem: the shaft would not go sufficiently far into the collar to allow for proper engagement of the two grub screws with the dimpled holes on the shaft. Here the shaft is part way in - fully inserted it was about 5/16" short of the mark:


I got out my caliper to double check the length and then carefully inspected the inside of the collar, but all seemed fine other than the shaft was simply too long (or the dimples were too far back):


As it turned out, what had happened was that the shaft had been assembled backwards at the factory. There are a pair of set-screws fastening the handle onto the shaft, so all it took was to loosen those two screws, slide the shaft out and reverse it, then re-tighten the two grub screws. A minor issue in the end but I can see it could cause some people trouble. I spoke with Darrin Smith at Jessem about it and he is going to re-design the shaft so that the dimpled holes are identically spaced at either end of the shaft and thus it won't matter which way the shaft is put on and it will fit.

Next up were the pair of 'L'-shaped stiffening battens which span the underside of the top:


The top is 0.5" aluminum, so the battens are hardly a requirement in terms of stiffening the top, however if you look closely at the above picture you can see that in actuality the aluminum top is split into two halves, joined by the muted gold-anodized T-track. Thus, the stiffener bars in this case help tie the entire tabletop together. The table stand will also help tie everything together as well.

Once the issue with the shaft had been resolved, I mounted the support bracket to the table top:


As with the lift carriage, I did not fully tighten these mounting bolts.

Next up was an optional accessory which I had decided was worth buying - Jessem's remote power switch:


This switch is a safety feature that allows for the router to be turned off quickly should the need arise, and it spares me fumbling around underneath to hit the router motor switch all the time.

The backside of the switch has two grounded 3-prong receptacles:


This switch is not made in house by Jessem but it seems solidly put together, fitted to a steel mounting plate and with 12g. wiring:


To put this switch on the router, I had to undo a couple of bolts at the stand's corner and then the switch slips seamlessly into place:


Then the stand, flipped upside down, was placed onto the tabletop:


I loosened all four corners before I attached the stand's horizontal members down to the top:


The stand is held to the top with 4 or 5 small Allen head cap screws on each of the four sides, and all of these bolts fitted in without a hitch. The tapped holes for each bolt were chamfered at the factory so that the bolts could easily insert, and I found no instances of machining debris in the mounting holes which would cause problems putting any of the Allen bolts into place.

Once the table was tied down to the top, I re-tightened the main bolts at the stand's corners. Then I fitted the crank handle:
 

The grub screws lock the handle shaft to the gearbox:


Next up was to fit the router.  The lift is configured from the factory to accept the Porter Cable 7518 directly. There is a slight glitch in the manual at this section as you are told to jump ahead to 'step 17' for mounting the P.C., however a little detail is thereby omitted: the router lift needs to be brought up to its o-ring bump stop before fitting the motor. That didn't take too long to figure out. The router slug was slid into place and after the bottom of travel is found, I make a pencil mark on the router housing:


The router needs to be drawn back from the bottomed-out location by about 1/16" (1mm) so that the lift cannot get jammed in an effort to bring the router up to maximum height. The pencil mark allows me to clearly see that 1/16" rise I need:


Once in place, I tightened the main carriage bolt to clamp the router slug firmly.

Next up was another optional accessory, a very important accessory from my point of view - a digital height gauge:


Like all the other components, the height gauge was well packed and came with its own instruction sheet:


The mounting bracket for the gauge is made in house by Jessem, while the gauge itself is made by Wixey a brand name of products made by Barry Wixey Development. It's a handsome and stout little unit:


The bracket attached to the underside of the tabletop with four (!) Allen head cap screws:


That's going nowhere  - a very strong mounting.

The gauge references directly to the lift itself - here is the clamp-on bracket which mounts to the lift carriage body:


You can see on the bottom left of the picture a small rare-earth magnet. This magnet connects to the gauge's linear positioning device. Clamping the bracket onto the carriage is accomplished by a single bolt:


Then the positioning device is bolted into place with two cap screws:


Last step is to plug in the cable:


The digital readout requires a pair of AAA batteries, which are not supplied.

Next on the agenda was to fit the mounting brackets for the fence. These are a pair of 'L'-section aluminum extrusions, held in place with 4 cap screws:


Another view:


That was that as far as the assembly went in an upside down position. I flipped the entire unit right side up and moved the table back into place.

Then I slightly loosened and re-tightened the bolts mounting the lift and the support bracket for the crank handle:


This process of leaving the bolts a bit loose until all the parts are in place helps ensure that there is good alignment between those parts when final tightening is done.

Then I placed a straightedge on the top and fastened the 'L'-shaped T-track extrusions onto the table ends. The fence attaches to these two extrusions:


The lift comes supplied with a single insert ring, and the mounting handle:


I noticed right away that the insert ring is not only a different color but a different material than the one I had in my old Excel. I've since learned that the old ones were made of phenolic, while the new ones are made of glass fiber reinforced polycarbonate, a much stiffer/stronger type of plastic. Jessem is paying attention to all the details.

One glitch arose - the insert ring handle's pins are spaced slightly narrower than they should be and it took a bit of force to get the handle onto the insert ring. Darrin at Jessem said that this was a problem at the plastic injection molding supplier, where they were likely removing the handle from the mold before they had fully cooled. This problem will be addressed at Jessem and I look forward to receiving a new handle when they become available. For now, the handle is workable - just a 1/4 tun to lock the insert ring in position:


Now I could start to check out the lift, as assembly was complete. First thing I looked at was the action of the cranking mechanism - it is massively improved over the old one! Just smooth as silk, one finger is all you need to twirl the crank and move the lift up and down:


The parking brake also works extremely smoothly:


A 1/4-turn is all it takes to lock the crank in place:


Another view:


Another view - note that I have the older version of the Jessem Mast-R Fence, and in fact I prefer it to the newer one:


The newer fence is an outsourced product, but Jessem intends to bring production back in house and do a thorough revamp of the fence as well in the near future. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with, as my old fence is very stout and well-designed.

Then I put a couple of batteries in the Wixey to see how it worked:


The gauge can read in either metric or inches, and reads to a refinement of 0.001". It is no problem to accurately move the lift in one thousandth of an inch increments.

Finally, I hooked up the dust collection. The Excel II comes with a 4" port, however I connect my large Festool Vac to the table, and need to reduce down to 2.25". That proved to be more of a hassle than I expected, but in the end I found an adapter and a 4" rubber flex-cuff at Woodcraft which did the job perfectly. Well, almost perfectly -  I ended up slicing 3/8" off of the large end of the PVC adapter to get the parts joined up cleanly:


Another view:


The nice thing about this lift, though by no means unique, is that the router can be cranked up high enough so that bit changes can be made topside without special tools:


At this point, from my experience assembling the Mast-R Lift Excel II, and initial impressions working the crank mechanism, I would say the Excel II is a big improvement over the early model in every respect. It is without question, in terms of design and quality, the best router table and lift on the market. If you are looking for a stout and well made router table that will provide years of service, a machine capable of working to very high accuracy, then this is the table to get. It's not the cheapest in price - in fact it is the most expensive table package - but compared to other woodworking machines it is quite reasonably priced. In my shop, a router table is an essential piece of equipment, and I am very happy to have a dead flat, smoothly operating router table. I look forward to using this machine and seeing what it can do. If you've been running a router table in a piece of plywood or mdf attached to your table saw, you'll find the Excel II a substantial leap forward.

All that said, I must put in a caveat: I haven't put the new Excel through its paces thoroughly. I did some routing work yesterdays and there were no telltale marks on the material like you would see form a non-flat top.  I was impressed. The design and operation seem great at this point, however sometimes it takes a while using a thing before one becomes aware of any issues that might be lurking. So for the time being, I will state I am most impressed with the Excel II, however final determination will wait until I have put a few hundred feet of wood through the machine. Keep an eye out for a part 3 to this thread in the near future. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and comments always welcome.

19 comments:

  1. Hi Chris,

    You are doing the company a great service with this two part review. It will be an aide to customers when they go to assemble their new purchase. Everything about it checks out for me except the stand. If it were in a box lined with sound deadening material that would help with the noise (which is what I did with the Benchdog table I have). Does the stand measure up to the quality of the top and lift?

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  2. Tico,

    thanks for your comment and good to hear from you. Actually the stand is a nice solid piece. It's entirely aluminum and has leveler feet on all four corners. Since i always wear earplugs when using a router, of any kind, I don't find the noise much of an issue. Jessem does sell a heavy fabric shroud/jacket for their table, but it would be easy enough to fit some sort of foam enclosure if desired. The dust collection captures 95% of the dust and chips, and what escapes tends to collect on the floor of the table. So, I like to have easy access to the underside of the table so I can clean it up once in a while.

    Having a box around the router, as I used to have with my first router table (pre-Jessem), which was an MDF box, can amplify sound rather than reduce it, so I would be looking at using some sort of sound deadening material if anything.

    ~C

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  3. Happy to hear that it is working well so far. I know your last experience with Jess-em was quite a bit less than satisfactory, so it is good to read that they have improved their product.

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  4. Dan,

    thanks for your comment. Now that I have a better grasp on the development of Jessem of the company and their experiences with their move south, I can understand the situation much better, And anyone who makes anything always learns from each thing made and can imagine ways that they might do certain things better the next time. Jessem is evolving their products and the main thing is that they are striving to improve them. I am happy to support a N. American based manufacturer as well!

    ~C

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  5. Very interesting tool review Chris. I've never paid much attention to router tables so it's an eye opener to be shown the potential for precision cutting with the Jessem set up. And, as you say, great to see a North American company striving to improve their product.

    Marv

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  6. That's it, me wants it. If I can locate one, preferably with european wiring and the aluminum top.
    By the way, does it only take Porter Cable routers or is it optional. Porter Cables does not seem to be available in my part of the world, or maybe it would be easier ordering the whole package from Canada including a 110 V converter.

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  7. Koot,

    during the couple of years that I lived out here, when I worked out of my kitchen on a sawhorse, I began to make extensive use of my router table, which at that time was stored in an unheated closet. These tables are invaluable for joinery work, and make a lot of routing operation quite a bit safer. With a large range of tooling available, a router table can do a good portion of the work of a shaper , especially when the table is as well built and flat as this Jessem.

    Per,

    contact Jessem about European-spec machines. I know they are developing them at this time but am not sure where things are at in the production cycle or when they will be available in Europe and which distributors you need to contact. I'm sure the folks at Jessem will be able to tell you.

    As for the router unit, this lift accommodates several models:

    Porter Cable 7518/690/890
    Bosch 1617/1618
    DeWalt 610/618
    Makita 1101
    Hitachi M12VC & KM12VC
    Milwaukee 5625/5615/5616/5619
    Craftsman 17543/17540/28190
    Rigid R29302

    I imagine the Bosch, Makita, Hitachi and Dewalt models are available in your area, yes?

    I will say I am not a huge fan generally of Porter Cable routers for hand-held routing, however for a table application, the 7518 is powerful at 3.5 H.P., and of proven durability. A lot of smaller CNC machining centers employ the 7518.

    Thanks for your comments!

    ~C

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  8. Thank you for the information Chris. You are right about the companies mentioned as being represented in Europe, Milwaukee too, but none of the routers seem to be available, they are all american style. Never mind though, Power Bright makes a suitable voltage regulator capable of up to 4 H.P., I would probably have bought one of those sooner or later anyway. There are too many nice tools available in the U.S. not to be had in Europe, with the emphasis on too many, besides I am living on my sheep farm in South Greenland where our power supply is from a generator, the voltage not always being that stable....

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  9. Per,

    wow, I didn't realize I had readers from Greenland! It sounds like you've figured out a good solution for powering up a router - is your local power 110v., or 240v., or ???

    ~C

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  10. Power here is 240v single phase and 400v triple phase, wiring being danish/European standard.
    And yes there are carpenters here too, we could always use another one though.

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  11. Excellent article! How has the table performed as you continue to use it?

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  12. Hi George,

    Thanks for commenting. The next post in this series should be along by the end of July (2012). Thanks for your interest.

    ~C

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  13. Hello!

    I've been looking at this router table for a while and your blog just erased my indecision. One question, though: I cannot find the 0.5" aluminum table top you mention. All I can find, even on the JessEm website, is a solid phenolic table top. Can you tell me where you found your aluminum top?
    Thanks very much!

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    Replies
    1. Jim,

      Thanks for your comment. The aluminum top is a prototype and not available yet. Please contact Jessem directly and they will advise you as to availability.

      Delete
  14. Just bought a Jessem Mast-R Lift Excel II. Your pictures and suggestions made the assembly very easy. If I had to rely on just the instructions that came with the router table the process would have taken much longer and been more difficult. I had my laptop with your site open as I installed everything. Thanks a million for the time you took to take pictures and document everything.

    J. Mackenzie

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    Replies
    1. J Mac,

      thanks for your comment - very pleased to hear that the above posting was of help to you!

      ~C

      Delete
  15. Thanks for the review. My Excel II arrives in a day or two. I'm excited to get it so I can stop fiddling with the setup on my table saw wing.

    A aluminum table! It certainly would be nice to get that. The one thing that has me nervous about this setup is the phenolic table and how much flex it will have, and how strong it will be.

    Also, the stand is steel. In the comments, you said it is aluminum.

    Fence: you mentioned that you have the old fence. From the photo, that looks the same as the fence they currently offer. What's the difference between the old and new?

    How's the dust collection from that 4" port? Would you recommend also enclosing the router (as much as possible, given the long shaft for adjusting the lift) ?

    Finally, have you boxed in the base at all? I'm curious how realistic that is, or if I should just plan on building a dedicated base in the future.

    Pete

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    Replies
    1. Pete,

      thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

      I said in the comments that the stand is aluminum for the simple reason that it IS - or was - aluminum. They made a change to a steel stand about 5 years ago, and my aluminum stand (the original iteration of stand) was purchased more like 9 years ago. Apparently they are coming out with a new stand in coming weeks which will once again be aluminum.

      The old fence is a heavier and taller extrusion than the later one. The later one has a better dust collector port though - - which can be retrofitted to the older model. Mine works well enough and I've not felt a need to swap.

      The dust collection is good, but not perfect. In the best case situation, you could collect about 90% of the chips I would say. Depends upon the type of cut you're taking.

      I haven't boxed in the base or purchased the jacket. I've thought about it but have other spending priorities I guess. Jessem told me they are coming out with a new cabinet of some kind this year, so that might be the answer for you.

      ~C

      Delete

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