the Carpentry Way: Sets and Sensibility                                                          

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 :^)