Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tool Review: Jessem Mast-R Lift Excel II

* First off, I'm going to be using the word 'aluminum' a fair bit in this post. For those readers from the British Isles, Australia and other far-flung, internationally-isolated outposts, I realize that the spelling and pronunciation of 'aluminum' may cause a certain amount of consternation - hand-wringing even. To forestall the angry letters, I thought I should make a comment on the matter.

I'm well aware of the case to be made for 'aluminium', and it does make good sense, especially given the spelling of titanium, helium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, lithium, etc. Then again, there are the elements platinum, molybdenum, tantalum, etc., so appeal to precedent doesn't really get one very far.

The discoverer of the metal, English chemist Humphrey Davy (1778–1829), chose the name 'Alumium' at first. Then he switched it to 'aluminum'. That's when the trouble started. A contributor to the British Political Journal Quarterly Review (1812, Volume VIII, p. 72) stated that 'aluminium' should be used in preference to aluminum because it 'sounded more classical':


Not much of a reason really, is it? Sounded more classical...

Since 1812, people have been arguing over this word. And for what?

Most readers here are from North America and the spelling 'aluminum' has been in vogue since the late 1800's. The story of the spelling is indeed a long and pitched battle, and it ought to be noted that 'spelling' and 'logic' are two words which combine relatively infrequently in the English language. So, from here on out, and as it has been for most of my life, 'aluminum' is how I will be doin' mah spellin'.

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The Jessem Products company, based in Barre, Ontario, Canada, has also experienced some pitched battles of its own over the years. I interviewed the company owner Darrin Smith on the phone a couple of weeks ago, at length, and learned something of the company's background and development.

Jessem is named after Darrin's daughters Jessica and Emily. Darrin started the company in 1999. He was a tool and die maker who did woodwork for a hobby. He ventured out on his own to make high quality woodworking machines, and the first product he tried to advance was called the 'Rout-R Slide':


This device featured a carriage that allowed the router to be pulled back and forth, and was designed for use making sliding dovetails and even carcase dovetails. Smith took the machine to a woodworking show in Anaheim, California with high hopes, however the interest in the product was close to zero. He also tried to license the product to Delta, and that went nowhere. A few were sold but the product never took off to any significant degree. On the flight back to Canada from the Anaheim show, Smith was mulling over the experience and had a thought about another design, which he sketched out in a notebook. That led to the development of Jessem's next product in 1999, the world's first router lift.

The following year, the company's fortunes were flagging somewhat, and in a classic last ditch, 'hail Mary throw' effort, Smith scraped together/begged/borrowed $60,000 to develop the Rout-R Lift and took it to the Anaheim show. Fortunately the response was very positive and he received 500 orders! Jessem was on its way. I find a lot to admire in that story - having the courage to put everything on the line with an uncertain outcome. Jessem has now been in business 13 years. It hasn't all been smooth sailing however since the success of the first Rout-R Lift. Around 2005 the company, now with 50 employees, began developing a router lift which was fully incorporated into a tabletop and stand, a product which was called the Mast-R lift Excel. That's the table and lift I had for about 5 years.

The bulk of Jessem's sales were/are primarily in the US, and one of their sales reps in the US South convinced them that it would be a good move for the company to relocate to the US, where operating costs would be lower. On the surface, a logical move.

In 2006 Jessem relocated to Tennessee, and that's when things really began to go south in more ways than one. While they had the same workforce size of 50, Jessem incurred had a lot of quality and production issues and difficulties in ramping back up after the move. The company entered a period of struggle. Then the US economy tanked in 2006. Then certain retailers dropped Jessem and partnered with cheaper brands. One company bought another router lift/table manufacturer, the company Bench Dog, so Jessem lost a large contract. Other competitors entered the marketplace, some of whom infringed upon Jessem's patents for the router lift, and thus the company now had to devote time and resources to legal matters. As time went on, the situation worsened and eventually, the stress of the situation grew such that Darrin began to reassess the company's direction.

In 2009, Jessem packed it in at their Tennessee plant and moved back to Ontario. Darrin felt considerably humbled by the experience, and along with reassessing the company mission and objectives, started to look at the company's products and reassess those as well. With the difficulties of the past few years in terms of quality control, the company's reputation had suffered some tarnishing, and Darrin decided to completely revamp his product line to make it the best in the industry, set apart from the imitators.

Such comments as 'make it the best in the industry' are all-too common slatherings of marketing hyperbole these days. The real proof lays in the products produced - are they a significant improvement upon previous efforts? Are they a step above other products out there in the market?

What I heard loud and clear from Darrin Smith was a strong desire to make a superior product, to take forward lessons learned from previous models, and to grow the company carefully. Most of Jessem's products are produced in-house. They currently have 12 employees, and having recently re-connected with US retail chain WoodCraft, and developed new sales in Western and Eastern Europe (for which they are developing all-metric models of their product line), the company has once again entered a period of growth. The Jessem plant in Barre is current working around the clock, three shifts.

One lesson that Jessem is taking forward involves a recognition that the bulk of past quality control issues centered upon the assembly of their products, not the manufacturing of the parts. So, the new approach at the company is to make the components of the products more CNC-intensive and thus require less assembly time and complexity. This shift in emphasis is expected to streamline production and improve quality control. The old Master Lift Excel had a carriage to hold the router which contained three principal parts to clamp the router body in place - in the new version of the lift, the same component is of one piece, carved from a block of aluminum billet. The old Excel had a complex lift raising mechanism involving a crank handle, transmission box, and several drive belts, which made the lift less-than smooth, and quite 'mechanical' feeling. It was also prone to problems with dust, and vibration could cause some of the gears to come loose. The new lift mechanism eliminated the belts and is direct drive right onto the side of the lift. Greatly simplified, and robustly made.

I had frustrations with the old Mast-R Lift Excel, and yet when I looked to replace it, having considered many options and products on the market, I concluded that Jessem's new Mast-R Lift Excel II clearly looked like the best product. I could also see that the revamped design had dealt with many of the previous model's shortcomings. I was still not sure about the phenolic top, however the new model's phenolic table was now stiffened by a pair of 'L'-section aluminum ribs.

All-Aluminum Tabletop.

After looking at Pat Warner's site recently and admiring his tidy aluminum table top for his drill press, I got to thinking that I could buy a piece of aluminum plate and machine it to accept Jessem's new lift mechanism. Then I considered that aluminum can leave a mark on wood, but then i realized that the solution to that was found on my bicycle: several of the aluminum parts on my bike are hard-coated, which makes them much more durable. Many people have some familiarity with anodizing aluminum, which makes a thin coating on the surface, only about 0.001" thick. This anodized coating will wear off over time. Hard coating, one the other hand, bonds right into the metal and is some 2~6 times thicker than regular anodizing. I found a few companies locally that do hard coating, and found a supplier for 1/2" aluminum plate -  it would cost about $200. The cost of the hard-coating would be added to that, and let's not forget my time (the 'free' part) and tooling wear to produce the table.... I was still thinking it was worth doing, so I called Jessem and explained to them my plan, and "would you sell me just the Mast-R Lift Excel II lift mechanism?".

"Funny you ask", the Jessem representative said, "because we have just produced a limited run of Mast-R Lift Excel II's with an all-aluminum top." (!).

I guess great minds think alike, heh-heh. Actually it was an owner of a Woodcraft store in Pennsylvania, Tom Temple, who convinced Jessem, after repeated entreaties, to make an all-aluminum Mast-R Lift Excel table.  So far only about 10 have been produced, and the company is still ironing out the production aspects. They are also a little uncertain how salable it might be given that it costs $200 more than the standard Excel II, which retails for $799. To my way of thinking, considering that the raw aluminum plate was $200 all by itself, it was an easy decision. Still, to be clear, this review is effectively for a pre-production prototype and I cannot speculate when this model will become fully available. If you want a Mast-R Lift Excel II, the ones with a phenolic 3/4" top are available right now.

So at this point I had a conversation with Jessem and we came to an arrangement. So this is my full disclosure: I paid for the new table, however I received a significant discount. In return for the discount, I offered to do a detailed review here on the blog. I have no other commercial affiliation with the company.  

So, the deal was made and then I sold my old router table. Unfortunately there were some hold ups at Jessem's end in the production of the lift mechanisms - actually the problems were with a supplier who anodizes their parts, who had got the color wrong on a batch of components. Anyway, a month went by and at last I received my new router table. I'll be attaching the new tabletop back onto my factory stand, and will be re-using my Jessem fence and the Porter Cable 7518 router from the old set up.

The Excell II arrived in three boxes, all very well packed safe and secure. Unpacking the table top first, I placed it upside-down on a pair of sawhorses so I would have ready access for placing the various lift mounting screws.

Here's the table top and a few of the bubble-wrapped goodies:


It was a bit like Christmas, I must confess!

Here's the crank handle for the lift mechanism - all billet aluminum, with a steel drive shaft:


This is the bracket which supports the crank handle at the table edge:


Again, all billet aluminum, and now with a 'parking brake' built in. If running many linear feet through the machine, this lock gives peace of mind that any movement will be prevented from occurring in the lift mechanism due to vibration. I never had any issue with that on the old Excel, however all those drive belts did impart considerable friction to the system. The new drive mechanism is an entirely different kettle of fish, as you shall see.

Here's the heart of the machine, the new carriage:


The drive mechanism is composed of a pair of aluminum gears, contained within a heavy duty housing:


Another close up of the carriage - the brass nut, just visible, is adjustable to make the lifting motion stiffer or looser as the woodworker may prefer:


Over time, as parts wear, the nut can be tightened slightly to take up the wear. This machine is designed to last. To the right of the picture is the off-gold anodized gear box, also aluminum.

In this picture you can see three roughly triangular off-gold colored blocks, machined from billet, which mount the router to the carriage:


Unlike past models, where a buyer needed to purchase an adapter to mount routers other than the Porter Cable 7518, the new lift's mounts can be located in several positions to accommodate a wide variety of different router brands. The lift comes configured from the factory to mount the 7518, which suited me fine.

Here's the dust collection port in its separate plastic bag:


This is now a plastic part, whereas on the old Excel is was incorporated into the aluminum of the lift assembly.

The insert ring handle design has been revised, now dog-legged to clear the table surface:


The insert ring handle is one of the few components that Jessem does not make in-house - it comes from Taiwan.

And the mounting screws came in clear ziploc bags:
 

I have two bags of screws as you can see - an extra bag came with the aluminum table top, as the aluminum table top is slightly thinner than the phenolic one. It is, however a hefty 0.5" thick, and is made of 6061 cast tooling plate. This type of aluminum is renowned for being very stable and is generally used for checking/inspection fixtures and other precision work. It is particularly free of internal stresses which might impart movement later on, and that is an advantage over most varieties of cast iron. After casting, the aluminum cast plate is Blanchard ground flat. I checked the top with a straightedge and found no discernible gaps or irregularities of any kind. It's flat!

In the second part of this review, I will document the assembly process. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and I hope you are enjoying my first tool review.

A few month's pass, and then we have a follow up. ☜click on the link

8 comments:

  1. It's a heck of a device, isn't it? I have a competitor's much cheaper version and it just doesn't stay locked in place as well, especially if I'm using a large router bit.

    Adam

    ReplyDelete
  2. Adam,

    yes, it is very solidly made. There are few things worse than a router lift which allows for height creep under operation. That certainly looks to be a non-factor with the Excel II.

    Thanks for your comment!

    ~C

    ReplyDelete
  3. Impressive review, appreciate the attention to the assembly portion. Looks like an excellent product well thought out in both fit and function. Looking forward to hearing how it performs on the floor. I recall reading a previous entry on your Hitachi bandsaw. In searching through your site I can not seem to locate the entry. Possible to post link/date to review of Hitachi or a seperate section of your previous tool rehabs/reviews

    ReplyDelete
  4. Josh,

    thanks for your comment. s I perform more and more work on this router table I continue to be entirely satisfied by its performance and reliable function. I'll post up a 'part 3' long term use review in about a month.

    While I treasure my Hitachi CB100FA bandsaw, I have never done a formal sort of tool review on it here on T.C.W. The machine, while still in production in Japan, has not been available in North America for at least 10 years, so it seems a bit pointless to review a machine few could lay their hands on.

    The Jessem Mast-R-LIft Excel II was my first tool review as such, though more are planned! As more reviews are done, I think I will follow up your suggestion and create a 'tool review' section. Glad you liked the review - and thanks for the kind words.

    ~C

    ReplyDelete
  5. I appreciate well thought and well executed design with particular attention to detail; and, it appears that Jessem has done just that. Thank you for adding your perspective. Next, I want to read your review of the hardware's usage.

    ReplyDelete
  6. RP,

    thanks for your comment. Did you get a chance to look at the update to this post? I'll put a link into the post above so you can take a look.

    ~C

    ReplyDelete
  7. I called JessEm in October to find out when the aluminum (aluminium) top would be generally available. After a moment or two on hold, the receptionist quickly returned to say, "around mid-December." Well, that time has now arrived, but JessEm's website does not yet include the aluminum top. I am thinking about calling them later this week. When I look at your blog with the disassembled parts, I can clearly see JessEm's intent to deliver superior quality systems. Seems to me that this design offers increased precision, speed, and ease of use compared to all other router lifts I have seen. An hour or so ago I viewed the Woodpecker 'sidewinder' on-line with its tiny crank attached via a flexline rather than direct drive. I have read many reviews and Woodpecker might be highly regarded by many, but that looks much like a boy attempting to be a man. I am thinking about acquiring the "Mast-R-Lift Excel II" w/ or w/o the aluminum top. Am very interested in what the price difference will be.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi RP,

    last I talked to Jessem, they were really busy and I think it would be a good idea to call them to see what is happening as they may not have their website totally up to speed with current developments. They are planning to put the aluminum top into production, and I'm sure it will be very soon. I don't think they'll have much problem selling them despite the higher price.

    Thanks for your comment.

    ~Chris

    ReplyDelete

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