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designing and building with wood channels my creativity and challenges my mind.
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Monday, April 12, 2010

Festool's Not Just for The Pros: Quality Tools are even More Critical to the Inexperienced User

Festool from a Novice's Perspective
The first time I walked into my local woodworker's store, I was seeing most of the power tools on the market for the first time.  I had never used a router or band saw, and had never heard of a jointer or thickness planer.  Until that day, my only exposure to woodcraft was through my contractor friends (who also hadn't heard of a jointer) and memories of my dad's hobbyist hand tools.



For some reason, my first tool purchase was a router.  The saleswoman showed me the shelf of routers from Bosch and Porter Cable, and I selected a good 2 1/4 H.P. Bosch on sale.  Then I took a walk around the store, fascinated by everything from serious-looking cabinet saws to cabinet clamps.  Eventually, I found myself in a section stocked with a family of black, grey, and green power tools.  Looking closer, I noticed several black-and-green routers on the shelf, all made by a company called Festool.  I couldn't tell the Festools from my Bosch - except for the color and the **gulp** prices.  $800 for a router?  What in the world, I asked the saleswoman, made these Festool routers worth almost four times more money than the Bosch I had just bought?

 "Festools are for pros, really."  She said.  "It's a whole system.  The tools are really powerful and do a lot of stuff - but for somebody like you, who's just learning, you won't notice a difference and you don't need that level of performance.  You're better off buying the regular brands so you'll have enough money for all the tools you need to start making furniture."

"Tools I need?  I think I just need this router." I replied.   That's when I found out what a jointer and planer are. 

Who Really Needs the Best Power Tools?

It's only been a few months since that first day in the woodworker's store.  But in that time I've built two bookshelves, a coffee table, an open-front cabinet, several workbenches, dozens of jigs, and almost a hundred wine racks.  I've learned a lot in a short time, enough to land a handful of commissions for simple furniture pieces.  I'm cranking out copies of a wine rack I designed that's become a runaway hit with local retailers and vinyards, and I've purchased or borrowed a lot of tools.

As in any project or craft, there are two basic ways to approach developing your abilities:

  1. The apprentice's approach - Focus on understanding the craft:  Start slowly from first principles.  Follow in the footsteps of the earliest practitioners, then graduate to more sophisticated techniques and tools.  Available tools determine possible projects.  Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
  2. The entrepreneur's approach - Focus on completing the project: don't spend time learning the hand-tool method if a power tool will be used on the actual project.  The project determines the tools needed.  Your learning ("ontogeny") doesn't recapitulate sh*t!
I won't argue with you if you say that the apprentice's approach (above) is superior to the entrepreneur's, at least insofar as your goal is to be a well-rounded craftsman.  Nearly all formal education follows the apprentice's approach.

On the other hand, being a well-rounded craftsman isn't everybody's goal.  In my case, my main objective is to bring my designs to the prototype or one-off stage, for market testing.  I therefore use the entrepreneur's approach to woodcraft.  Rather than learn how to chop a mortise with a chisel, I would rather use a biscuit joiner.  My ideas need to get to market!  The dovetails can wait until I'm fifty five and financially satisfied.

People like me - or anybody who wants to punch above their weight with the help of power tools - require the same top quality as the pros do.  In fact, we may benefit from high quality tools more than a seasoned pro would.  How can this be?  It's simple:

Unlike a seasoned craftsman, an inexperienced woodworker won't know when a power tool isn't performing properly.  For example, when cutting miters with a miter saw, an inexperienced woodworker might think that poorly-fitting joints are the fault of their measuring or technique, even though the culprit is far more likely to be the saw's inaccurate bevel gauge.

As you approach the performance limit of a given tool, experience becomes a key factor in your success, and even your safety.  Technique, familiarity with the working material, and experience with tool failure are all critical when pushing your tools to the edge.  Inexperienced woodworkers don't have these skills yet.  Put an under-powered or low-quality tool in inexperienced hands and you're inviting trouble.  At the very least, the range of safe projects is narrower, your chances of success are lower, and waste & safety risk both rise.

All this is no big deal if you're in no hurry to make - say - a rear-loaded horn loudspeaker enclosure or a chest of drawers.  An apprentice can learn a lot about wood by hand-jointing a board with a jack plane.  But that chest won't be ready to use for a couple of years.

Festools Fit the Bill
I was immediately attracted to Festool's product line (or system, as they like to call it), because Festool's design philosophy is perfect for the inexperienced & experienced woodworker alike.

Novice-friendly features are everywhere.  For example, Festool's TS plunge-cut saw and guide rail system utilizes a rubber splinter guard that doubles as a perfect cut-line guide.  Before using the guide rail for the first time, you run the saw along the track, cutting through a rubber strip that runs the length of the rail on the saw-blade side of the rail.  The result is a rubber splinter guard that doubles as an exact reference to the saw's blade.  Lots of companies make guide rails for circular saws, but none have this simple, powerful feature.  With a traditional guide rail, only experience can tell you where the blade will touch the wood, especially if you set the saw to make an angled cut.  With the Festool TS saw and rail, the cut line is right next to the splinter guard, even on angled cuts.    

Features like this one are what set Festools apart from all other small power tools.  They're valuable features whether you're a pro or a newbie.  But whereas only a pro can be sure where a regular circular saw is going to cut, anybody can make a perfect cut with a Festool TS and guide rail.


Conclusion: Buy the Best
Having used both the Festool and the traditional versions of most power tools, and having paid for both, I strongly recommend investing in Festool products.  And don't believe the whole "you don't need that level of quality until your skills improve" thing.  The fact is, with so many unknowns and pitfalls facing the novice woodworker, quality tools are a must, not an option.  

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