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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Festool Review: Rotex RO 150 FEQ

The Back Story
The Rotex 150 FEQ is a $500 hand-held orbital sander. With a 6" diameter pad, it's the same size as dozens of other orbital sanders on the market - all of which are half the price (or less) than the "150 FEQ". What, I asked my friend and (Rockler Cambridge Assistant Manager) Pete, could make this sander twice as good as the rest? After all, I already own a 5" orbital sander - a Festool ETS 150.

To be fair, the reason I was there in the first place was because I had to sand a huge bunk bed, and both my orbital and my hand-held belt sander simply weren't up to the task. I had asked Pete to show me something that would make quicker work of sanding this bunk bed. I wasn't surprised when he walked over to the Rotex.

Pete had tried to get me to buy a Rotex once before, when I came in looking for a replacement for my broken Ridgid 5" orbital. Pete had tried to get me to get the Rotex at the time - because it has two different drive modes, and the "gear" mode turns the Rotex from a regular orbital sander into a stock-hogging beast.

What Makes the Rotex Different
The gear mode is what makes the Rotex sanders from Festool different from other sanders. But twice-the-price different? What, exactly, makes a "gear mode" so much better at removing stock than traditional power transmission? Pete said it was because the pad just won't stop turning, no matter how hard you press. I have to admit, it was not a great sell.

The only way to find out whether the Rotex really was that different from regular belt sanders was to take one home and sand a bunk bed with it. So I plunked down the cash and walked out of the Cambridge Rockler store with yet another white Systainer.

Putting the Rotex Through its Paces
Opening the Systainer, I found my new Rotex 150: beefier than my ETS 150, and with a second, screw-on handle to help control the thing.  I laid the foot-board frame of my bunk bed on my sanding table, clamped it down, and fired up the Rotex. 

Holy Moly!  If you've never learned how to drive a floor polisher or hand-held orbital sander, handling a Rotex in gear mode will be a trial by fire.  In "regular" mode, the Rotex acts like a heavy 6" random-orbit sander.  Nothing special (except, of course, Festool's superior dust extraction).  Switch to gear mode, however, and the pad RPM goes into hyperspace.  What's more, the sheer momentum behind the movement of the pad means that - if you drive it properly - the Rotex hogs off huge amounts of material without leaving so much as a sea hare of a swirly.

I'm not sure exactly how the physics works - but where you put pressure, and when, matters a lot with the Rotex.  The same is true for all orbital sanders, but in the case of the Rotex in Gear Mode, proper technique means the difference between really poor performance and the best performance possible in a hand-held sander of any kind.

The proper technique for Gear Mode is different from that for regular orbital sanders.  It's due to the fact that while regular sanders won't spin much if they're not touching anything, and pressure changes can trigger changes in the pad's motion, that pad of a Rotex in Gear Mode is always turning a the same speed and along the same path no matter what.

Once I had the motion down, I finished the bunk bed in no time.  The Rotex cleaned up my grease pen and pencil marks in one pass, and smoothed over the craggy surface of the bed's Fir legs and stretchers.  Amazingly, the Rotex left no swirlies, and even at 80 grit it was hard to see sanding scratches.  In Gear Mode, the Rotex had removed three times more stock per pass than my regular orbital sander, yet left the exact same smooth finish.

As in every Festool review, the burning question is: "but is the better performance worth the extra money?"  When it comes to price, I think the Rotex should be compared with 4"x24" hand-held belt sanders.  The Rotex removes as much stock per pass as these huge hand-helds, but with more control, and with the "regular" mode on tap the Rotex can be used for finish work as well (though it's heavier than other finish sanders).  That makes the Rotex equivalent to one good 4"x24" belt sander, and one decent 6" orbital finish sander, in a sense.  Look at it this way, and the nearly $500 price tag doesn't look so ridiculous. 

Personally, I'm happy with my purchase.  Apart from finding myself in the unexpected (and unhappy) position of owning more sanding tools than any other "type" of tool, the Rotex has already paid a good amount back to me in saved time.

If you're in the market for your first orbital sander, I do recommend the Rotex.  Especially if it's going to be one of your only sanders in your shop.  As a regular finish sander, the Rotex is a bit heavy.  On the other hand, if you're doing large panels or long rails, you may well find yourself using the Rotex in Gear Mode more than you'd expect.  Just don't forget to pay attention to the differences in handling between the two modes - and you'll get the results you're hoping for.

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