What do a real estate agent, a dentist, an architect, a couple of woodworkers, and a father/sons machinist trio have in common? They were all attendees of the two-day Festool Cabinet Construction Class that I was lucky enough to get into.
I’ll preface this article by saying that my first job within this industry was at a small custom cabinet shop, so it’s fair to say that I’ve made a couple cabinets before. Why in the world would I go to cabinet making class when I’m totally satisfied with my process now?
There are always new ways to accomplish the tasks we’ve done for years. Some ideas we discard, some we embrace, and some we just glean a little tidbit from and add it to our bag of tricks. Plus, I have always been interested in how to make cabinets without a table saw. I was hoping this class would shed a little light on that subject, so I could make an informed decision on whether I should change or tweak my approach. Other than that, I really didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the class.
There were eight people in my group—a little more than normal—but, just by happenstance, we had not one but two great instructors, each of whom specialize in two very different aspects of the Festool system. Steve Bace, the head trainer at Festool Las Vegas, came from a deep background in solid surface fabrication before he joined the Festool family; and Brian Sedgeley, the head of the Indianapolis location, specializes in cabinet and furniture construction.
After a brief introduction from our trainers, and a five-minute roundtable with all the students, we walked into the ‘classroom’. If you are even vaguely familiar with the Festool line, let me tell you—walking through their door is the equivalent of being a kid and having Willy-Wonka open the gate to the chocolate factory.
Everyone’s eyes got really wide and started to dilate; I think one guy even wept…no, it wasn’t me (okay, yes it was). Hey, tens of thousands of square feet of green and black might do it to you, too.
An MFT-3 was your desk, the Kapex stations and multiple guide rails were your assistants, and the one hundred systainers filled with every tool or accessory you could think of was the choir. We walked around for a few minutes, just taking it all in. Finally we gathered around and got to work.
They split us up into three groups and gave us our instructions. Each group was to create an FF lower cabinet and euro upper—both complete with 5mm adjustable shelf pin holes. The nice thing about this process is that you can set up this operation at your shop or on-site. Space is your only limitation; and, as you’ll see, you don’t always have to have a ton of space to do quality work. We were also encouraged to ask questions and work at our own pace. “We are not here to build two quality cabinets,” they insisted. “We are here so that when you leave you will have the knowledge to do this again one hundred times over, with confidence.” I really appreciated that approach.
We started by breaking down sheet goods for our carcasses.
|They walked us through the proper way to set up a MFT…|
|…and attach the parallel guides for our long rips.|
They really did walk us through a good deal of the Festool family—both old and new. Speaking for myself, it allowed me to learn the idiosyncrasies of these tools, some of which I had owned for a couple of years. For instance, I had no idea that if you measure from the bottom plate of the Domino to the center of the cutter, it is exactly 10mm. Why is that important? Because if you want to put a fixed shelf between two side panels that is not more than an inch or two from either end, that darn flip down plate is gonna be in the way. Knowing this little tidbit about the 10mm offset enables you to draw a line where your shelf (or shelves) will go, clamp a straight edge to your work piece, and your Domino will line up almost dead center of your 19mm shelf (did I mention this class dealt heavily in metric?). I never knew this trick, and the Domino was the first Festool tool I owned!
We also got a demonstration on the Kapex for sizing our dimensional stock to finished length, which was nice, because I was still trying to figure out if it was really worth the extra coin. Of course, the action was sweet, and the footprint was small, and dust collection was…you get the idea.
But I already knew these things. What really stood out to me was the laser and angle finder that comes with the unit. I had read about how accurate each of them was, but seeing was truly believing.
|When you take a reading in (or around) a corner, you simply bring the jig back to the saw, turn on the laser…|
|…and align the center line on the jig with the dashed laser line. You have now established at what degree your miter will be cut.|
My least-skilled employee could master this within minutes. I like anything that takes the guesswork or calculation out of the equation. If there’s an easy way for me to do something, while getting a quality result, without having to think about it too much, I’m in.
For routing dados, and for trimming edge banding, we turned to the MFK 700—Festool’s ‘little router’. I say that with a little bit of a chuckle, because with its nearly one horsepower motor, micro-adjustability, and wide offset bases, it’s really the router I reach for most often. It’s so comfortable in the hand, and is the only router that comes to mind with which you can place more than 50% of the base on your work. Most router bases are, of course, round, with the bit being dead center. If you are edge routing you will have nearly half your baseplate on the work and the other half, well, that’s up to you. With the offset base on the 700, you can keep the vast majority of the plate on your work—and the handle gives you added stability.
I haven’t even mentioned the other base that lets you do edge trimming. By that I mean flush trimming materials applied to edges. For this project we used iron-on birch edge banding, and, as we all know, you have to trim it. Where I would normally use an edge banding trimmer consisting of a couple plastic components with flush cutting blades and some springs in the middle, we used a router that was tilted almost 90 degrees. This stuff was really thin, so of course it trimmed easily; but the nice thing about this setup is that if we had glued on a piece of solid stock that was, say 1/2 in. thick, we could still have used this exact same setup to trim it.
For boring the 5mm adjustable shelf holes we used the LR 32. I’ve been eyeing this part of the system for a while, since I already had the OF 1010 router (the 1400 will work too, but the setup is slightly different), and my jig/drill approach did not always give me the best results. I also didn’t want to have a dedicated machine for drilling holes or for cup hinges. Blum makes a great press that will do both, but I don’t have space to lug one around with me. Tools that will do more than one job win out nearly every time in my book.
We discussed layout, the standard backset of shelf holes, distance from top or bottom of panels for hinge plates, and whether or not a stop- or through-hole is needed. Once you’ve figured out the setup, the actual boring is a breeze—and really fast, too. You can almost race through the process and still have an absolutely clean hole every single time. (Just as a side note, after this class I went home and bought this system, and I’ve used it a bunch of times already. Melamine, plywood (both pre- and unfinished), and MDF all respond the same: Flawless every time.)
On the second day, we finished our projects about ninety minutes early, and were given two options: leave early, or stay and putter around the shop. Duh, which one do you think we chose?
This is where individual questions and opinions started coming out. One student kept mentioning how much he loved his RAS and the instructor echoed how much he liked it as well. After a couple more mentions of this tool I finally blurted out, “I’m sorry, what’s a RAS?” The room grew quiet, and all eyes turned to me. Imagine crickets chirping. Finally, the instructor said, “Let me show you.” I felt a little bit better when over half the class told me that they had no idea what a RAS was, either.
They brought out the Rotary Sander/Grinder/’Animal’ they called the RAS, drew an arbitrary ‘scribe line’ on a piece of plywood—sort of like what you might encounter on a filler strip butting to an irregular wall—and started in on it. Holy cow, this thing found the line as quickly as a bloodhound, and followed the trail all the way to the end in a minute. And we removed a lot of material. I couldn’t believe the dust collection either. All that stock was sanded off and without any distinguishable dust. Wow.
As I mentioned earlier, Steve Bace comes from a solid surface background. He had mentioned that the OF 2200 was what he used to rout complex edges on some of his material. When someone spotted a chunk of solid surface that was nearly 2 in. thick, the question was posed, “Can you show us how to rout that?” He immediately pulled out a complex detail router bit that was nearly the size of a baseball. “This router can put a clean edge on this stock in one pass.” I think he saw the look of disbelief in my eyes, which is why he looked at me and said, “and Matt’s gonna show us.” What?!? I’ve never used this router before, and all my instincts were telling me that this was not a good idea. But I had to step up, right?
The first thing I noticed when I grabbed this tool is that it’s HEAVY. Actually, 17.2 lbs. to be exact. My first thought was, “talk about user fatigue….” But then, with the enormous bit raised above the baseplate, I set the router on the table, turned it on, and let go (don’t try that at home; the instructor was right next to me). It just sat there humming and didn’t move a millimeter. The weight is actually comforting, because you know there is not only a lot of power, but a lot of beef, too. When I finally began to rout I didn’t even realize that the bit had contacted the edge until the bearing came into contact with it. I moved forward cautiously, but soon realized that the only thing slowing me down was me. This machine carved right through like a champ, and with the dust collection on, the air was as clean as a whistle.
Every question we could think to ask was not only answered, but also demonstrated, when possible. I walked out of those two days with new ideas on how to use my tools (and also with a few more on my wish list).
In the end, did I totally revamp the way I do things? Not really. I have a slightly different approach when it comes to cabinet backs, but I still like my way of joining face frames together. I did walk away with a bunch of new ideas on how to do things that I might not have ever thought of. Some apply to cabinets, some to woodworking and trim carpentry, others I may never use, but I now have the knowledge in my skill set, should the need ever arise for me to use it.
This class also re-instilled the ‘systems approach': Get a system and use it—whether it is tools, techniques, software, whatever. Figure out the best way that meets your needs, and then repeat, repeat, repeat. I was a believer long before I took this class, but I have an even deeper appreciation for it after those two days.
If you are thinking of attending one of these classes—do it (and if the class is full, send Festool an email and tell them you want to go. My guess is that if they are inundated with requests they may be forced to add a class or two). You may hear some things that you already know, but odds are you will also hear some that you don’t. You may even find that spark of genius that inspires you to try something new and innovative.