Visiting Fein and Festool Power Tools in Germany
My first trip to Europe proved to be a thrilling and exhausting educational experience for me as I explored what makes Fein and Festool tools so good-and so expensive. Their engineers showed me they only accept less than perfect when it's just barely detectable under a microscope. I don't even know if NASA is this tough (although I hope they are). And they expect the same from any company making parts for them. Actually, they expect them to exceed the goal, but they will reluctantly accept the goal if it's right on the mark. The end result is that they make superior-quality power tools that will cost more money, but will also deliver top-shelf performance and do it for many years, even decades. Who wants to buy the same tool two or three times? We've likely all done it at some point. Don't get me wrong. I'm not bashing anybody's tools. I'm just saying you get what you pay for.
It's the same with cars. Higher-quality cars cost more than lower-quality ones, and they tend to outlive those cheaper models by a long shot. I'll continue to use the tools in my shop, but when they give out I'll take a serious look at Festool for its Domino joinery machine, plunge circular saw, router, sander, and dust extractor. And, I'll keep my eye on Fein's Multi-Master, orbital sanders, and vacuums.
Day 1: Greetings from Nurtingen, Germany to all of our WOOD® magazine readers and participants on our WOOD Online forums. My first day in Europe was filled with the excitement of exploring new lands and cultures, followed by an invigorating and educational tour of the town where I'm staying, and capped by several bits of exciting news from our host, Festool.
Long a presence in Germany and Europe as a maker of high-quality, long-lasting woodworking tools, Festool welcomed us with a very fine dinner Saturday evening that made this farm-raised Midwesterner feel right at home: pork chops. But that was not by a long shot the good news. Rather, Festool announced that it is relocating its North American headquarters to Lebanon, Indiana (within an hour and a half of my Hoosier hometown) where work began over a month ago on a new facility that will house corporate offices as well as warehouse space and a second training center. This training facility, like the one in Henderson, Nevada, will help educate those retailers who sell Festool products on how to use them, how to demonstrate them to customers, and how to troubleshoot them and service them. Festool will continue to operate its training center in Nevada, and will also keep its Goleta, California office open as a distribution and service center. The good news for woodworkers in the United States and Canada is that Festool has just made a huge commitment to our market to sell and service tools and train us in how to use them.
The folks from Festool also promised to show off their hottest, newest tool that's not even available in the U.S. yet because demand in Europe has more than doubled the supply. This tool, called Domino, is a hybrid tool that's been creating a buzz on the Web. Check back in a day or two for the word on that.
Festool does nothing second rate. When I cleared customs at the Stuttgart airport early Saturday morning after a long flight from Atlanta—and nine hours sitting in one position is borderline torture to this 6-foot-4 editor—I was greeted and picked up by Christian Oltzscher, president and CEO of Festool USA. He drove us&emdash;via the high-speed Formula One track known as the German highway system—to Nurtingen, a nearby town where Festool is located. I got the opportunity to explore the town a little bit, and found it to be almost storybook in its Old-Europe charm and architecture (take a look at the photos; that's me in the middle of an outdoor market downtown).
Welcome to Day 2 of my report from southwestern Germany. As I said in yesterday's report, Festool graciously invited me to the Stuttgart area to not only get an inside look at their company and how it builds and markets high-quality woodworking tools, but also to get a feel for its home region and the people who live in this area&emdash;and many of them use Festool tools regularly. We began our Sunday excursion in the town of Esslingen, just southeast of Stuttgart. On a guided walking tour of the downtown area, we learned that this city is more than 1,200 years old and boasts a heritage that rivals the best in Germany.
Nestled in a valley along the Nekar River, Esslingen originally was surrounded by a massive stone wall, very much like China's Great Wall. Portions of the originally corner gatehouses still stand, as do many of the buildings from that time, including a beautiful cathedral that features the oldest stained glass windows in Germany
We walked up the steep hillside and climbed up on the original fortifications from which past warriors no doubt fired arrows and poured boiling oil on rivals.
We also got to enjoy the outdoor Christmas market, a combination of holiday activities and for-sale items along with a medieval festival. It was like Braveheart meets Kris Kringle, with thousands of locals and tourists packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the cobblestone streets. Very cool.
During that tour of Esslingen, we learned a great deal about the construction of the buildings that have survived for so long. The oldest surviving buildings are made of stone, but there are a few hundred from the 12th and 13th centuries that were made of massive oak trees, joined with so many pinned mortise-and-tenons it would make an Amish barnbuilder feel lazy. Despite the exposed faces of these timbers, they have withstood the elements thanks to coatings of grapevine ashes and a mixture of ox blood and urine. Just another example that the Germans knew how to build a quality product.
Later in the day we went to the Mühlstraße home workshop of Vitus Rommel, who works in product development at Festool's nearby facilities. It was Rommel who came up with the idea for the Domino, Festool's newest tool that is planned for a spring 2007 release in the United States and Canada. The Domino is similar to a biscuit joiner, but cuts mortises for floating tenons made of solid beech. I'll get to use one of the Domino tools tomorrow, so I'll have more details and photos after that. That's Vitus on the left with Festool USA President Christian Oltzscher.
But Vitus proved to be quite an interesting guy and entrepaneur. From his home shop he not only excels as a master cabinetmaker—a title earned in Germany only after seven certified years of learning and apprenticeship—but he also distills and markets his own schnapps. Vitus demonstrated the process as he brewed a barrel of fermented cherries in a high-tech double boiler that will get you arrested for moonshining in the states. After the two-and-a-half hour cook time, he had a batch of cherry schnapps ready for tasting. No wonder Festool succeeds in making such great tools: They hire go-getters with intelligence, pride, and imagination. As you'll see in the photos, we also got to hear the requisite accordion music. Once again, very cool.
Day 3: Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the first two "recreational" days of my visit to the Stuttgart area of Germany, today was the day Festool unveiled "the good stuff." Today I got to use their new Domino DF500Q joinery machine, and it is just incredible. It won't be available in the U.S. until April 1, 2007, but here's what you can look forward to when it does arrive: a precision tool that mills multiple-sized mortises for almost any size joint you've got, and then you plug in a solid beech "domino" that is essentially a floating tenon. The dominoes are available in five sizes (from 5x30mm to 10x50mm) and feature grooved edges and faces to allow for glue displacement.
These beauties could make you forget about dowels and biscuits altogether. They combine the strength of dowels and the machining ease of a biscuit joiner, without the alignment issues that plague dowel jigs and the joint weakness of biscuits.
I had a 15-minute instruction on it from a Festool product technician, then went to work on it. Because it's similar in style to a biscuit joiner (it plunges similarly, it has fences and depth stops that are more detailed and precise but similar), it proved very intuitive to me. It works like this: The cutter is actually a specialized spiral router bit that oscillates side to side as you plunge it slowly into the workpiece. The result is a mortise rounded on the ends like you'd get with a plunge router. But setup is so much quicker than a router because of the preset stops and detents that are made to match the dominoes. The best feature on this tool is two independently retractable alignment pins on the front face. With these you can use one as an edge stop and the other just slips back inside the housing as you line up on the workpiece. (Or both retract if you don't need them.)
Using these on mating pieces proved so precise that I did not need to adjust the mortise length, which you can do ever so slightly if you feel you need just a little play for aligning multiple dominoes. Like all Festool tools, the DF500Q attaches to Festool's tool-triggered dust extractor, and it sucks up all the chips and dust. It's a very impressive tool.
Festool officials have not established a retail price for the U.S. market yet, but Christian Oltzscher, president of Festool USA, said the tool alone should be in the ballpark of $700, with the accessories and dominoes extra. He did not venture a guess for the whole system.
While building my small footstool "project" with the DF500Q I also got to try out Festool's two tablesaws that are so unique you can't—and likely never will—get them in the states. These saws are essentially their circular plunge saws mounted to the underside of a table, but with a mechanism that allows you to pull the sawblade toward your workpiece.
I've got to admit it's a pretty scary tool to operate the first time because it's not natural for us American woodworkers to bring the blade toward our bodies. Now you don't have to do that; you can lock the saw in place and push your boards through like usual. But it's this pull feature that scares the puddin' out of the UL folks who decide on what tools can hit the market.
In fact, it's been small, since resolved UL issues that have helped limit the Domino's availability for the last year. Another great idea that Festool has resolved is running their electric cords inside the dust extraction hose, which eliminates the impending tangles and catches you get around workbenches and various corners. But, once again, Festool says the UL won't allow that for risk of troubles with the cord that can't be seen. Still, safety is nothing to just shrug off.
Day 4: For my final day with Festool on location in Germany, I witnessed the quality, precision, and attention that goes into the production of every one of their products. We began Day 4 with a tour of Festool's milling and assembly plants in Neidlingen, again not far from Stuttgart. I've seen a few tool-making factories, so the large industrial milling machines (all computer operated) did not stand out as unique (although I'm sure they're exceptional), but the efficiency of the workers and the work space and the cleanliness of the work area did. Even though all these machines run a constant lubricant bath, there was not one drop on the floor. Later we learned and appreciated just how precise the tool parts are that come out of those machines. Festool makes about one-fourth of its tool parts, buying the remaining components from manufacturers who consistently prove they can meet Festool's ridiculously high standards. For example, Festool's allowance for bearing tolerances in its random-orbit sanders is 1/50 the thickness of a typical human hair! I have no idea how they can even measure that precisely.
The real eye-opener came in the assembly wing of the building. That's where every power tool is assembled by some of Germany's finest women. That's right, the ladies are in charge of putting together every sander, circular saw, cordless drill, dust extractor, Domino, every tool Festool makes. Why? Because these women typically have smaller hands than the men, and that's critical, they say, when dealing with so many miniscule parts and in such tight spaces. I can appreciate that because my hands are pretty big, and I've had trouble picking up small parts like half-inch wire nails and those little screws that hold my glasses together. And not only do they assemble the tools, they troubleshoot them and test them as well, and they're trained to spot one with a potential flaw. In fact, Festool is so stringent on accuracy and precision that its goal is to have no more than 99 flawed tools out of every one million produced-with flawed meaning everything from an out-of-round bearing to a scratched housing.
I also found it interesting that the women worked in groups of four or five and assembled tools in lots of 12 or 24 (depending on the tool). Only the exact number of necessary parts for a lot are brought to their station, so that when they're done if they should have a part left over, they know that either one tool missed a part or somebody just counted wrong. They go back and inspect the lot of 12 to find if a tool is missing a part and pull it out. They also assemble these groups according to which country it will be shipped to. For example, we watched them assemble some of the new Domino joinery tools for the U.S. market. This meant using 110-volt cords and motors and product manuals in (American) English. After they finished that they switched to tools bound for Switzerland, so back to 220 volts. It's a very efficient process with many levels of built-in quality controls, all to deliver the absolute finest tools to the market.
Later in the day we visited a cabinet shop in Stuttgart that builds very nice kitchen cabinets and components as well as furniture such as dining tables and beds. The shop was set up with professional, heavy duty machinery for milling stock, as well as a multitude of Festool power tools for joining, constructing, and finish sanding the products. The shop owner said he cannot afford down time should a tool break down, and he said Festool products hold up to the kind of work he requires. This same master cabinetmaker retails his cabinets and furniture from a showroom in downtown Stuttgart. It's modern, but very well constructed. I was curious to see that they prefer an oil finish for their tabletops, with the first of three coats applied at 80°. The customer then has to apply four more coats a month after purchase, and then once each year.
The bottom line is that Festool sets incredibly high standards for making tools, and then builds them to meet or exceed those marks. Yes, you will pay more to purchase their tools&—sometimes 3 or 4 times what you would pay for a "bargain" tool. I'm convinced most of their tools are unequaled, and when used with their system of dust collection there's no mess to clean up. Couple that with a tool that's built to work and last without breaking down, and you can make up that initial cost in time savings, repair costs, and replacement tool costs. If these are not important issues to you, then Festool is probably not the tool for you. But, they say that 95% of the people who buy one Festool product will become a repeat customer.
Day 5 of my trip to visit German tool manufacturers brought me to Stuttgart to see Fein Power Tools, makers of high-quality products like the Multi-Master, random orbit sanders, cordless drill/drivers, and dust extractors. Many of you probably don't know it, but Fein is the world's original power tool company, founded in 1867 by brothers Carl and Emil Fein. The Fein family still owns the company to this day. Fein has recorded approximately 500 patents over the years, but some of those (fire alarms, electric generators, walk-around telephones, etc.) occurred before the decision in 1908 to specialize in only power tools. The Fein electric hand drill invented in 1895 opened the door to what you and I now know as the wonderful world of power tools.
Although 80% of Fein's business is in metalworking tools, the company still puts a great deal of research into developing newer and better woodworking power tools, like those listed earlier. But it was the invention of the Multi-Master in 1986 that changed their fortune in the United States. Since then, Fein has sold millions of this do-all oscillating tool (sanding, cutting, grinding, scraping), refining it and improving it along the way. Fein will launch its latest in this line, the Super Cut, in mid-summer 2007. The Super Cut has a 4mm stroke and 400 watts of power, compared to 3.2mm and 180 watts for the newest Multi-Master. The Super Cut also has sturdy springs on each side of the tool arm, just in front of the bearing that allows it to oscillate. These springs greatly absorb the vibration generated. And, Fein will also sell gel-lined leather gloves that, when worn while using the Super Cut or Multi-Master, also absorb vibration. I tried this, and it really does work. Both machines create vibration, and it's not too bad unless you're using it for long periods of time. You'll pay probably $300 more for the Super Cut than the Multi-Master, so you'll probably want to find a lot of uses for it.
In the afternoon I traveled with Fein's product manager, Hartmut Speidel, and marketing manager, Nadine Stumpp, from the Stuttgart headquarters to the manufacturing and assembly plant in Bargau, about 40 miles to the southeast. There we saw the new building under construction that will be Fein's headquarters by Jan. 1, 2008. This move-coupled with the closing and relocation of another manufacturing plant-will help production, Hartmut said, because everyone will be in the same location. No more traveling, conference calls, or e-mail trains. Fein manufactures about 80% of its parts, buying only things like switches, electrical components, screws, and ball bearings.
I saw workers manufacturing armatures, and I was astounded at the detail and precision that went into these, and it's also cool to see them wind 200 meters of thread-thin copper wire in and around the armature. Some armatures require larger wire that has to be wrapped by hand, and that was impressive, too. I followed the first armatures through the plant to assembly, where they were placed at the heart of Multi-Masters. Assembly for some machines, like the Multi-Master, takes place on a conveyor belt as workers add their parts then send them on. But for others, like the Super Cut and the newest grinders, workers build a tool completely by themselves, adding each piece at a station, then moving with the tool to the next stop. Harmut said the two methods prove equally productive.
Fein's patent expired this year on the Multi-Master, so you can expect to see knock-off products soon—and likely for less money. But be aware that you might have to sacrifice quality when you pay that lower price. Also, Fein is motivated to sell: 30% of their sales from 2005-06 came from the United States. America is their wilderness, and they're ready to expand.
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