Domino: The Magic Bullet

domino1.jpg

When it comes to joinery, I use the mortise-and-tenon joint a great deal. To create this joint I have used every system imaginable and with great success, from a tenon saw and mortise chisel, to table saw and mortising machine methods, drill press solutions and a wide of router-based systems, including the Leigh FMT system.

All of the systems have their charms and merits, but they also all have one weakness, they require at least two tools or jigs to make the joint. Some of the systems require great skill (cutting by hand), other require specialized heavy machinery (hollow-chisel mortisers) and force you to move heavy workpieces across smallish tables.
domino7.jpg
Rob Johnstone (right), editor of Woodworker’s Journal, contemplates a Domino tenon while Kevin Ley field-strips the tool.

The Festool Domino is a mortise-and-tenon machine (look for it on April 1, 2007) that is quite extraordinary because it allows you to use one tool to do all the cutting and , this is important , it allows you to take the tool to the work instead of having to muscle large workpieces across small cutters.

Today at the Festool headquarters, we got to spend an entire afternoon (interrupted by one civilized coffee break) using the Domino to build a small stool with as much or as little guidance as we liked. The following are my first impressions of the tool, which will be colored in the coming months by using the tool day-to-day in our shop.

Like everything that is branded with the Festool name, the Domino is simultaneously familiar and foreign. The familiar: It’s based on a biscuit joiner format. If you’ve ever used one of these tools, the controls and handling will seem quite familiar to you. What is foreign about it is the sometimes maniacal devotion to quality that drips from every knob and bright green switch. I’ve driven one Porsche in my like (a late 1960’s dual-carb model) and this tool has the same sort of feel in the hand. It’s so well made that you feel like you are in control, but in reality it’s the tool that is really doing the driving.

Let’s start with the cutter. To make a mortise, the Domino uses a single cutter that is plunged into your work. The cutter rotates and moves left to right simultaneously and at high speeds. You make a mortise that is 5mm x 15mm x 15mm with an almost effortless plunge (and this is into beech end grain). Armed with a vacuum, there is none of the typical dust clouds you create with a biscuit joiner. The tool will make other-sized mortises as well with almost equal ease.
domino5.jpg

The metal dowel against the corner of the workpiece. This is the indexing system that allows you to work without marking or measuring with many cuts.

Then you make the mortise in the mating piece. You put a beech loose tenon into the joints (along with some glue, natch) and apply clamping pressure.

The real genius of the system, in my opinion, is the way the tool is guided on the work. For most applications, the tool is designed to be used without any marking or measuring at all. When this was first explained to me I was a bit dense about it, but once you see it, it’s quite clever. The Domino has two metal dowels that stick out a bit (less than Ã?¼”) from either side of the cutter. These metal dowels will retract if you press them straight on and then return to the proud position when you let go.

You use these two metal dowels to control the Domino on the workpiece. Here’s a quick example: You want to make a face frame. Start with the stile, where your mortise needs to be in the long-grain edge. Instead of marking out your cut with a line (which you can do if you please), you place the corner of the stile so it tucks in against one metal dowel. Then you pivot the machine’s face flat against the work and the other metal dowel retracts into the machine. Make your cut.

Now repeat the process on the end of the rail. Tuck the corner of the rail against the dowel and pivot the Domino against the work. Plunge. The two mortises will now line up perfectly. And yes, I mean perfectly. Even on my first run out of the gate it was perfect.

domino2.jpg
This accessory for the fence allows you to mortise the end grain of small parts.

And then there are the accessories. There’s an attachment for the fence of the tool that allows you to mortise the end grain of pieces that are only Ã?¾” wide, and in a safe and simple manner. And there’s another attachment that allows you to stabilize your machine when you work on narrow edges. It’s only a simple piece of plastic, but it is entirely too clever to be called just a simple piece of plastic.
domino4.jpg
The extra fence (right) that attaches to the base of the tool gives you remarkable stability when working on edges.

After a few hours of working with the Domino, it began to feel like an extension of my hands and would do my bidding. Or perhaps it was driving , hard to tell.

Is there a negative to the machine? Well, like any tool , any tool , I think that your accuracy will improve with use. Some of the other editors (no names!) had a couple stumbles with the Domino as they became acquainted. And I myself got into a bit of a rush at the end, and I put a mortise where it wasn’t supposed to go , luckily the wrong mortise ended up concealed. And that’s the issue. The tool is so simple to use that you might be tempted to take a shortcut or two, and you can get a bit sloppy. This is the fault of any well-designed tool. And a little practice will fix your evil ways.

Festool officials said they are working out the pricing right now on the base machine model plus some accessories. When the tool is introduced in the United States there will be some special incentive packages that might be worth looking into.

Kevin Ley, a British craftsman, writer and former military man, chatted with me a bit about the tool after the event and said that he had just finished building a cabinet for LPs and CDs for a client out of elm and using the Domino system for all the carcase joinery.
domino6.jpg
A systainer (right) filled with Dominos.

With all the joints cut (about 100 in all) Kevin said the whole project came apart and together so perfectly and cleanly that it was like disassembling and assembling a handgun.

I couldn’t agree more. The machine makes perfect chambers for the tenons , the magic bullets of the system.

Tomorrow: Festool’s new table saws.

, Christopher Schwarz

9 thoughts on “Domino: The Magic Bullet

  1. Michael J Duncan

    I was going to buy a Leigh FMT, but I think I’ll wait until April 2007 and see what this machine can do.

  2. Brian

    This really isn’t a mortise/tenon machine – it is a dowelling rig. The world’s most expensive dowels.

  3. Reinhardt Quelle

    Yes, the Festool stuff is pricy – and I find myself working out ways to get around some of the accessories to make the core pieces more affordable. For instance, after investing in the long rails and circular saw, I built a sled for my Milwaukee and PC routers that mate with the fence, and I use a dust collector adapter and hose from a drywall sanding system to use my old Ridgid shop vac with so I don’t have to pay for the Festool collector.

    A good friend of mine has the full setup, and I can tell you for a fact that my home-built solutions aren’t nearly as slick as the Festool "system" solutions. In particular, the Festool dust collectors are _quiet_, and extremely efficient, and going back and forth between template-guided routing and rail-guided routing is quick and easy. If your time is worth anything at all, I can easily see the Festool bits paying for themselves pretty quickly.

    The major, major strength of the Festool products is the dust collection. This dust collection is spoiling me – I’m becoming very irritated by the way my other tools spew dust in my face!

    Can you imagine firing up a circular saw in a client’s carpeted bedroom? I’ve done just that to rework large armoire to adapt it for a plasma TV, and there was very little cleanup to do afterwards.

    So yes, its expensive, but being able to tell these long-time customers "sure, I can do that for you" was worth a lot!

    I’m really looking forward to trying out the mortising system.

  4. Dwight Shirey

    Do I have this right? This is really just a hand held, self sizing and self moving mortising machine and these magic "bullets" are just beech tenons that slip into the hole. I would appreciate a close up picture of one of these ‘bullets’.
    I also have to agree with some of the others that Festool, for all its perfection, is pretty pricy for the average guy who already has his favorite mortise and tenon machinery in place.

  5. Keith Mealy

    Very interesting. I’d be interested to see how and if it can be used for onsite repair work.

    What are the sizes of the loose tenons (dominoes)?

    I find the Festool very nicely engineered products, but very pricey. I’d like to see what happens with trickle-down to other manufacturers and competition. I know that craftsmen of old would need to pony up a couple of days’ wages for a lifetime tool. As good as these tools are, they are 5-8 times as expensive and I just don’t know that they’re 5-8 times as good as the competition.

  6. tanzanite

    One of the advantages of, say, the WoodRat or other tenon/mortise machines, is the ability to do an entire row of mortises. For example, if I’m building a crib, I can knock out a row of tenons for the slats fairly easily. Reading about this new Festool, it doesn’t seem to be made for that type of work. Is it possible to accurately index an entire row of tenons, or is this only thought to be used for m/t in picture frames, tables, chairs, cabinets, where the rails and stiles are a certain width?

Comments are closed.