In Shop Blog, Techniques

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This weekend we gave away our antique Arts & Crafts sideboard to some friends who have just bought a house and I installed the new Gustav Stickley 802 sideboard I’d built with the help of Harvey Ellis’s pen and German technology.

Like every other woodworking magazine, we’ve been heavily testing the Festool Domino since it arrived in early December. Senior Editor Glen Huey has built a number of traditional American projects using it. Senior Editor Robert Lang has been building a massive credenza that will go behind his workbench (it’s a long story, ask him). And Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick has even had her turn with the machine and is in the middle of building a medicine cabinet and mirror with the Domino.

And for my part, I’ve fiddled around with the thing quite a bit. I built a few picture frames for some artwork that has been languishing around the house. And I’ve built a couple cabinet doors. But my first real test of the machine was this summer as I built a Stickley 802 sideboard between bouts of traveling and teaching.

This was my first complex piece of casework with the Domino, and I was eager to get familiar with the machine but also cautious that I’d muck up a lot of good cherry in the name of trying out the new thing.

I’ll spare you any suspense: The Domino works as advertised. And considering its immense promise, that is an impressive feat. In competent hands, the Domino is capable of cutting joints with jaw-dropping speed and impressive strength. But note the qualifier: “In competent hands…¦.” The Domino is only as smart as its user.

As I put the sideboard together, I was curious how much faster it would be to use this machine compared to cutting traditional mortise-and-tenon joints. Glen Huey estimates that the Domino is capable of trimming about 25 percent off the shop time of a typical casework project. As I put the base of the sideboard together, I thought Glen was dead-on right. The Domino moved effortlessly through the project. It cut offset joints with immense precision and little math. It made joints that were tighter than any biscuit joints. And because of the inherent holding ability of the ribbed beech Dominos, I had to use few clamps to get everything together.

With the case assembled, I braced the sideboard against my bench and used a jointer plane to remove a few shavings from the rear apron to get it flush to the legs.

Then the project went limp, like my youngest sister’s arm when she broke it while playing in our driveway. The Domino joints in the front apron had failed. But why?

I’d forgotten a cardinal rule of tenon design: A tenon should be two-thirds the width of the stock it emerges from. Because the Dominos were so tight and so dead-on, I’d used two of them in each joint in the front rail. I should have used three.

So I pulled apart the front of the carcase and cut additional joints. (Note: Try cutting mortises on a half-assembled carcase with a hollow-chisel mortiser. The portability of the Domino is one of its oft-overlooked wonders.) Then it was glue, clamps and an impatient and fitful evening. The next day I picked up at the same place I’d gone wrong. This time the Dominos held, which was absolutely no surprise at all.

This week I’m gearing up for some more furniture projects. My youngest daughter needs some bookshelves, and the friends with the new (read: empty) house need some shelves as well. And our living room has never had a decent coffee table. Ah, and the campaign chest I’ve been doodling is starting to tug at me.

And the Domino figures prominently in many of those plans.

– Christopher Schwarz

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