When I first started woodworking some 20 years ago, my first “table saw” consisted of a circular saw and a workmate – a bit archaic compared to the precision machine I use today. Over the years, however, I have continued to use a circular saw to rough trim sheets of plywood. Trying to manoeuvre a 4 by 8 sheet of ply over the top of my table saw has always been a bit unnerving (wouldn’t it be great to have a panel saw!). The problem I’ve always encountered, even using shop-built edge guides, is not being able to get precision, splinter-free cuts with the circular saw.
That is, until I tried the Festool ATF55E circular saw. The first thing I noticed about the saw was how light (4.8 kg/10.5 lbs) and well balanced it is, which I attribute to the use of aluminum and plastics in the saw body. There doesn’t seem to be any sacrifice in durability, however, as we’ve treated the saw pretty roughly in the shop. The saw features electronically controlled smooth start (which makes it very quite when starting or idling and in use), electronically controlled speed rates from 2000 to 4800 rpm (giving constant cutting power throughout your cuts), and overload protection. There is a handy diode display to the left of the saw handle, which helps you regulate the feed power.
To adjust the depth of cut you hold in the “cutting depth stop” button and move it along the depth scale. I was able to make depth adjustments quickly and accurately.
Aligning the saw for diagonal cuts (and setting the blade exactly at 90°) is straightforward – you loosen two setscrews then tilt the body. A diagonal scale makes angle adjustment easy. The depth of cut and angle scales are black on black, which makes them hard to read. Adding colour to the scale and including imperial as well as metric units would be helpful. The ATF55E comes with a 160 mm (6 1/4”) fine cut 48-tooth ATB carbide blade. It’s an excellent blade that gives superb cuts.
Changing the blade was straightforward, although a lock to hold the saw body down (rather than having to hold it down while pressing the spindle stop and loosening the blade fixing screw) would be convenient.
To start the saw you first push a safety switch on the top of the handle, and then press the on/off trigger. This system provides a very high degree of user safety.
A riving knife, which is attached ahead of the saw blade, adds a further element of safety. The saw comes with a “chip guard” that enables you to direct the flow of debris away from your line of cut. Although it works very well, you can also connect a suction hose (27mm/1 1/16 inch) directly to the saw. (I found that it wouldn’t connect to either of my Shop Vacs, which have a 1 1/2” hose).
What makes the ATF55E so useful, in my view, is the Festool guide system that you use in conjunction with the saw. These guide rails come in seven lengths (from 800 mm/32” to 5000 mm/197” long) and can be joined together with a “rail connector”. I found the 1080 mm (42 inch) and 1400 mm (55 inch) rails, along with a rail connector, to be most convenient. The rails are made of aluminum and have a hard rubber edging that runs right to the cutting edge. This gives the blade full support where it enters the stock, resulting in splinter-free cuts. There are also anti-slip strips that run the full length of the guide rails that are very effective in holding them in place while cutting.
Although you can clamp the guide rails to your stock I haven’t felt it necessary to do so. There are two adjustable set screws on the base of the saw that enable you to adjust the movement of the guide rails for snug, wobble-free movement.
I’ve been using the ATF55E for over two months now, and have cut close to 500 linear feet of plywood. I can make precise cuts with minimal or no tear out. In most instances I don’t have to go to the table saw to clean up cuts. What more could I ask for!
The ATF55E has a generous three-year warranty and comes with a 30-day money back guarantee. The saw comes in a modular storage box (the “Systainer”), along with an excellent quality 48-tooth carbide-tipped blade, a 1400 mm (55”) guide rail, chip deflector, allen wrench and a detailed instruction booklet. A range of accessories is available, including a parallel stop and angle-cutting unit.