The ultimate portable power tool for precise, chip-free processing of sheet goods.
The ultimate portable power tool for precise, chip-free processing of sheet goods.
If you only use sheet goods occasionally, one of the most economical and safest ways to cut the material is with a circular saw equipped with some kind of edge guide. A major drawback is that you’ll likely get chip-out on both the top and bottom of the sheet stock. Of course, you can also use a table saw, or better yet, a panel saw. However, manipulating a seventy or eighty pound, eight foot long sheet of plywood over a spinning blade can be a tad nerve-wracking, and potentially dangerous. If your work space is large enough it helps to add a support table or outfeed rollers on the outfeed end of the saw. Still, it makes for awkward sheet processing.
An increasingly popular alternative for processing large, unwieldy sheet goods is the plunge cut or track saw. While a circular saw is designed to aggressively and quickly cut dimensional lumber and sheet stock a track saw is specifically designed to cut sheet goods (and solid stock up to about 2″ thick) perfectly straight, cleanly, chip free, and safely. And it’s meant to do this quickly, whether on a job site or in the workshop. These saws consists of two components that work together seamlessly to provide you with exceptional precision cutting – the plunge saw, and the guide rails (aka ‘guide tracks’).
The Festool TS55EQ and TS55REQ track saws have become industry standards for processing full sheets of plywood. Because you can make such accurate cuts and there is no chip-out you don’t have to finish cut the ply on the table saw. You can still use the table saw for processing smaller sheets.
This year Festool introduced a cordless version of the TS55EQ, the TSC55. It offers all of the great features and functionality of the TS55EQ – including Multiple Material Control (MMC) electronics that delivers constant speed control, soft-start, temperature monitoring, and motor overload protection – but without the constraint of a power cord. It also features a brushless motor that is virtually maintenance-free, makes more efficient use of energy, and generates less friction, heat and amp draw for a longer run time and longer overall tool life. For more information read our primer on brushless motors.
The TSC55 comes in three formats:
Chip collection bag,
48-tooth saw blade,
|‘Basic’ Package, plus:
2 Battery chargers,
2 5.2 Ah batteries,
|‘Plus-XL’ Package, plus:
55″ Guide Rail
If you don’t own any Festool products, the ‘Plus-XL-FS’ package is really the only one to consider, as you really can’t enjoy the full benefits of the TSC55 without a guide rail. However if you already have one or more Festool power tools and a guide rail, then either the ‘Basic’ or ‘Plus-XL’ package might be a more economical option.
While the TSC55 has a number of stellar features, four of them in particular, stand out for me – the guide rail, the cutting depth adjustment system, dust extraction, and the battery power system.
The guide rail is what enables the TSC55 to make perfectly aligned cuts – straight, angled, or beveled – that are consistently chip-free. The Plus-XL-FS package comes with a 55″ rail, with which you can cross-cut a full sheet of plywood. While you can rip a full sheet lengthwise with the 55″ rail, by re-positioning the rail along the sheet of plywood, it’s worth purchasing an additional rail if you do a lot of ripping. Festool offers eight rails in lengths from 32″ to 197″.
To better appreciate the importance of the guide rail on a track saw, have a look at the difference between the plate of a conventional circular saw, and the TSC55. There isn’t much support for material on either side of the blade on a conventional saw. This large throat also results in sawdust being directed downward, on top of the work surface, considerably reducing the ability of the saw to effectively extract dust.
On the TSC55 the gap on either side of the blade is significantly narrower, providing support for material to within a few millimeters of the blade. This restricted opening in the plate better facilitates dust removal from above the plate (which we’ll look at below).
Additionally, built into the plate of the TSC55 is a recessed channel, which fits over a matching rib on the top of the guide rail. Two green low-friction plastic glide strips, which are slightly raised above the surface of the rail, enables the saw to glide smoothly across its surface. While the strips should last quite a long time, they can be easily replaced if they become worn through extended use. Moving the saw over the guide rail is effortless, and you can stop and restart your cut without being concerned that you’ll alter the cut line.
If there is any wobble, or side-play as the saw moves along the guide rail, the cut line won’t be perfectly straight. To ensure that the saw and rail work seamlessly there are two cam adjustment wheels on the top side of the saw. As you turn these wheels, cams apply pressure against rubber pads that serve to minimize side-play. The aim here is to have the saw glide freely along the rails without binding or without your having to exert any undue force on the saw – a tiny bit of side-ply is acceptable.
The rail bottoms have two black slip-resistant rubber strips that help to keep the guide rail from moving about on your stock. I find them amazingly effective. These strips also prevent the bottom of the guide rail from marring the surface of the work piece. Festool sells special clamps that enable you to lock the guide rail onto your work piece, but I find that I rarely have to use them.
On the bottom edge of the rail there is also a clear, replaceable zero-clearance splinter guard strip. This splinter guard strip runs the length of the rail, and extends a few millimeters past the side of the rail. The first time you use the track saw it cuts the strip flush with the side of the saw blade. As with a zero-clearance insert on a table saw, the splinter guard goes a long way to eliminating chipping and tear-out.
On the blade side of the track saw is a clear, plastic viewing window, though which you can monitor the cut line. The only time I’ve used this feature is when sawing without the use of the guide rail. At all other times, I replace the viewing window with the green splinter guard. A single splinter guard comes with the TSC55 – you can purchase a 5-pack for around $26. As with the splinter guard on the bottom of the guide rail, the saw blade will cut through it to create a second zero-clearance guard. This effectively provides zero clearance support on both sides of the blade.
The second feature that distinguishes this saw is how easy and precisely you can adjust the cutting depth of the blade. Blade depth is controlled by depressing a depth stop slide. The slide has two index positions. The index labeled “A” in the photo below is used to indicate the blade depth when when you’re using the saw with a guide rail, while the “B” index indicates the blade depth when you’re using the saw without a guide rail. The default scale is metric, but Festool thoughtfully includes an imperial sticker that you can apply over the metric scale. Each increment represents 1mm or .039″. Note that if you use the imperial scale each registration line on the scale represents .078″ and there will be a .039″ increment in between each registration line on the scale.
I’ve been using a Festool track saw for several years, and so have become accustomed to the depth stop slider. Still, I do find that when I try to make blade cutting depth adjustments too quickly, the slider can be somewhat awkward to position – usually it takes a couple of tries to position it exactly where I want it to go. This might be due to the fact that the notches that engage the slider are very close together (.039″). However, a small price to pay for such accuracy.
Should you require even more precision in setting the depth of cut, you can use the fine adjustment depth control knob atop the depth stop slider. I’ve never had occasion to use this feature, but it’s nice to know it’s there should the need arise.
Just like circular saws, track saws generate one heck of a lot of sawdust. There are two ways to deal with this problem. You can connect the TSC55 to a dust extractor or you can use the dust bag that is supplied with the saw. I’ve been using the bag exclusively for the past four weeks, and find that it’s almost as effective as a dust extractor, and considerably more convenient. It means I don’t have to cart the the dust extractor and a hose (along with the track saw and guide rail) to the garage where I process my sheet goods. And, there isn’t any hose flopping around to distract me as I make my cuts. Very nice indeed.
You might think that the dust bag would interfere with maneuvering the track saw. Not so. The bag is angled such that it follows along the contour of your arm. And, removing, emptying, and reinstalling the bag takes all of about 15 seconds. The fabric bag looks like it should last quite a while before it needs to be replaced.
I haven’t measured how much dust the collection bag can hold, but it’s quite a bit. The amount show above represents the dust from sawing 81′ of 1/2″ plywood – just about all that the bag could hold.
This is the first power tool I’ve seen that enables you to use two batteries at the same time. The TSC55 is compatible with all the current Festool 12-, 15-, and 18-volt batteries. The Plus-XL and Plus-XL-FS versions of the saw come with two 5.2 Ah batteries (along with two chargers). Installing both batteries adds some weight to the track saw, though in use the additional weight is not really a factor, as the saw glides so easily along the guide rail. Likely you’d notice the extra weight when using the saw without the rail.
I’ve not found it necessary to use both batteries simultaneously, as I typically mill one or two sheets of ply at a time – cutting somewhere in the range of 30 linear feet. I did cut up a scrap sheet of 3/4″ ply to see how long a single battery would last – 102 linear feet. Festool claims that you can cut up to 300 linear feet of plywood using two batteries. While I got proportionally less on my single battery, the result was still impressive.
This is a feature that finish carpenters might find useful. There is a simple detent-override feature that enables you to extend the bevel cut capacity past 90° and 45°. Both features are easy to use. For some reason Festool chose not to include any detents between 0° and 45°, which would have been convenient.
I’ve never found blade changing to be much of an issue, though someone working in a fast-paced, on-site work environment might beg to differ. The TSC55 has the blade wrench stored in the saw handle. You lift a green lever (call the FastFix) to access the wrench. If you leave the FastFix level open, and then plunge the saw down, the system automatically locks the saw (and the blade arbor) in place so you can release the arbor bolt and flange, and then replace the blade. Very quick and effective.
If you’re of a certain age where glasses are part of your work apparel, then, like me, you’ll appreciate the relatively bright, clear bevel scale. It just makes setting the right bevel angle easier. However, the pointer (red circle in the photo above), would be easier to see if it was coloured.
There isn’t much of a chance you’ll experience kickback when ripping sheet goods. However, with solid wood it’s a different story. The TSC55 has a riving knife that automatically deploys as the blade is lowered. This prevents sideways pressure on the blade from stock as it passes behind the blade.
You can also experience kickback when plunge cutting sheet goods. Festool includes a limit stop with the TSC55. You attach the limit stop to the guide rail behind the starting position of the plunge cut. The leading edge of the limit stop will prevent the saw from lifting up at the beginning of the plunge cut. It also makes it much easier to start your plunge cut exactly where you want it to begin.
I’ve been using the TSC55 primarily to cut 3/4″ cabinet grade plywood. You can lay the sheet goods on any reasonably flat surface. I use 2×2’s – you could just as well use 2×4’s, rigid foam board insulation, or waste pieces of plywood. The key is to ensure you have adequate clearance underneath, so the plunge saw blade doesn’t touch against the floor – especially if it’s concrete. Remember too that the blade only needs to extend 1/8″ or so below the guide rail.
I’ve used the TSC55 to cut some laminate countertop, along with a 3/4″ sapele panel. The results were consistently superb.
Sometimes a review can sound like an advertorial for a company, simply because the product is so good at what it claims to do. The Festool TSC55 is just such a product. It is, in my view, an excellent way to process sheet goods – you can make precise, chip-free cuts with a minimal amount of set-up. With the option of mounting a second battery, run time is essentially doubled, and dust extraction is superb using the cloth collection bag.
The TSC55 can also make cuts that are impossible on a table saw. Along with plunge cuts, it’s a snap to cut angles cuts. Indeed, it’s so useful for this purpose that Festool makes an optional miter gauge to facilitate the process.
The TSC55 isn’t a saw that every woodworker needs. But, for anyone who processes a lot of sheet goods – cabinet makers, countertop installers, flooring installers, remodelers, and the like – its a tool that has the potential of making you work more productively. While the initial cost might seem high, prorated over 10 years, you’re looking at about $100 a year for the ultimate in sheet processing.
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