Dino Makropoulos' inventions bring woodworking skills to the masses.
The very best product designs enable masses of people to either a) do things they couldn't do before, or b) do things they did do before, but in a better way. Ex-carpenter Dino Makropoulos' designs for the EZ Smart Woodworking System, which can be used by both professionals and average consumers alike, satisfies on both counts.
"The idea," Dino explains, "is to make [the process of building things] better, easier, faster, and safer."
The EZ System is rather vast, so for this article we're going to focus on one of its main products, and one that we feel even a casual DIY-er would find extremely useful: The Smart Guide System. This simple but ingenious tool, in conjunction with a circular saw--any circular saw--puts the power and accuracy of a table saw in your hand, minus the danger. It enables even the clumsy or inexperienced to cut wood with better-than-factory edges, among other things. What used to be tricky, dangerous, or two-man operations become, with the Smart Guide System, something one person can easily accomplish, in less time.
What is the Smart Guide System and how does it work?
The Smart Guide System, at its most bare-boned, is essentially an aluminum extrusion and an ABS plastic base. You attach the base to the bottom of a circular saw (of any brand), and your saw then rides cleanly along the extrusion in a perfectly straight line, as determined by the raised guide rail in the extrusion. With this in place it is impossible for you to cut anything except a dead-perfect straight line.
The extrusion has small channels on either side. You slide plastic inserts--the anti-chip feature--into these channels and, when new, the plastic extends slightly beyond where your saw blade ends up. The first time you use the system, you trim these plastic inserts by making a pass with your saw.
What this does is give you a WYSIWYG for your cut--no more offset measurements, you can line the edge of that plastic guide exactly onto your cutting line. (For years, while using my own homemade guides and straightedges, I've had to mark my desired cutting line, then measure 4 5/8"--the precise distance from the blade to the edge of my saw's plate--to determine where to clamp the guide. And more than once, my bad math led me to cut the wrong place and ruin my last piece of wood, inevitably leading me to call my girlfriend and explain I'd be late for dinner.)
There are two larger channels on the underside of the extrusion, and that's where you slide in two custom-designed clamps to hold the wood. There is no fence for the wood to bind against; the clamps press the wood securely against the extrusion. "This is the 'dead wood,' concept," Dino explains. "Wood is 'alive' inside, and depending on how you cut it, there can be forces inside which cause the wood to react. If you bind the blade, or if the material is improperly supported, the wood can be thrown back at you at very high speed, causing a nasty injury.
"The most important thing when cutting wood, is that you have to support the material. If the material is not supported, things can go wrong. This system ensures the wood is properly supported so you get a clean, perfect cut, every time."
The extrusions come in various lengths, and you can attach them together make cuts of infinite length. "When you connect two pieces together, they self align perfectly because of the unique design of the connectors and the guide rails," Dino explains.
Testing the EZ Smart Guide System
The first time I met Dino I thought he was crazy. For the product demonstration he set the EZ Smart Guide up with a circular saw and large piece of melamine-coated wood as the target piece--but instead of cutting it himself, he stepped away from the table. "Go ahead," he said. "Cut it."
I thought he was crazy because he had only known me for five minutes and had no idea if I had any experience at all with tools. My neighbor, an office drone, once asked to borrow my circular saw; I grilled him to be sure he had used one before and knew what the hell he was doing before lending it to him. I don't want to get sued by somebody with no thumbs, and I had assumed Dino would be the same way.
I stepped up, put my right hand on the saw and tried to position myself. But the wood and the Smart Guide were placed on the table in such a way that I couldn't get my body in the desired spot. "Use your left hand, it's fine," Dino said. I should point out here that I'm right-handed--I won't even brush my teeth with my left hand. Totally crazy, I thought.
Nevertheless, with my left hand I pulled the trigger and guided the saw through the wood. It took very little effort; the saw traveled securely on the track, and at no point did I feel like it might come off or was difficult to handle.
Dino seemed to know what I had been thinking a moment earlier; after I'd completed the cut he looked at me over his glasses and said "I wouldn't have let you do it if I wasn't sure it was totally safe," he explained. "With this system, you'd really have to be trying to make a mistake for it to go wrong."
He removed the guide and saw and showed the edge to me. "Look at that," he said. Sure enough, it was completely straight, the edge completely perpendicular to the surface of the board. Even more surprising, the melamine edge was factory-smooth--even though the circular saw had a 24-tooth blade, the kind you use for rough framing work. "Normally you would need at least a 40-tooth blade to get this kind of edge," Dino explained, "but the anti-chip edges take care of it."
I then tested the EZ Smart Guide out on one of my own projects, making a simple cabinet for the studio I run. I made my measurements, marked my wood, and started ripping, cross-cutting and trimming.
I was impressed with the edges I was getting--dead perfect, every time, and with no tear-out--and was even more impressed when I looked at my watch. I'd finished in about 1/3rd of the time it would have normally taken me. I never realized how much time gets sucked up by calculating offset measurements, checking the fence and blade for square on my Delta portable table saw, and cleaning up the edges.
Since I work alone and in a very limited space--I am a Manhattanite whose "workshop" is the hallway of my studio building--cutting large 4x8 sheets down to size, accurately, is always a problem for me. I typically rough it out with the circular saw, and once the pieces are a more manageable size for me, clean up the edges as best I can with my imperfect Delta or the circ-saw and some homemade guides. But with the EZ Smart I was able to get exactly what I wanted on the first cut. For me to achieve these kinds of cuts on a table saw, I'd need a larger hallway and an assistant.
Next I tried duplicating something I'd seen Dino do in the demonstration videos--cutting wood into extremely thin strips. I'd had to do this before on a table saw, and never did like getting my fingers too close to the blade. With the Smart Guide I was able to do this quickly, easily, and accurately, and my fingers were nowhere near the blade. I even did tapered cuts, which I've found to be a big pain in the neck on a table saw.
Bottom line is, Dino is a carpenter with 25 of years experience; I am not. But using this tool, I was able to do exactly what I'd seen him do--on the first try. To me, that is a big deal.
How is the EZ Smart Guide different from the competition?
I told two friends of mine--one a carpenter, the other an installer--that I was writing an article about a woodcutting guide system. Both of them said the same thing: "Oh, you mean a Festool?"
Festool is the big dog on the block, a large German manufacturer of power tools with great brand recognition among professional builders. They also make a guide rail system, but unlike the EurekaZone, which works with any circular saw, the Festool Guide only works with the Festool Circular Saw.
Let's say you wanted to rip a standard 4x8 sheet of plywood. The Festool 106" Guide Rail is US $245. The Festool clamps for the Guide Rail are $33 each. Their Splinter Guard version of the anti-chip edges is another $18. You're looking at a subtotal of $329, and that's assuming you already own a Festool Circular Saw, which is a whopping $475; if you don't, the grand total would be $804.
In contrast, the EZ Smart Guide 106" package (which includes the clamps, the anti-chip edges, and the base to mount your saw on) costs $270.79. Even if you don't already own a circular saw, you can get a refurbished Makita or Bosch for less than a hundred bucks online, or a good new one for around $150. For me it's a no-brainer.
Both the carpenter and the installer said the same thing about the Festool: "I'd love to get one...just can't afford it."
"Big manufacturers want to sell you a whole system," Dino explains. "They don't want you using their products with a Makita or a Hitachi. They want you to buy everything from them." Dino and EurekaZone's philosophy, on the other hand, is to sell you only what you need. "You don't have to buy lots of things from us," Dino continues. "You buy only what you need. The system is expandable. You can start by buying only a few small pieces. Later if you decide you want more, you can buy more and it will work together with what you already have. But it is up to you."
"In Europe, everybody makes a guide system, it's been established for many years," Dino explains. "And the European manufacturers are also in the business of making table saws and miter saws. So when you make all these tools, the guide system that you're making is just an add on--you don't want your $300 guide system to eliminate the need for your $6,000 table saw, not when you have the sales! But for us at EurekaZone, the guide system is the entire game."
As an example, some other guide rail systems are not designed to cut pieces narrower than roughly six inches; the EZ Smart, unconcerned with cannibalizing sales of table saws, has virtually no limitations on cut size. This is something that is easier to show than explain, so to see what I mean you can check out this video:
(For more details on the functionality of the system, be sure to check out our interview with Dino.)
Four: Free upgrades.
"We have a free upgrade policy because that's how people know they're not gonna get something that's gonna be outdated," Dino explains. "If we make a tool better than the one that you bought last year or two years ago, and you like our new tool better, send your old tool back and we'll give you the new one for free, just pay the shipping.
"We keep our customers happy; they know they're gonna have the latest design. They'll never have to pay for it again because we changed the design of a product."
I have a background in industrial design and was trained to use shop tools when I was in ID school, but I'm not a professional or full-time builder; I'm merely an avid DIY'er. If you know any professional carpenters or builders, I think it's worthwhile to get their opinions on safety rather than just taking my word for it, because those guys probably build more in a day than I do in a month.
The shop instructor who taught me how to use a lathe was missing most of his front teeth. The guy who taught me to use a table saw, Tom, had all of his fingers, but scared the bejeezus out of us with stories of people who didn't. In the years since that first training, I've learned table saws are like motorcycles--anyone who's been around them for years has stories of horrific accidents that they either experienced, witnessed or heard about from co-workers.
In researching this article I Googled "table saw accident" and watched the attendant videos, which I greatly regret; some of the accidents I saw were so stomach-turning I had trouble sleeping afterwards. Repeat my mistake if you're curious, but I don't recommend you do.
In short, table saws are dangerous. I'm sure there are many professionals out there who've used them for years without a single accident; but I am not a professional, and I also don't like the nature of table saw accidents, whatever their actual percentage of likelihood. It seems there are no minor "fender-bender" type accidents with a table saw--you're either completely fine or in serious trouble.
"Think about the table saw," Dino says. "You're pushing wood into a rotating blade. It's kind of crazy if you think about it. The 'dead wood' concept is much, much safer."
Even if I could afford and had the space for a $5,000 table saw, I wouldn't get one; with things like the EZ System, I no longer see the need. In short, I like the EZ System because it enables me to get great results and feels very safe. I realize the table saw and the circular saw are essentially the same things--circular blades attached to motors that rotate them. But I prefer having the blade controlled directly by my hand and mounted securely on a track I know it's not going to come off of.
Lastly, I like knowing that if I have a problem with the system or don't know how to do something, I can call Dino and figure it out. "We have the absolute best customer service in the business," Dino says. "I put my personal cell phone number in the instructions! If customers have a problem they can call me anytime--24 hours a day--and I'll help them work it out."
The girlfriend I mentioned before has since taken off; if she ever comes back, I'll be on time for dinner. And we'll eat it on a table I made.