For our Tech-Tacular Design & Technology special, we sought out game-changing power tools: Ones of such unique utility and intelligent design that the capabilities of the tool itself actually change the way we are able to design and build. We then looked for an experienced user of the tool—someone from a field familiar to the Core77 readership—to interview on how and why these tools can make such a difference.
Around 2005, a master cabinetmaker in Germany came up with a great idea for a power tool. Perhaps experienced craftsmen have those fantasies all of the time, with no way to realize them; but this particular cabinetmaker, Vitus Rommel, happened to work in product development for Festool. In business since 1925, and having a long history of innovation, Festool had the experience—and the design and engineering muscle—to turn a great idea into a fantastic product that would eventually be called the Domino.
The Festool Domino takes the best elements from a variety of machines, combines them, and gets rid of those machines' inherent drawbacks. (More on this down below.) The result is a handheld tool that allows the user to quickly, cleanly cut precise mortises in workpieces. Those pieces can then be joined together using the titular Dominos, loose tenons that Festool makes in a variety of sizes. With glue added, the joint is every bit as strong as a traditional mortise and tenon, but created in a fraction of the time and with great accuracy.
The user can quickly set the depth and width of the mortise to be cut, as well as the angle of the fence, and the height of the mortise location relative to the top or bottom of the workpiece, via intelligently-located switches, levers and dials. The tool can be used horizontally, vertically or at an angle.
Retractable protrusions on either side of the bit enable quick repeatability: With the bit centered, the user can place the left-hand protrusion against the edge of workpiece A, cut the mortise, then place the right-hand protrusion against the edge of workpiece B to cut the corresponding mortise. (And if you wanted to do this down the length of a longer workpiece, an optional cross-stop lets you register an adjustable indexing pin inside the mortise you just cut, giving you infinite repeatability, and no need to mark each mortise location.)
The Domino currently comes in two sizes: The standard DF 500, which cuts mortises for 4mm- to 10mm-thick tenons, and the Domino "XL" DF 700, which is for 8mm- to 14mm-thick tenons.
Much has been written about the Domino's features, but being Core77, we also wanted to take a closer look at the design's impact on the user experience. The tool's seemingly simple functionality belies the complexity hidden within its housing; the Domino is saturated with Festool's design, engineering and ergonomic expertise, and production shop veterans will instantly spot the difference in user experience when comparing the Domino with what came before. For instance:
- The Action Required of the User. With a traditional slot-mortising machine, the user must move the cutting head in multiple directions, first plunging it into the material, then from one side to the other to achieve the mortise width. And depending on the mortise depth, multiple passes may be required.
In contrast, the Domino user performs a single motion—similar to slowly advancing the butt of a pool cue—while the tool takes care of the side-to-side motion, and knows how deep to plunge via user settings.
If you imagine having to cut 50 mortises in a row, it's obvious which approach has the ergonomic advantage. In other words, not only did this tool not require compromise in going from stationary to portable, the transition actually improved the user experience.
- The Action Performed by the Bit Combined with the Dust Collection. The cutter achieves the mortise width by oscillating from side to side. Production shop vets will be reminded of a swing-chisel mortiser. While it's not mentioned in the product literature, I believe the oscillating motion not only prevents kickback, but keeps the bit cool as it's constantly moving within the material.
With the chips simultaneously evacuated via the dust port and attached vacuum, it is an almost absurdly clean operation compared to using a slot-mortising machine or a router in a jig.
- The Form Factor and Accuracy Adds Up to Greater Speed and Less Work. Imagine needing to glue up a bunch of 8/4, eight-inch-wide stock: You can either align them with a biscuit joiner and live with the imprecise fit that comes from football-shaped biscuits, or you could try cutting mortises on a stationary machine. Neither of these are time-effective options. The biscuit-using results will require a lot of re-work. The slot-mortising machine option would require you to wrestle each piece onto the machine, clamp it, cut, unclamp, slide it down to the next pencil mark, clamp it, cut again, etc. and wrestle it off at the end. Rinse and repeat.
With the Domino, you'd simply carry a 7-pound tool (or 11.5 pounds, in the case of the larger Domino XL) over to the work, moving down the board as needed, and you'd get the accuracy you want. And unlike with a slot-mortising machine, you can tote the Domino to the jobsite.
- Allowing You to Do Things You Couldn't Before. The form factor of the Domino means you can cut into the ends of narrow parts that you simply wouldn't—or couldn't—with a biscuit joiner, traditional slot-mortising machine or router-with-a-jig. An optional trim-stop on the 500 means you can easily place mortises in the end-grain of narrow pieces like this:
When the Domino first came out, folks hadn't seen anything like it before, and it naturally generated interest. Upon its North American release, it didn't take long for reviews to start popping up.
"The real sizzle here is speed," wrote longtime Fine Woodworking editor Asa Christiana, after getting his hands on a Domino just prior to its U.S. release in 2007. "I assembled an entire table, with two slip tenons at each joint (32 mortises in all), in about half an hour, with perfect alignment of parts. I can't think of a way to do this faster with the same strength and results--not even close."
"This is a dangerous tool," joked Gary Katz, the experienced finish carpenter behind the Katz Roadshow. "It must be kept out of the hands of non-professionals—homeowners, serious enthusiasts, motivated do-it-yourselfers, etc. Here's why: a tool like this can turn a neophyte into a professional overnight."
Effusive reviews also began popping up on hobbyist forums, like this one:
I have NEVER, in my life, seen a machine as PRECISE as this one, and accurate. I have built 3 tables in the amount of time it would have taken me to build 1, AND, I was able to set up the aprons and legs without making ONE pencil mark to align the machine.
My next job was to tackle a bookcase using "Domino Joinery" and the thing went together easier than anything I have ever put together in my life, AND it was 10 times faster that my old Rabbet-and-Dado construction.
Okay, so we've listed positive reviews of the Domino written by a professional woodworker, a tradesman and a hobbyist. And all of these reviews were written shortly after the tool's release, i.e. during the honeymoon phase. But what happens after you live with the tool, and use it day-in, day-out, for years? And closer to the Core77 audience, what can this tool do for a furniture designer? Is it possible a tool could actually alter the way one designs their pieces, in addition to merely speeding up traditional construction processes?
To find out, we interviewed furniture designer/builder Jory Brigham to see what long-term impact the Domino has had on his workflow. Read it here!
This article is part of the Core77 Tech-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technologies are shaping the future of design.
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Hi Mark. I just read your comment, and since I was one of the users Rain is referring to, I thought I should weigh in. I think that your point about the value of the alignment rather that structural integrity being the real value is partially right, but you're wrong about the part where you say it doesn't contribute strength. There are many types of woods such as Teak, or Cocobolo that are very oily, having more surface area to glue to is valuable. There are also a number of very porous woods that soak up glue a bit more that others. These types of glue ups can absolutely benefit from having a tenon in it. Think of it this way.... you can increase the surface area where the glue contacts the wood by double if not more by using the Domino. Biscuits are sloppy, and don't provide the same strength when being glued. When all said and done, isn't it more valuable to have a tool which provides great alignment as well as structural integrity you can count on?
Well, it's risky to over-generalize, and I don't want to say tenons can NEVER help in edge gluing. It would depend on board thickness, tenon size and spacing, etc. But the post cited 8/4 "slabs", and suggests dominos as replacements for biscuits, so let's assume similar spacing -- maybe one every 24"? Do the math and you'll see the tenon is adding ~5% glue area -- not much. And critically, this glue area is very close to the neutral line (I assume you understand structural basics), and adding even 10% glue area just 3-4 mm from neutral line will yield no useful strength increase. Basically, the tenon/slab glue interface will not be subject to any stress until after the outer board edge glue line has completely failed. I'll concede that a tenon will prevent complete edge separation (boards literally falling apart) in the event of complete glue failure, and there are a few applications where this is useful, but I don't think any furniture falls into this category.
Mark, the point being made over and over in the articles I've read for this tool, is that for the most part you can skip the alignment step and avoid a lot of sanding you'd have to do using a biscuit joiner. No it doesn't make a stronger edge joint, but it can save a tremendous amount of labor, especially for a hobbyist or small shop cabinetmaker. I think that's what has people excited about it.
Great post, indeed this is a big secret tool of high productif wood workers but you better have a dust extractor like this one http://festool-dust-extractor.com so you can be safe from dust harm
is cheaper than Domino joiner , it prices under 200$
I love my domino and all things Festool. I too use it for gluing up large projects. Jory's been at it for much longer than I have and it's good to see someone else had a similar idea about edge joining boards. I too have saved a TON of time in my setups and in building complex pieces without having to worry about custom cutting tenons. I do wish i could justify having the big one, but I don't do enough just yet to warrant having one.
It's a great tool, but your example of joining 8/4 slabs is a poor one. In fact, this is an application where the domino adds the least value, and biscuits work fine. The domino is a great mortise and tenon tool, and one doesn't mortise and tenon board edges. A mortise and tenon contributes great strength where members join near near perpendicularly, like chair leg/rail joints. In long edge joints, like 8/4 slabs forming a tabletop, all the joint strength is in the glued edges. The biscuits (or whatever) solely exist for alignment convenience during glue up.
Hi Mark, the joining slabs example is drawn from interviewing a Domino user, and is listed, as written, as an example of where one can gain accuracy; there is nothing about strength claims made in the two paragraphs discussing that example. As far as your statement that "one doesn't mortise and tenon board edges," I have to disagree. Stay tuned for the next article in this series where you'll see an example.
To clarify, I meant (professional) woodworkers don't typically use mortise and tenons to edge join boards. Mortise and tenon work fine for alignment, but no better than biscuits (or nothing with proper cauls, etc). You can obviously use a domino for this, but it's not showing any the domino's great or unique capabilities, which appeared to be the point of the post.
I hemmed and hawwed about the more-than-modest investment required for a domino setup, but it has undoubtedly changed the way I work - design and build - very much for the better. I use it so much more than I thought I would - once you know the tool and what it can do, new ideas take shape around the system.