When I chose a table saw, I considered getting one with a 48″ fence – a fence that could accommodate a 48″ wide work piece. Thus I’d be able to do just about anything with 48″ wide sheet stock on my table saw. There were practical reasons I decided to get a smaller table saw, and most of the time I am glad I made the choice that I did. However, there are times I’ve regretted, and it’s always when I’m working with plywood.
To make cuts with plywood that exceed the width of my table saw fence, I have mostly used a circular saw with some kind of guide. There are problems with this approach. For one thing, precision is limited, especially when it comes to squareness. There’s also an extra bit of math involved, compensating for the distance between the blade and the guide, which is one more opportunity for mistakes. However, the worst problem is the quality of the cuts. The cuts are much rougher than my table saw. The circular saw is a little prone to binding and burning. And of course the circular saw tends to chip and splinter the work piece rather badly, especially with birch plywood. Scoring the work piece before making the cut is absolutely mandatory, especially when cutting across the grain of the outer veneer of plywood, but even that is frequently not enough. And in any case, it leaves an edge that isn’t ideal.
I discovered track saws through an online advertisement for DeWalt’s track saw. I could see right away the simplicity of using a track, but I didn’t realize what the other advantages were over the circular saw. It just seemed like an expensive, special-purpose circular saw. I didn’t think I’d want one. Then I did another project with plywood. The plywood I used splintered worse than usual, and I had real problems with pieces being out-of-square. I was rather frustrated, and as a result, I looked at track saws again. This time I read some reviews, and the subject of splintering was discussed. They seemed to be implying that splintering was virtually eliminated with the better track saws, and described results that were even better than I was getting on my table saw.
I chose the Festool TS 55 REQ, mainly because of this review at Woodworker’s Journal. I got it with the 55″ track, and I also bought the GRS-16 Guide Rail Square from TSO Products, and a pair of Festool’s quick ratcheting clamps. This has started me down the rabbit hole of Festool products, and I now own one of their routers and a dust extractor, and I am eyeing their line of sanders.
My first use of the TS 55 REQ was on a 1½” yellow pine bench top. I had jointed together some solid yellow pine, and I was ready to cut the ends square. For this, I used the 28-tooth “universal” blade. I didn’t use a chip guard. For each end, I measured and made a single mark. Then I laid down the track on the mark, using the GRS-16 guide rail square, and clamped it place. The cut was effortless, and when I was finished, I had an incredibly smooth, straight cut with nice sharp edges and no splintering at all.
One thing I hadn’t understood from all the reading I had done is that the rail goes right up to the cut. I assumed there was some gap, so that the blade wouldn’t make contact with the rail, and that gap would need to be offset in my measurements, just like the guides I had used with circular saws. That isn’t true. In fact, there is a small gap between the metal of the track and the blade, but the track includes a polyethylene strip that extends beyond the edge of the track. The saw cuts through this with the first use, which results in the plastic edge of the track corresponding exactly with the cut edge. This is the edge that you align with your mark. No math necessary! Furthermore, this edge is part of the magic that prevents splinters.
The track also has a foam rubber grip surface on the underside. Though I used clamps, they are probably not necessary most of the time. The friction of grip surface holds the track firmly in place with just the weight of the track. The clamps provide only added peace of mind.
I am looking forward to using the saw on some plywood, and also testing the squareness of the square using the five-cut method.