There’s no tool…

Sure, I know the saying goes “there’s no tool like an old tool” or something like that, but I’ve had the opportunity to try out a relatively new one.

That’s right, it’s the Festool Domino. I recently had to make a kitchen for one of my customers and the budget didn’t allow for traditional mortise and tenon joinery. A friend who builds kitchens exclusively had a Domino gathering dust on a shelf. He said he really didn’t use it much so I was welcome to give it a try.

When I was at the Novi, Michigan WoodWorks Event a while ago, I found myself sitting across the dinner table from Frank Klausz on Friday night after the show closed. We were, and by “we” I mean about  twenty top notch craftsmen, sitting at the table discussing quality of work. Somewhere in the endless “stream of consciousness” conversation, I heard Frank say something about doweling coped joints. In fact, I think his quote went something like ‘Why can’t they build something that will last for generations rather than a few years? Of course you need to dowel a coped joint if you want it to last.” That’s when it struck me…the Domino.

My first thought was to use the Domino to add needed strength to the standard cope and stick construction of the doors. The few times I’ve gone solely with a coped joint, I spend many sleepless nights afterward wondering when it will come apart. The thought of all those kitchen doors being opened and closed dozens of times a day was a little unsettling. How could I get the strength and longevity of a mortise and tenon door frame without the added labor?

The Domino uses these manufactured loose tenons. The concept isn’t new. Loose tenon joinery has been around for generations. The part I like the best about the Festool dominos is that they are precisely machined to fit the mortise created by the machine. There’s really little or no play in the tenon once it’s inserted in the mortise.

The Domino works best when it is hooked up to a dust collector, or “extractor” as Festool  calls their vacuum. Without the vacuum attached, the domino tends to clog up and vibrate a good bit. That’s probably why my friend didn’t use the tool that much. Festool’s “extractor” isn’t a cheap addition to the already hefty price tag of the Domino. What I did, rather than run out and spend tons of cash on a Festool vacuum was to attach my small shop vac that I picked up at my local big box home center kind of place. Other than the hose being a bit stiff and shorter than I would have liked, it worked well. And at about $30 for my vacuum, it was a bargain.

One of the things I like about the Domino is how easy it is to adjust and set up. My friend seems to think it was fairly complicated but the number of settings is pretty limited. So, once you get the hang of which locks control which adjustments, I think it’s pretty easy. Much like any plate joiner or biscuit joiner, the Domino has an adjustable fence. Using the collet wrench, the fence lever releases the entire fence assembly for easy access to the collet.

The best part about the Domino is that you can change from bit to bit without making changes to the fence position. Throughout my kitchen project, I used two or three different sized bits and dominos for assembling my face and door frames. This was primarily driven by the size of the stiles or rails used in the frames. Sometimes the pieces were too small to use the larger dominos throughout one entire frame. Being able to change bits on the fly without having to set the fence each time made using different sized dominos a snap.

To actually use the Domino is as easy as using a biscuit joiner. All you have to do is butt joint the pieces and mark a line where you’d like the domino. Clamp the piece to a work surface and turn on the machine. Once the slot is cut into both pieces, insert the domino and you’re off to the races. The fit of the dominos into the mortises is reasonably tight. There isn’t a whole lot of room for glue. Consequently, you need to be fairly careful about the amount of glue you apply to the domino and the mortise.

Using the Domino is fast and easy once you figure out how the machine works. It’s a smooth cutting, vibration free tool that’s extremely accurate and well built. That’s really what makes it perfect for the scenario I laid out earlier in this post.

The pictures I’ve included in the post are of the face frames for the cabinets. When I made the doors, I set up my standard cope and stile cutters on my shaper (if you have ones that work in a router, they’ll work for this operation as well) and made my door frames as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Once I was finished, however, I grabbed the Domino and set it to mortise out part of the “tenon” created by the cope cutter. I then ran mortises in the stiles and rails prior to assembly. The amount of strength the dominos added to my door frames is amazing. They seem nearly as solid as if I had actually mortise and tenoned them.

So far I’ve sung the praises of the Domino. What don’t I like about it? There are a few things. First, it’s pricey. I really don’t see many amateurs being able to justify the cost, or many professionals either for that matter. Second, some of the adjustments are rather limiting. The depth of cut and width of cut adjustments would be better in my mind if they were more flexible. Adding and extra millimeter or two to the width of the mortise would allow some place for the glue to go when assembling the final joint. The same holds true on the depth. The final thing that I would suggest to Festool if they were considering changes would be to figure out how to make the tool mountable in a table. Some of my frame parts were rather narrow (7/8″ X 7/8″ for drawer blades) which makes the process of cutting a mortise into the end of the piece rather adventurous.

All in all I think it’s a great tool. If I make more kitchens, I’ll consider buying one for sure. If I was an amateur who did a fair amount of face frame construction or garden furniture, I’d also consider buying a Domino if I didn’t have better places to spend the cash. It does a fantastic job. It’s accurate, fast and much cleaner than pocket screws. My educated guess is that it’s a lot stronger, in the long run, than a screwed joint as well. Am I going to switch from real mortise and tenon joinery on my Chippendale chairs? I think not but the Domino has a place in the workshop. It may even have a permanent place in mine.


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