Core 77 visits Festool - Part 2: A history of power tool innovation

10th August, 2015

Author: Rain Noe - Core 77

The company has been inventing better ways of doing things for 90 years

"We have a large number of customers," says Ole Held, CEO of Festool USA, "going absolutely crazy about Festool. And they want to know everything about the products." I hope the folks he's referring to are reading this, because on our first day at Festool, we were allowed to see something many others haven't: Festool's private museum, which isn't open to the public.

As we got off of the bus outside of Festool's headquarters in Wendlingen, Germany, we were led to an unassuming-looking building off to the side. Inside was housed 90 years' worth of Festool's inventions, the fascinating precursors to the company's current approach to product design. I could've stayed in there all day, quizzing the on-hand employee who was familiar with the tools, but our schedule was tight and we only had 20 minutes or so. But 20 minutes was enough to see that the innovative qualities the company possesses today were really baked into the organization from the get-go.

This is their first series of products, the thing that got Fezer & Stoll on the map: A portable, gas-powered chainsaw.

In an era when men chopped trees down with hand tools, this thing must've been a godsend. And it was designed with ergonomics in mind: The blade can be rotated independent of the motor, so the worker can hold the machine at the angle most comfortable for them and achieve whatever angle they wish to cut at.

In the museum, the circular saws are displayed on a humble wooden stand, placed in chronological order from left to right, resting beneath a portrait of company founder Gottlieb Stoll.

It was interesting to see that the first model had a bolted-on handle resembling one on a hand saw; as the models progress from worm drive to sidewinder motors, the handle becomes more integrated into the design.

Also interesting to see was the constant evolution of the early designs. The position of the hinge for plunging the blade is shifted to one side or the other, and ergonomics begin to appear. As you can see in this model below, there's really no provision for manually sliding back the retractable blade guard. The front end of it is rounded so that as it contacts the wood it will move, but if the user wants to do it manually, they must reach below the cutline and grab the guard.

A subsequent model thus adds a little tab to the upper part of the guard, so that the user can retract it up top, without needing to reach beneath or get their fingers near the blade.

Something I also found interesting is that some customers had hacked the tools to fit their needs, and Festool made no efforts to cover these obvious modifications up. Instead the tour guide explained precisely why the users had made the alterations; perhaps the company left the hacks intact to remind themselves to anticipate unforeseen needs of the user.

As our guide explained, the tools had been designed to cut dry wood at inland shops. But what had happened was that users found the tools so convenient that they'd bring them directly to the river banks (in those days, logs were transported by floating them down rivers) and cutting the wood while it was still wet. As a result, the wet sawdust often clogged inside the blade guards. The relief slot and the guard-jamming hack were workarounds.

Whether as a result of these examples or coincidentally, early on Festo (the early name for Festool) formed a habit of listening to their customers and designing to their real-world needs. As one example, the company invented an electric-powered chain mortiser. German timber framing had been done for centuries with mortise and tenon, which requires painstakingly carving each mortise by hand with a chisel, and a mortise cutting machine would be invaluable. But when the first customers saw it, the feedback was critical. "Our customers said 'Yes, this is fantastic, we need this,'" our guide explained. "'But this machine is electric, and we are working by the river. There is no electricity there.'" Thus the company developed the gas-powered version.

By the way, for hundreds of years in the land that is now called Germany, it was not uncommon for them to build timber-framed six-story buildings.

Shockingly, some of these six-story buildings were erected nearly a thousand years ago! Buildings that tall require a lot of staircases, which means German craftsmen had been manually chiseling tread-mortises into stringers for perhaps a millennia. In the 1930s, Festo eased the task with this rail-mounted mortising machine, a precursor to the modern-day router and guide rail:

By the 1950s, the company had expanded their attention to finishing and began what would be the first in a long line of innovative power sanders. To kick things off, they invented the world's first orbital sander.

The small, circular vibrations of an orbital sander provided a superior finish. And while orbital sanders would remain indispensable for the next few decades or so, part of listening to customers is keeping up with current trends in the industry. By the mid-1970s the customers' needs had begun to change. According to Tools of the Trade's David Frane, "When oil-based alkyd paint was on its way out and acrylics were on their way in, people began to have trouble sanding between coats. Existing sanders left scratch marks so Festo developed a random orbital sander."

You'll also notice something different about this sander, besides the yellow color (yes, the colors of the 1970s had hit Festool too, as it did with Braun): See that silver thing sticking out of the side? Yep, they added a port so that the dust could be vacuumed out on-the-fly. That little innovation would later become a cornerstone of the company, and we'll say more about it in the next entry.

Switching back to the saws: In the early 1960s the company had the idea of guiding a circular saw along a track.

By 1964 they had invented the first track saw.

The earliest tracks were primitive affairs, nothing like today's sophisticated extrusions.

By the 1980s, the company had taken what they started in the '70s--their focus on dust collection--and begun integrating it into other products, in a harbinger of the system-based approach to design we know Festool for today.

The Festool of today doesn't rest on their laurels, nor do they dogmatically stick to whatever worked years ago; they continue to push forward with the best design solutions they can devise, and as we shall see, they're unafraid to break new ground.

This isn't an easy act to maintain, as you can imagine, and it requires a particular type of thinking and discipline to stay ahead of the pack. In the next entry we'll take a look at the five points that influence everything the company does, as well as how Festool's unique set of circumstances provides them with the freedom to innovate.

Read the original article here.


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