It would be easy to preface this review with the usual insults about Systainer-obsessives who insist on wearing Festool-branded caps, workshirts and panties whilst being completely incapable of introducing a non-Festool tool into their
worship workshop. Whilst that may well be true on some level, it isn't the right premise from which to to introduce an objective review.
Really, the greatest challenge in presenting a single Festool tool for review on ProjectGuitar.com is the nature of how Festool's range strategy and customer type work. Simply, "no one machine does a broad range of tasks" which immediately makes them a difficult part to fit into the developing workshop's jigsaw. Most of the people reading this review fit within that bracket, and on the whole we benefit from machines that provide wider return value than those geared towards one specific task. Festool machines fit in as part of a more comprehensive range of machines, with each solution being very good at what it does....and usually not much else.
This is somewhat of a generalisation on brand inflexibility, but for the most part it holds true. Let's keep that in the back of our minds and take a look at the ETS EC125/3 EQ-Plus (!) with a more neutral viewpoint. In spite of knowing that this is an unlikely purchase for many us it's still useful to do hands-on time with tools that represent top-end solutions and broaden our knowledge of what makes for a better tool through exposure to them. What makes something high end? What are the differences between them and the typical DIY-level machine? Info like this helps you better sort the good from the bad at all levels.
Random Orbit Sanders
Random orbit sanders (ROS) are the mainstay of finish preparation sanding machines in most wood shops. They can adequately perform minor shaping and refining, however they truly excel at finish sanding work. Their mode of operation ensures that almost every part of the abrasive media is used equally and applied evenly, eliminating scratches, swirls and sanding artifacts associated with other types of sander.
Rotary sanders - as the name suggests - drive abrasives in a simple fixed circle around a common centre. The abrasive at the edges does far more work travelling around a larger circle each revolution than the centre which stays static and does virtually none. The centre of the pad of a random orbit sander is driven eccentrically in an orbit around the centre point whilst otherwise rotating freely. Restricting the pad from free rotation shows what this does:
Abrasive at rest
Every single point on the abrasive orbits in the same tiny circle, ensuring equal work at all points; a transformative difference other other types available. The "random" part comes from the free rotation that the pad has around its centre, recycling the media as it works and allowing the machine to move around instead of simply vibrating in place.
The ETS EC 125/3 EQ-Plus is a low-profile brushless random orbit sander designed for high-duty trade work day-in day-out. The 125/3 in the product name indicates that it is equipped with a 125mm (5") pad and sands with an orbit diameter of 3mm, which puts it firmly into the "fine finish sander" bracket. Other models exist in the same range with a larger 150mm (6") pad size with the option of a more aggressive 5mm orbit; the 150/3 and 150/5 models. The unit is designed with a focus on high extraction efficiency, with the interchangeable "StickFix" ("Velcro" is a trademark....and if you thought Rickenbacker were litigious....) layered backing pads having channels to direct the air flow through the pads to a fitted extractor. The unit is unique in that it features a system to detect the presence of an extractor (we'll look at that later) and refuse to operate if one is not attached. Motor control electronics monitor performance to maintain constant speed under load, and vibration control to reduce power output when vibrations become excessive. A physical brake brings the sanding pad to an almost-immediate stop when the unit is disengaged.
What You Get
Spartan is one way to put this. However most accessories and parts that come with tools are truly unnecessary, especially when tools are highly for-purpose like this one. Literally, all that you get is the machine, a proprietary "Plug-It" cable, a large Allen wrench and a few sanding sheets. Nothing else is needed. The sander itself is fitted with a replaceable medium conformity backing pad, removal of which requires the wrench. As with all Festool products, everything has its place in the vacuum-formed styrene insert fitted to the stackable Systainer.
- Waste Extraction
One of the largest selling points pushed about the ETS EC-125 is the highly effective waste management when used in conjunction with a dust extractor. This is always a strong plus however you slice it. Dust clogs up your abrasives (big cost factor) and is a major occupational health risk; it should always be collected at source rather than after the fact. Dust left to recycle on a workpiece will pack itself into wood pores, or worse yet gather up on your abrasive, adding in more scratches to remove. Poor extraction will shoot the best tool square in the foot.
The replaceable backing pads consist of layered MPE foam (modified polyethylene? multilayer?) with internal channels extracting waste through the outer ring and central holes to the sander body and finally through the dust port. The foam itself is billed as being durable and "highly-resilient" and resistant to temperature, which should really be expected as standard but is listed as a "feature" regardless. The machine ships with a medium conformity pad, which can be swapped out should you want to be sanding softer curved surfaces (soft conformity) or flatter narrower surfaces with less "rounding over" (hard conformity).
The sander provides no extraction on its own and relies exclusively on an external extractor. The hole spacing is specific to Festool (this is no surprise), and only compatible with their own ranges of expensive, but high quality abrasives. This does not preclude the use of mesh abrasives such as Mirka's Abranet of course! A lack of internal extraction assist is not a negative by any means; the power required to provide even minimal extraction requires a larger and more powerful motor than you can fit into any handheld tool. Offloading this to external power extraction and letting the tool concentrate on being a sander makes it better all round.
An interesting feature of the ETS-EC sanders is their ability to "detect" the presence of an extractor connected to the machine, and a default behaviour of refusing to engage if one is not present. The extraction port is a typical Festool 27mm diameter type which may require an adaptor for use with non-Festool hoses. In actuality, this detection is limited only to the presence of a hose being fitted as opposed to a vacuum of any sort. Still, it's a feature useful by its presence and can be defeated should circumstances require it.
As is typical with high-end sanders, the machine is electrically-compatible with anti-static hoses providing a continuously grounded path from the pad through to the extractor. Whilst the risk of dust explosion or fire from static discharge is normally very low, eliminating risk completely is the mark of a tool designed for use in a busy, safe workspace.
- Brushless Motor/Electronics
The use of a brushless (Festool "EC-TEC") motor reduces the number of moving wearable parts within the sander, at the expense of requiring more complex electronics to manage it. The choice of brushless produces a quieter, more reliable and efficient machine with management features that increase machine performance and safety. Power output is managed to be consistent at the speed set under load, powering through in heavy use, while preventing free speeding under no load or on detection of abnormal conditions such as high temperature or overload. Vibration exposure - another distinct health risk - is reduced by slowing the motor down when vibration exceeds safe limits.
The power control is a simple large on-off click switch. This may not be to everybody's liking, especially those coming from the world of palm paddle pneumatic sanders.
Control over the machine's speed is achieved using a control dial on the side of the body, allowing orbit speeds of 6000-10000RPM.
- Ergonomic Design
Tools and machines that simply do not work with the user are the worst. Awkward, clumsy, heavy, unbalanced and other negatives produce tools that are difficult to operate comfortably or productively. The ETS-EC fits reasonably well for both single-handed and two-handed use. Thermoplastic elastomer overmoulding makes the important contact areas of the tool grippy, reducing the hand strength required to keep the machine under control.
A good tool should be amazing both inside and out. The visuals don't mean anything if the internals aren't up to snuff!
Removing the sanding pad reveals a few features which are less obvious than those outside, or listed on the marketing wash. Around the perimeter of the body are a series of eight carbide inserts which bear against the plastic (PA66-GF30) top plate of the backing pads, creating a braking action to stop the pad spinning when the motor is disengaged. Whilst the main motor itself comes to a more or less immediate stop, the freely-spinning nature of the pads require something to bring them to a stop. Friction brakes are the most common way of achieving this. However, the use of carbide inserts is probably quite unique. Over time these will abrade against the backing pads, requiring new backing pads and feasibly a new set of inserts. Realistically, this is a non-issue given that backing pads will require occasional replacement anyway as the Vel..."STICKFIX" hook and loop fastener system wears far faster.
An interesting point of note is the labelling of the counterweight in the review unit. Random orbit sanders employ a counterweight system to eliminate vibration from the offset pad. These vary in mass, dependent on the degree of offset (in this case a 3,0mm offset orbit) and the size of the pad. Unless the counterweight of the 125/3 machine is identical to that used in the 150mm pad version, it seems we have the incorrect size counterweight....
The three bolts holding the pad bearing in place indicate that this should be a relatively simple wearing component to replace. Whether this can be done under warranty or not is unknown, however it's a good sign that machine maintenance is at least possible. A clean maintained machine is a durable and reliable one.
Removing the screws and opening the clamshell reveals a very very nicely moulded part made of excellent material. Specifically, high temperature polyamide (nylon 66) reinforced with 30% glass fibre with a TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) overmoulding. Tougher than old boots and then some.
This material is one of the go-to's of modern composite polymers; easy to modify to specific needs, resistant to elevated temperatures, impact resistant and stiff, capable of being injection moulded....and all without being expensive or difficult to manufacture. Whilst it is far from being an uncommon choice, it is always noticeable by its absence. Glass-reinforced polymers are generally pretty hard work on moulds during production, so seeing consistently-clean parts produced from non-tired moulds says a lot about the standard of production.
The extraction port component is also particularly interesting! Again this is PA66 nylon but with 30% carbon fibre fill. Why are we using CF here over glass fibre? Simple. Conductivity. All parts seeing a high flow of waste particles need to be electrically connected to conduct off static generated from constant friction. A carbon fibre reinforced part makes sense over metal since it can simply be injection moulded. A positive byproduct of this is a lightweight part in comparison to a metallic equivalent.
Over on the other half of the main clamshell where the external hose port attaches, we have two very specific things. First, a simple metal contact ensures the dust port component is grounded. Second, we have two transparent plastic light guide inserts.
One of these light guides' functions is simple to understand: it channels light from an LED mounted inside the machine out to the exterior. This specific LED indicates the status of whether an extraction hose is attached or not. The second light guide is not so obvious in function, as it mates to a second light guide fitted into the dust port itself - a light sensor. Rather than detecting the physical presence of a hose or a vacuum, the sensor implies its presence when covered; when the sensor is in darkness. This does mean that the crucial "do I have an extraction hose attached?" function will not work as intended in the cold dark vacuum of space. Obviously a dealbreaker for some, but a simple and neat solution for most.
Let's have a look at Oz behind the curtains! The internal arrangement seems fairly straightforward. Within the lower half of the body, a PCB controls the speed and basic power input supply management down from the cable socket. A few wires lead up to the second upper PCB which does the real work. Down on this PCB will be the lower extraction hose detection indicator LED plus the photosensor monitoring light through the dust port light guides.
This surprised me. The small heatshrink sleeve on the black wire in the centre is split. Whilst unlikely to be a problem in practice, it's certainly not what you expect to see when Festool's QC is supposed to be stupidly-high. Maybe they were? Everything is nicely encapsulated in place, which is paramount for a machine that will see a high degree of vibration in service but does mean you can't effect an easy repair yourself. Wires are the correct length and tied off so they don't flap around the place. The component choice makes me think that this is a DC-DC buck converter. AC comes in, goes through basic AC rectification to roughly-smoothed DC, then the buck converter steps that voltage down to something cleaner with high current possibilities. A nice modern and efficient choice....exactly what you'd expect of Festool's approach to design.
So let's see what we have up top. This is where the smart stuff happens, and if anything electronic will ever fail it'll be up here. This part of the circuit will be responsible for monitoring motor speed, detecting vibration levels but most importantly doing all of the high-frequency synchronised switching required to keep that brushless DC motor spinning at the correct speeds. A neat little touch I like is the wires pinched between the moulded plastic guide slots to reduce any movement. The unpopulated header on the board indicates that this control board may be used in several machines other than just this one, or may be for diagnostics/programming. It's difficult to see anything under the heatsink shield and epoxy. As far as I am aware, these machines also come with an undocumented/unimplemented NFC (near-field communications) function....probably to enable communications across the Systainer Hivemind?
All in all, the electronics are more or less what you'd expect to see, and nothing immediately indicates cut corners or glossed-over details. If anything, this is built solidly and with (almost enough) care. Festool are well-known for their attention to modern design, building and re-building tools from the ground upwards. That minor split in the heatshrink is probably not indicative of anything other than "these things occur". Still, interesting to know that even Festool aren't immune to such issues.
As soon as you switch on, it becomes immediately obvious that the secret sauce lays entirely within the control electronics of the ETS-EC sander. The machine starts up smoothly, and doesn't sound like a jet engine taking off or a Nokia in a blender at full bore. Powering down to standstill happens in a fraction of a second. Everything operates beautifully. The machine is as balanced as you could expect (that errant counterweight notwithstanding) and produces a beautiful finish with little effort beyond the machine's own weight from coarse grits (60-80) through to ultra-fine (800+). Exactly how a good finish sanding machine should be. With the abrasive mounted correctly, it doesn't grab and pull you around and it stays in control around a workpiece. It's flat and planted.
Being a 3,0mm orbit, coarser sanding was slow but not overly so. This may be a benefit or a frustration depending on whether you have a patient approach or work on tighter timelines. The 5,0mm orbit might easily be too aggressive for most, but would definitely make some headway with coarser grits refining a neck contour or similar. 3,0mm definitely works at a more realistic speed with no need of "dab and go".
Sanding flat surfaces, there was absolutely zero dust remaining on the workpiece. Moving to edges where the pad isn't entirely over the workpiece was still impressive, even if a little dust managed to escape at times.
In every aspect, the machine excels; waste management is super-efficient to the point where you might want to consider turning down suction on the extractor a bit to prevent the sander sucking itself down to the workpiece and overworking itself. Material choice, implementation and build quality are superlative. The control electronics keep the machine running efficiently, productively and protect both it and yourself from damage. It is in every way excellent in everything except one very important aspect; the driver's seat.
The hand feel is what I have come to call, "very typical Festool". German hands have got to be yuuuge. Far larger than the rest of us, and my hands are certainly far from being akin to creepy baby-like grasping paws. Whilst the machine doesn't specifically feel large as such, it could be less "clubby" feeling. The same seems to apply to their cordless drills/screwdrivers, their Kapex mitre saw handholds, routers and even the Domino and Domino XL. Festool tools too often feel like overly-large "Fisher Price" child-safe lumps of plastic designed by industrial designers and box-tickers; not by career tool users. There's a certain feel, as though you are remotely applying it to the work than applying yourself directly through the tool. This disconnect is a fine distinction which separates the guitar-maker from the cabinet-maker or manufacturing woodworker; Festool machines are definitely placed within the realm of the operator and far from that of the creative whose tools that keep them in touch with the workpiece intimately rather than just "carrying out an operation" on it from afar.
This might seem somewhat of an unfair judgement on what is otherwise a very fine machine. It does however accurately reflect its nature; the type of work we as guitar-makers do is on a smaller magnitude of scale and we need that hands-on feel. Right on the cusp of what this size of machine is capable of managing to the best of its ability. If we were finish-sanding large flat panels prior to paint or even flatting back mid-coat, this would be right in its element.
Machine feel might be one of many details, but at least to me it is the one that counts. I genuinely recommend that if you have the opportunity to try out this machine, you should do so....if only to develop the muscle memory around a different breed of machine and to make any future purchasing decision fully cognisant of the differences you feel yourself.
You can't discuss modern random orbit sanders without drawing the inevitable comparisons with other market-leading units such as the Mirka DEROS. Side by side, the differences are very apparent. Watt-for-Watt the ETS-EC and DEROS are in the same league. They have broadly similar capabilities in terms of efficient extraction, pad and orbit options; they compete directly. The DEROS does however differ radically in that important feel-factor. Over several years of working week-in week-out with a variety of random orbit sanders - both electrical and pneumatic - the DEROS has the lightness, nimble feel and better connect with the workpiece. It was difficult coming from that weight of experience and reviewing the Festool ETS-EC, and several times I've had to check myself and my biases. Nonetheless, the facts bear themselves out. The Festool is like a performance car where feeling the road just wasn't a consideration. I can't help but fear that I'll have an equally difficult time reviewing the Mirka DEROS objectively....it is good though....
Festool ETS EC 125/3 EQ-Plus Random Orbit Sander by Carl Maltby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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