The average home gamer often cuts corners that you just wouldn't see in a commercial workshop. I built my first guitars in a converted garage, usually wading out from a sea of sawdust and chips in the evening. For the occasional builder, that's pretty much fine and just part of the whole "beginner-on-a-budget" thing. You clean up later ("maybe later" in my case) and be ready for the next week's chaos/additional sawdust. This loses its charm after a while, what with those peppery Mahogany nose invaders, sneezing, runny eyes, pocket seams permanently contaminated with dust, extended hunts into your sea of waste for chips blown out by a poor routing decision, sick feeling in your stomach/chest, etc.
Stepping up your game and managing waste at the source is crucial healthwise; an extractor of some kind should be a mandatory early purchase if you're considering more than a project or two. Usually any sort of basic extractor will chew up a big chunk of space whether it's mobile or static; the CTL SYS is unique in its niche of compact extractors, making it a great consideration if space just isn't available. Obviously with compact comes certain limitations. What does the CTL SYS excel at, and and what point does it simply become a supplementary rather than main extractor?
First: Shop Vac or Extractor?
A fundamental misunderstanding is that shop vacs and dust/chip extractors are the same thing. In some senses they are; they shift waste using air and capture it. The differentiating line between vac and extractor sometimes appearing to be a bit fuzzy doesn't help; some of the most powerful shop vacs are comparable to extractors on paper. In general a vac has a low flow rate, designed for picking up static waste after production with no real urgency. A cleanup machine. Extractors have high flow rates for capturing waste as it is produced "in real time" so it never needs chasing up after the fact.
Coarse waste - such as shavings or chips - can be collected when they become a nuisance. They're nowhere near as problematic as fine dust. As a rule, dust should be managed rather than just cleaning it up afterwards. It's hard to chase up; travels longer distances (settling over everything), and is constantly carried and kicked back up by air currents. Dust not only makes your working area oppressive, it is a serious respiratory health hazard. A shop vac in the place of an extractor is better than nothing, however vacs tend to be underpowered for the task and far less efficient.
The Festool CTL SYS is a unique small-format extractor designed around Festool's Systainer storage units. The unit clocks in at a compact 400mm x 300mm (15,6" x 11,7") and either 170mm (6,7") with the top storage handle removed or 270mm (10,6") with it fitted. It sits neatly on a shelf, on/under a bench; or even over your shoulder when fitted with a strap.
Festool's product intent for the CTL SYS seems to be a basic auxiliary extractor for mobile site work and as a compact supplementary extractor that can be stacked with tool storage around the shop. A product that can integrate with their Systainer storage solution and provide for the needs of small tool work, rather than relying on a larger wheel-around extractor. For the small workshop where extraction needs are relatively modest and infrequent, it's a compelling idea.
Extractor with the storage/carry handle fitted....
The extractor itself runs a 1000W motor, shifting 3000l/min or 106CFM, which puts it at the lower end of flow rates for most extractors but certainly isn't a slouch. The unit is designed for dry service only, uses a primary bag filter for waste collection and a pleated secondary filter for capturing anything that the bag doesn't. The CTL SYS is rated category L ("low") and filters over 99% of basic waste; pernicious fine materials such as Beech, Oak or MDF dust must be handled by a higher class of filtration such as class M ("medium" or 99,9%of waste) or be accepted as being "less well-handled" and that they'll only kill you a little slower instead.
The antistatic hose is a generous 3,0m/9ft and wraps neatly along with the power cord into the accessory Systainer carry handle. The connector on the end fits most tool ports, mostly commonly a Mirka DEROS sanding machine in my case. Adaptors may be required for some tools, however the Festool size is fairly friendly for most. The small Makita palm router requires a simple like-to-like adaptor for compatibility. The power cord for the extractor itself is a standard type, and thankfully not one of Festool's annoying "Plug-it" cords which are unique to Festool tools only!
The hose fits....if you pack it neater....
In use the unit produces 67dB of noise which is roughly comparable to a heated drunken conversation in a restaurant at approximately 1m and well below the limit (85dB) where hearing protection becomes advisable. Combined with a tool, the noise level will be higher of course.
Waste collection bags are available in two types; the disposable 3,5l (6 pint) "Self Clean" bags provide better filtering and consistent suction up to the point where the bag is at its limit. The second is a high capacity re-usable long life bag better for handling coarse waste, with an apparent lifetime of 500 fills/empties and capacity of 4,5l (9 pints). Self-Clean bags are the preferred choice when any level of dust needs to be managed, at the cost of lower final capacity. Chunks are not the stuff your lungs worry about.
Bags are sited straight under the lid of the main unit, clip in/out easily and are removable when full with no difficulties. The main unit also stores a pair of nozzles, ideal for tidying up doubling the extractor as a nimble vac.
Unlocking the green handle and lifting the bag/filter assembly affords access to the pleated secondary filter, also easily removed and replaced.
The front panel is simple, with the main power socket, master power switch, a manual/automatic selector switch and a current-sensing plug socket. A tool rated up to 1200W can be plugged in directly so that the extractor automatically activates when the tool is in use and deactivates a short while after it's turned off. In manual the extractor runs constantly, cutting power to the socket. Automatic mode is ideal in conjunction with high duty cycle tools such as hand-sanding machines, or when set up in permanent service to a machine such as a small bandsaw.
The first relevant concern is the limited capacity of the CTL SYS. 3,5l/4,5l (just over 6/9 pints) doesn't offer much of anything if your work produces any reasonable volume of chip and dust waste. As the primary extractor for a table router, mitre saw, jointer or thickness planer; the CTL SYS' capacity is just too small and its flow rate too low. Regular emptying might be workable with a bagless extractor, but it's out of the question for a low-capacity unit using expensive (semi) disposable bags.
It should be patently obvious that significant waste volume is not what this unit should ever be managing; at most a small bandsaw, sanding machine, hand router or other similar shaping/finishing tool. In this area, the CTL SYS is extremely convenient and unobtrusive providing extraction on the job and easy cleanup for anything that manages to escape.
Limited capacity; (overripe) banana for scale. This isn't a high banana capacity machine.
Straight out of the gate, the Festool CTL SYS hits a hole a little shy of €300/$400 in your wallet; a sensitive price point where most comparables step up in power, capacity and filtration efficiency. Matched up against these, it's difficult to justify the CTL SYS directly on specifications. A little more investment and immediately a range of 20 litre plus mobile extractors are an option. If price was a direct function of capacity, this machine should cost little more than a third of its actual price. This is not a cheap machine and hence needs some special justification to make it the right option for you.
The compact stashable Systainer format is its most obvious selling point, being the primary reason it was chosen for the ProjectGuitar.com workshop. We're certainly not Festool fanboys who need walls of co-ordinated Systainers, however its format and convenience were compelling. It's powerful enough to provide dust-free sanding and cleanly-extracted hand routing (edge routing always throw chips regardless of extractor used however!). What it doesn't pick up in use is easily chased up afterwards. Fitted into a fixed location, the CTL SYS' hose provides enough range to serve a variety of machines over a wide area; it sites perfectly underneath a workbench making it a convenient and functional choice.
Festool's reputation of being priced as high as the market can support carries over to their consumables. Whilst not astronomically-high, Self-Clean bags cost a few Euros each. If you're hammering the extractor with waste, this can soon stack up if you throw them when full. If a responsible reuser-recycler like myself then you'll do the right thing; safely empty the bag (easier when half-full) and reuse it instead of creating expensive and needless waste. Knock out dust from the secondary filter every time you change the bag. Carefully maintained, a few Self Clean bags should be all that the average weekend warrior needs for the foreseeable future. Just change the bag when it fails to filter well enough, and the secondary filter shows signs of collecting a lot of dust that the bag is missing.
A quote I read the other day rings especially true with the Festool CTL SYS; "It works twice as well but costs three times the price. You do the math". Certainly, the overall cost of adding a CTL SYS extractor is high, and it does what it is designed for extremely well. Within the bounds of its restricted capabilities, it was a wise purchase. Hooked up to a Mirka DEROS and using Abranet for heavy sanding produces practically zero dust on flat surfaces. Routing pickup cavities with a palm router extracts virtually every last chip as soon as they're produced; it is even powerful enough to suck the base of the router flat to the workpiece! For those purposes, it is genuine gold. It remains to be seen as to how well it manages larger tools such as a benchtop bandsaw. At this point, the quality of the tool's own waste management design really comes into play rather than the extractor. 106CFM is no slouch, however some tools such as mitre saws rely heavily on the extractors grunt. For most of us, it's great.
The CTL SYS will not be the solution to most workshop's ongoing requirements. It does however provide excellent "virtually invisible" supplementary extraction for small tools without needing to drag around the big boys. If your space and budget support it, buy something larger. It does however fill its own unique niche very very well and has a positive home here.
Festool CTL SYS dust extractor by Carl Maltby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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