My crew and I specialize in interior finish, and we build plenty of custom cabinets and closets. For years, we cut most of our sheet goods in the shop, using a table saw with a big outfeed table for ripping long panels and a vertical panel saw for crosscutting and short rips. In a pinch, we broke down panels on site with a portable table saw — an awkward two-man job that seldom produced clean cuts.
When we started using DeWalt's plunge-cutting model DWS520 TrackSaw system about three years ago, it was a revelation. Mark your cut line on a properly supported panel, place the aluminum track so the anti-splinter strip along the edge aligns with the marks, engage the saw with the track, plunge, and complete the square or bevel cut. Rubber friction strips prevent the track from slipping on most materials, but optional clamps easily secure it when necessary. The saw hooks to a vacuum to extract most of the dust.
Armed with a 59-inch and 102-inch track, we can now safely and quickly make perfect splinter-free crosscuts and rips almost every time with one person, on site or in the shop. We also use the TrackSaw to cut door bottoms, tapered jamb extensions, and pie-shaped stair treads, and to rip straight edges on solid lumber. I've sold my vertical panel saw, and we now use my table saws mostly for repetitive ripping of solid lumber.
When JLC asked if I'd like to try the new Festool TS 55 REQ track saw (which is replacing Festool's TS 55 EQ), I didn't hesitate. The basic kit includes a 48-tooth crosscut blade, a splinter guard that reduces tear-out, a Systainer case, a 55-inch track, and a limit stop for the track. Festool also sent a 28-tooth blade for fine ripping, a 106-inch track, two track clamps, and connectors that allow you to join two or more tracks to form longer ones.
I love Festool's spring-loaded depth stop; to change the cutting depth, you just press it in and slide it up or down the scale. The stop is also micro-adjustable so you can synchronize it with resharpened saw blades. The scale is metric, but you can cover it with a peel-and-stick imperial scale that comes with the kit.
The saw's plunging action is exceptionally smooth (though to be fair I'm judging the new saw against my 3-year-old DeWalt). When you plunge, the redesigned spring-loaded riving knife drops below the base of the saw before the saw blade does, which is supposed to make it easier to complete a long cut with a short track. We tried that, and it worked okay but didn't give us the usual perfect cut. The saw can bevel from –1 to 47 degrees for added flexibility.
One thing Festool owners brag about is dust collection, and Festool improved the new saw's dust channel to make it even better. Despite using my tired old Porter-Cable and Fein vacuums, I still captured almost all of the dust. When I used the saw without a vacuum, it threw the dust well away from me, which I also appreciated.
Swapping blades couldn't be easier. You just set the maximum cutting depth, lift the "Fast Fix" lever on top of the handle, plunge the blade until it clicks into the locked position, and use the blade wrench that stores in the handle. The spindle locks automatically.
Festool's track connectors and track clamps work well, but your boards have to be at least 51/4 inches wide to use the clamps. My DeWalt tracks can clamp to boards as narrow as 31/2 inches, which is better for the work I do. Also, you can only cut along one edge of Festool's tracks, while you can cut along either edge of my DeWalt tracks. If you happen to damage an edge (which, based on my experience, seems inevitable), DeWalt gives you an extra one.
The Bottom Line
If I were starting from scratch and wanted a track saw for crosscutting panels, trimming door bottoms, and short rips, I'd buy the basic Festool TS 55 REQ kit with the 55-inch track. It costs about $85 more than the equivalent DeWalt kit, but it's hard to beat Festool's ease of use and exceptional dust control. For the work we do, though, I prefer the convenience of the short and long track, and Festool's version currently costs about $230 more than DeWalt's. That alone would be a deal-breaker for me.
Both brands offer various track lengths along with track connectors, so there are plenty of other combinations that might work better for you.
Gary Striegleris a builder in Fayetteville, Ark.