Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 150, February 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Festool HKC 55 and FSK Guide Rail – Long Term Review

Figure 1 - HKC 55 EB and FSK 420 Guide Rail
After almost half a year of barn-building using the Festool HKC 55 EB Circular Saw and the FSK 420 Guide Rail, I think I am finally able to pass on information that might be valuable to prospective buyers. As overview, the HKC is a cordless circular saw that uses a 160 mm saw blade, essentially falling into the category of other cordless circular saws on the market today with 6-1/4" blades. The target market for this saw is the construction professional, from framers to trim carpenters, remodelers, floor and siding installers, and others that need the ability to work cordlessly, work quickly, and work accurately. Weekend warriors and serious hobbyists are also in the target market because of the saw's inherent versatility and accuracy. I suspect the designers envisioned this as a "job site" saw, but the ability to connect the saw to any Festool Dust Extractor gives it "indoor" or "shop" saw capabilities, too.

When paired with an FSK Guide Rail, think of the HKC as a "handheld miter saw." When framing or even when doing trim carpentry in the past, the workflow has been to set up a miter saw, extension wings or tables, and then bring each piece of lumber to the saw. With the HKC you can take the saw to the lumber stack, achieve perfect 90-degree cuts, miter cuts up to 60 degrees, bevel cuts up to 50 degrees, and any combination of compound miter cuts without schlepping huge and heavy pieces of lumber to the miter saw. This is not just a labor-saver, it is a game changer.

Figure 2 - The FSK Guide Rail has miter degree markings along the left side and detents
at common miter settings. Move the level to the miter angle you want and the stops on the
bottom of the guide rail line the saw up perfectly on the work piece.
The saw includes a riving knife, the ability to (a bit more) safely and (a lot) more accurately achieve a plunge cut, and more importantly, the built-in capability of riding on a Festool Guide Rail. And while the HKC will ride atop a regular Festool Guide Rail, it locks into the special FSK Guide Rails, turning the saw/guide rail combination into a single "unitized" tool, capable of being handled one-handed. The FSK Guide Rails, available in three lengths, include two "stops" or "bumpers" on the bottom that allow the user to push the Guide Rail up to the stock and register it with the edge of the board. The left-side "bumper" can be moved forward or backward on the rail to set miter angles, up to 60 degrees left or right. The saw itself, of course, can also be beveled, up to 50 degrees, and like all Festool circular saws, is engineered so that when set to cut bevels it ingeniously pivots so it does not cut into the rail or splinter guard.

Figure 3 - In this photo of the underside of the Guide Rail you can see the fixed (black)
work stop at the top and the movable (Festool green) stop at the bottom. These stops
register against the work piece and align the saw for a perfect cut. Note also the non-slip
strips on the bottom of the rail.
The blade height adjustment is very cool and makes me wish the same height adjustment was on my cherished Festool TS 55 Plunge Cut Track Saw. The QuickFix blade changing system is also way cool. Pull out the green FastFix lever and the battery connection to the motor is temporarily severed, the blade is locked, and inside the little compartment is the tool you need to loosen the blade retaining bolt. In short, change a blade safely and in seconds. You need no longer be tempted to make a rip cut with a cross cut blade or vice versa, because the blade changing procedure is that simple!

The HKC is a "blade-right" saw, meaning the blade is on the right-hand side and it is engineered, ostensibly, for right-handed use. But, for this southpaw, it is very easy to use. Holding the work piece in place with my left hand with a couple of fingers on the guide rail and handling the saw with my right hand almost seemed "natural."

Figure 4 - In this photo I am holding the saw with my right hand and raising the blade
guard with my left. This is so easy!
The saw should be used so that the saw and guide rail are sitting on the "keeper" piece of wood, and the "off-cut" piece is to the right. In a pinch you can saw on the off-cut side, but the saw and guiderail combination is a little heavier than a circular saw alone, so be prepared for what will happen when you reach the end of the cut. I recommend that if you have to do this on occasion, be very careful and maybe even practice on a scrap so you will know what to expect. And don't forget to compensate the cut line for the width of the kerf. Because the guiderail registers to the cut line on the right hand side of the saw, the splinterguard on the guide rail will reduce splintering on the "keeper" side of the wood (the side to the left of the blade). Probably not a big advantage for framers, but trim carpenters, flooring installers, and others will appreciate the clean cuts… just remember, that unlike the TS 55 and TS 75, there is no splinterguard on the offcut side (to the right side of the blade), so if that is your "keeper" piece, be prepared for some normal splintering.

Just like with the bigger plug-in versions of the Festool circular saw line-up, we can likely expect other toolmakers to soon release their knock-off versions of a cordless construction saw with an attachable track. When they finally get on the track (excuse the pun), they will be chasing a souped-up sports car with a big head start.

When reviewing a cordless tool, the first things most people question is battery life and power. If you have any experience with Festool, you already know that their battery technology is out on the futuristic edge of excellence. I have four Festool Drills and oftentimes cannot remember the last time I changed a battery. Recently I did a run-time test of a new Festool Cordless Sander, and the thing outperformed Festool's own specifications by a factor of three. Of course, we all grumble that Festool keeps changing the form-factor (shape) of its batteries, and frankly, it is a little frustrating that not all batteries fit all tools in a "system" approach. But remember, Festool is constantly innovating, and if changing the shape of a battery, or even the charger used, is a necessary means to the end of achieving ever-higher battery life and faster recharges, then so be it. When manufacturers lock into a form factor and charger for their battery technology, they are, by necessity, also limiting innovation. Once there is a huge installed base of a certain style, shape, and voltage rating of a battery, there is an enormous potential financial impact to making a change, even if it is for the better. Festool seems to "give a rip" about that, continually updating their technology… and I'm perfectly okay with that.

Figure 5 - Cutting a 45 bevel for a scarf joint in cedar. It is so much easier to take the saw
to the wood pile than to take the wood to the saw!
I'm not the fastest (or best or brightest) carpenter, but I work long days and work diligently. When I first started using the HKC 55 it was cutting the 2 X 10s and 2 X 8s for the roof framing of my barn. I burned through a sizeable stack of lumber on the first and second day, and by the third day was deep into my second truckload of lumber before I finally changed the battery for the first time. I was so shocked at the longevity that I believed I must have charged the battery and simply forgot that I did it… I do have the occasional glass of wine, so anything is possible. But I paid even-closer attention and found that indeed the battery life is not just impressive, but nearly unbelievable. As a side note, I also purchased the battery-powered Festool Jig Saw (model PSBC 420 Li) that uses the same battery as the HKC 55, and used it to make the birds mouth cuts in all the rafters on the barn and never changed the battery a single time.

The other consideration with battery-powered tools is "power." Will the tool perform anywhere close to the level of a conventional corded tool? Without expensive test equipment, I cannot answer that question other than subjectively. We all know from experience that if a circular saw starts to wander off a perfectly straight cut line, the blade can bind a bit and cause any saw to bog down, corded or cordless. Perhaps the fact that the Guide Rail keeps the HKC perfectly aligned in a cut helps with the "sense" that the saw is never bogging down or struggling in a cut. Another experience we have all had is the change in sound a saw makes when it encounters a tough knot. Any handheld circular saw seems to slow a bit and seems to work a bit harder, but usually powers on through the cut. Same goes for the HKC. It never stops or stalls, but like any other circular saw (in my experience) you will definitely hear and feel the difference when you hit a tough pitch-laden kiln-dried knot. Does that mean the saw is less powerful than a corded model? I don't think so. The saw does run at a slightly slower RPM, but I noticed no difference in cutting speed.

During the building of my barn I cut a considerable amount of heavy, wet, pressure treated lumber. Even the best conventional corded saws struggle sometimes with PT lumber, but the Festool never slowed. For what it's worth, I have always hated getting misted with juice from cutting PT lumber and I was pleasantly surprised to notice that the Festool, likely because of the way the blade guard and guiderail encompass the wood while cutting, doesn't spew chemical-laden juice all over the place when cutting PT… a side benefit many deck builders will appreciate.

Figure 6 - A simple thumb-and-finger squeeze is all that is needed
to adjust the depth of cut.
Festool, like other manufacturers, uses a thinner kerf blade on its battery-operated circular saw, and since most of the time the saw will be used with its integral guide rail, the thinner kerf has only upsides, and no real downsides. However, surprisingly, I was not impressed with the stock blade that comes with the saw. It didn't seem to last as long as I would have liked. In full disclosure mode, I will let you know that being frugal, I reused the 2 X 10s from my concrete forms in the framing, and the saw did spend a fair bit of time cutting through wood that was coated with concrete on one side. And, as mentioned, I did cut a fair bit of PT lumber, which is tough on any blade. But still, after what I would consider a relatively short period, the blade started to produce considerable splintering and tear out. As soon as I put in a new blade, it was cutting clean and pretty again. But at $52 per, the blade should last a lot longer.

What I considered to be a shortcoming in the blade quality was surprising because the Festool blade in my TS 55 is as good, and long-lasting, as any blade I have ever used in any saw. Likewise, Festool jigsaw blades are right up at the top of the list for quality and longevity. Perhaps Festool has a different supplier making the blades for the HKC, but it is something I think should be addressed. For professionals using the HKC day in and day out, the price of blades could be a hurdle. Festool should consider selling blades at a lower cost in bulk packs for the professional user. No doubt third-party manufacturers will soon make (or may already be making) blades for HKC, too.

The last question a potential buyer might have is whether the Festool battery operated saw is tough enough for everyday use on a job site. Well, only time will tell, but I can relate a couple of anecdotes that might help lead to an answer.

Most of my cutting was done with lumber resting on sawhorses adjacent to my lumber pile and about twenty steps from the barn. I'm 6'2" tall, or used to be before age started compacting my vertebrae, and I like my work to be up pretty high… 36" or more. After each cut I put the HKC and FSK combo on the stack of lumber next to my sawhorses or on lumber sitting on my sawhorses, and twice the saw fell off and hit the ground… hard. I would guess each fall was from a height of 42-inches or more. The first "fall" did nothing to the saw, and the second "fall" only knocked the saw off its bevel setting, which was easy to reset. I would say that unless you have a ham-handed employee or a friend who is a destroyer of tools, you will not be disappointed in its toughness.

The weather can be quite miserable in Wisconsin and it changes quickly. Snowing one moment, raining the next, then the sun comes out and then the clouds move in and it is dark as night. And when you get busy, you aren't watching the weather as closely as you might otherwise. On more than one occasion, the HKC has been subjected to rain, snow, sleet, fog, and almost always to sub-freezing, sometimes sub-zero temperatures. None of those weather changes have affected the saw or its abilities. Look, I did not, in any way, "baby" this tool. It suffered right along with me through intense weather changes… and it just kept plugging along. For professionals and weekend warriors alike, I would deem this tool, "ready for prime time."

Speaking of weather, I have a "system" of lithium ion battery-powered tools, including a reciprocating saw, a ratcheting drill/driver, a 6-1/4" circular saw, and a drill. I only use the reciprocating saw and the ratcheting drill/driver nowadays. During the coldest weather, I had to keep those tools near my portable propane heater or they simply would not run. Once the batteries got too cold, they ceased operating, and would not even charge until they were brought back up to 40 degrees or so. The Festool stuff, however, never balked once, not even on the days when the high temps reached only -9 degrees.

The FSK Guide Rail has a stretchy (think bungee) cord inside so that when you complete a cut and lift the saw off the work, the guide rail should snap back to its starting position, ready to make the next cut. One of the knocks on this saw is that this feature does not always work. True, it doesn't. But I quickly learned that after a cut to lift the saw off the work piece, tap the back of the FSK Guide Rail lightly against my thigh, and it immediately snaps back to its starting position, ready for the next cut. Simply not a big deal.

Figure 7 - You have to be careful "where"" and "how" you set the saw down between cuts.
The stops on the bottom of the rail and the blade itself conspire to make the unit a bit "tipsy."
Another complaint about the saw is that when making a bevel cut and using the Guide Rail, the saw, even at its deepest depth of cut, won't cut all the way through 2 X stock. This is a legitimate complaint. The additional thickness of the guide rail makes the saw come just short of cutting through 2 X stock at a 45-degree bevel angle. There are a couple of cumbersome and time-consuming workarounds, but this needs to be addressed by the folks at Festool or carpenters will be forced to remove the HKC from the Guide Rail (quick and easy to do) or grab their old corded circular saw for these cuts. It is my understanding that in other markets, outside the U.S., there is a larger version of this saw that will perform deeper cuts, but alas, not here… yet. If you cut a lot of compound miter/bevel cuts, this saw may not be the "be all, end all" perfect answer, at least right now, but face it, unless you are some kind of specialist and only do hip and valley rafter construction, this small shortcoming will only affect a tiny percentage of your cuts.

Figure 8 - At the end of the cut it has become a habit now to lightly "tap" the back of the
Guide Rail against my thigh to get the saw to return to its starting position.
Some reviewers have noted that there is no "rafter hook" on the saw, a feature that has become fairly common on hand-held circular saws. I'm not sure anyone would ever take this saw up into the rafters, but a rafter hook might be an answer for where to put the saw when it is not in use. As mentioned before, setting the saw on top of a pile of lumber is a prescription for a potentially damaging fall. The saw and guiderail combination has several protrusions on the bottom, including the saw blade and blade guard itself that makes the whole tool "tippy" when placed on a flat surface. I don't have any great idea for solving this except to be careful… you will figure it out, I'm sure. I'm equally sure Festool will come up with some cool job site way of storing the saw between cuts. I hesitate to mention this, but you can leave the Systainer the HKC comes packed in "open" and rest the HKC and Guide Rail combo on the open Systainer between uses. Unfortunately, your Systainer will soon fill with sawdust and other detritus, but it won't fall off!

A lot of reviews are chock full of specifications, but I figure you can get all the information you need from the Highland Woodworking website. I thought that some real-world experience with this tool would be worth more to our readers. Specifications simply can't tell the whole story.

It's the little things that make a tool something special, and Festool is one of those companies that just seems to get a lot of the "little things" right. For example, there is a button on the back of the battery that you can push to see what the charge level is in the battery. Lots of manufacturers have something similar, but most have a glaring deficiency… when I put one of my fingers on the button of competitors' tools and push, the LED is obscured by my hand and I can't see it. When you push the button on a Festool battery the light stays on for a couple of seconds so you can move your hand, see the reading, and know right where you are. The Festool folks think through stuff pretty carefully.

You will love the way the lever is on the left side of the saw to raise and move the blade guard. That's where it should be! You will also appreciate the Imperial marked depth gauge that shows you the depth of cut for both riding on the guide rail and when running without it. And the cut line is marked on the saw body, both for straight 90-degree cuts and for 45-degree bevels. It is hard to miss your mark. The dust collection port is the new "locking" style, but it will also work with any Festool hoses you have. Mine came with an adapter that can be fitted to an older hose, turning it into a locking style to mate with the HKC. As an accessory, you can purchase a dust collection bag that attaches to the port. I didn't buy it or try it, so you are on your own with that.

When you consider the couple of (mostly) inconsequential negatives and the overwhelming positives of the HKC 55 EB and FSK Guide Rail combination, the ability to take the saw to the lumber pile or not vice versa, the accuracy, the battery life, the convenience, the power, and the legendary build quality of Festool, it is hard not to gush praise on this tool. When I stand back and look at the barn I built, by myself, with the Festool HKC battery-powered construction saw making over 90% of the cuts, it is hard not to marvel at its capabilities… and mine, too, of course! (I should really put a smiley face here so you don't think I'm immodest).

The "Under-The-Tablesaw Work Support, Infeed, and Utility Storage Cabinet" project has been, up until now, all about the legs. With the legs finally done, the process can speed right along and in this month's video we will add the sides, face frame, wheels, and start building the top. Be sure to click here to watch the next episode!

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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