The Festool Domino will revolutionize the way you join wood, reinventing mortise and tenon joinery for the 21st century
by Thomas Philips | 10 April 2015
If you’re a regular reader of eMercedesBenz, you’ve already read my introduction into Festool and their lineup of innovative and well-crafted tools. If not, you can check out my articles on the Festool Kapex, Festool Track Saws and Festool MFT/3 Multifunction Table. But as you may remember, I mentioned that at its core, woodworking can really be broken down to two key tasks: cutting and joining wood.
When it comes to joining wood, there’s a huge array of options at your disposal: nailing, screwing, gluing, and a host of other joinery options. The challenge in joining wood, however, isn’t joining it – it’s picking a joining method that’s both strong enough for the wood’s intended use and one that doesn’t alter the appearance in a negative way. For many applications, whether it’s constructing a door, constructing cabinets or constructing a piece of furniture, this limits your wood joinery options significantly, as the last thing you want to see is a nail or screw hole on a finely finished piece of furniture.
This leaves you with a few options: learn to master more complicated, time consuming wood joinery methods (such as mortise and tenon joints), or check out what may be the greatest wood joining method of the 21st century: the Festool Domino.
Whether you’re new to the Festool Domino or you’ve heard of it and are simply questioning whether it lives up to the hype, I’m here to tell you that simply put, the Festool Domino is a game changer when it comes to joining wood. The Domino takes the advantages of mortise and tenon joinery (i.e., strong joints with no visible fasteners) and lets you accomplish them with significantly more speed, precision and ease.
So how does the Festool Domino work? Read on to find out.
Festool Domino Overview
The Festool Domino family consists of two models: the Festool Domino DF 500 and the Festool Domino XL. As you’ve probably guessed, the Domino DF 500 is the smaller of the two, capable of using Domino tenons ranging from 4mm – 10mm thick. Its bigger brother, the Domino XL, expands the Domino’s functionality to a larger, more diverse set of wood joining applications, with Domino tenon sizes ranging from 8mm – 14mm thick tenons.
At their core, however, the functionality of both is the same: pick a Domino tenon for the specific pieces of wood you’re joining, and the Domino’s unique cutting motion creates a perfect mortise to accept it. Aligning the Domino to your workpiece is both fast and precise, and the mortise is cut in mere seconds. Both Domino joiners offer a variety of alignment options, and both offer identical ease and speed of use. Which Domino joiner you use simply depends on the size Domino tenon you’re using.
After using the DF 500 for a few years and more recently acquiring the Domino XL, I can tell you that both have become indispensable in my shop. Rather than tell you which one to get, I’ll tell you instead how I use both, and how depending on the type of work you do, both have the potential to play a significant role in your wood joining projects.
Festool Domino DF 500
My first introduction to the Festool Domino system was the Domino DF 500, as the Domino XL wasn’t yet available. I already owned a biscuit joiner at the time, and from a functionality and ergonomics standpoint, the Domino DF 500 is very similar. I found, however, that biscuits had far too much play to be used for precisely aligning pieces, and while I never performed an actual strength test, I didn’t feel like they added a significant amount of strength.
I tried the Domino DF 500 on the recommendation of the same friend that introduced me to woodworking, and less than a month later, I had already abandoned and sold my biscuit joiner. The Domino system took the ease of the biscuit joiner but added in a significantly higher level of precision and strength, which is exactly what I felt was lacking in biscuit joinery. Since then, I’ve found a huge amount of uses for the Domino that I never would have tried with a biscuit joiner, and I’ve yet to regret my decision.
So how does the Festool Domino work? For anyone with basic woodworking experience, the learning curve is really quite small. Step one is simply deciding whether or not the Domino is right for your situation. For me personally, I use the Festool Domino DF 500 any time I want a tight, strong joint with no visible fasteners, typically for interior applications. I’ve used the DF 500 for joining plywood, wood wall frames, larger moldings, shelving and a variety of furniture projects. This is going to vary from person to person and what you enjoy building, but I would say from a sizing standpoint, the DF 500 handles probably 80% of the joining tasks that I need.
When creating a Domino joint, there are two primary settings you need to make on the Domino itself (this applies to the Domino XL as well): the depth of the mortise, and the vertical alignment of the cut. For the depth setting, you have the option of either centering the Domino tenon so that it rests equally on each side of the joint, or you can offset the tenon so that more of it rests on one side of the joint (which comes in handy for more complex joining tasks). Changing the depth is simply a case of moving the depth adjustment lever on the side of the Domino, which is incredibly quick and simple. In addition to the mortise depth, you can also choose to adjust the mortise width from three different settings, creating either tight fitting Domino tenons or mortises that offer two wider levels of flexibility from an alignment standpoint.
The other key adjustment you need to consider is the vertical alignment of the cut, which is set by adjusting the Domino’s fence height. To set the height you have two options: use one of the Domino’s presets on the board thickness gauge, which covers a variety of standard board thicknesses and centers the mortise on the thickness specified; or you can use the Domino’s height gauge, which shows the distance from the bottom of the Domino fence to the centerline of the mortising bit. As is the case with the mortise depth of cut, adjusting the fence height or adjusting the settings on the board thickness gauge is incredibly quick and simple and takes only seconds to accomplish. If you’re joining two angles, you can also adjust the angle of the fence, perfect for joining a variety of different mitered pieces.
These are really the two key elements to learn when first using the Domino system, and once you understand how they work, the rest is a breeze.
I mentioned earlier that one of the key features of the Domino system is precision, and rather than list different Domino features, I’ll give you a quick real world use example of what I mean.
Let’s say you want to join two boards or two pieces of 3/4″ plywood together, as shown in the photo above. Once you’ve adjusted the Domino’s two settings already mentioned (mortise depth and the vertical alignment), the first step is aligning the Domino for its first mortise. Making the task quick and precise, the Domino features built in indexing pins, which you simply butt up to the edge of your workpieces, eliminating the need to measure and mark. From here, you have two options. You can align your two pieces of wood, mark measurements every 6 inches (or whatever distance you’d like), align the Domino to each pencil mark, and make the cuts. Your other option, and one that I highly recommend, is you can purchase the Domino set that includes the trim and cross stops.
With the cross stops, you’re simply adding a measurement scale and a bigger set of indexing pins. Set the distance you want between each mortise, align the cross stop’s indexing pin inside the mortise you previously cut, and you get perfectly spaced mortises without the need to measure or even mark your workpieces. For joining boards, plywood or shelving, the speed of the Domino system is simply remarkable and will change the way you work.
From here, your possibilities in Domino joining are huge. I won’t go into specifics, because simply put, the Domino’s versatility is simply too great. It’s one of those tools that once you have it, you start seeing different ways you can use it on a huge variety of projects, and you look back at past things you built and wish you had gotten it sooner, as it would have saved you significant time and labor. Instead, here some random questions my friends have asked me about the Domino to hopefully shed more light into its versatility.
- How precise is it? When joining boards and plywood, which is primarily where I need precision, it’s dead on. It’s so accurate I actually stopped test fitting most pieces, and the few times I do test fit, it’s still always accurate. If you’re accustomed to joining pieces with a biscuit joiner and then having to go back and sand the two pieces so they’re flush, the Domino precise alignment will virtually eliminate the need to sand, it’s that good.
- Is it difficult to change the cutters for different sized tenons? Not at all. Cutter changes require a small wrench that comes included in the Domino’s Systainer, and the process takes about 30 seconds once you know what you’re doing.
- Does the Domino work on narrow pieces? Absolutely. Because I purchased the Domino set, it came with trim stops, which keep narrow pieces of stock perfectly in alignment. Even without the trim stop, however, with a bit of clamping you’ll have no problem mortising narrow pieces. The same is true for round pieces: use the optional hand rail fence, and you’ll have no trouble creating mortises in what would ordinarily be a very difficult workpiece.
- Is there much dust? No, I don’t think there’s any. Using the Domino requires the use of a dust extractor (I use the Festool CT 26), and together the two create dust-free cutting that are immediately ready to be glued.
- Is there anything you’d recommend to purchase with the Domino? As noted in the previous question, you’ll need a dust extractor, and for the small extra cost, I highly recommend the Domino DF 500 set that includes the trim and cross stops. In addition, I highly recommend the Domino DF 500 tenon assortment, which is a Systainer packed with five different cutter sizes and a huge assortment of Domino tenons. It keeps everything neat and tidy, and it comes with enough Dominos to handle a huge variety of joining needs.
So that’s my take on the Domino DF 500 – you can learn more about its tech specs at the official Festool USA website. This brings me to the Domino DF 500’s bigger brother, the Festool Domino XL.
Festool Domino XL
Take everything I said about the Domino DF 500, supersize it, and you have a good idea of what to expect from the Domino XL. It operates under exactly the same principle as the DF 500, with the key difference being its more powerful and cuts larger tenons, but foregoes the smaller tenon sizes. Whereas the DF 500 goes as small as 4mm thick tenons, the Domino XL’s smallest tenon thickness is 8mm. The flip side, however, is that the Domino’s largest tenon is huge, with a 14mm thickness and a 140mm (approximately 5 1/2-inch) length.
If you know you’re going to be primarily working with a certain size wood on one side of the spectrum, then picking between the Domino DF 500 and the Domino XL is easy: pick the size you need. The trouble, however, is what happens when you need a range of cutting sizes that falls in the middle? Do you opt for the bigger or smaller option or both?
I’ll give you my answer in a second, but first let me cover the Domino XL’s features quickly. As is the case with the DF 500, the two main things you’ll need to familiarize yourself with are the Domino XL’s mortise depth and vertical alignment settings. As is the case with the DF 500, you can choose to either center the Domino tenon between each workpiece or offset it. With the Domino XL, in addition to the actual mortise depth setting, there’s also a minimum and maximum depth setting, allowing you to quickly switch back and forth between two settings if you are offsetting the tenons, saving a little bit of brain power. You can also adjust the mortise width, opting for either tight fitting Domino tenons or tenons with a little extra leeway. Unlike the DF 500 that offers three mortise widths, the Domino XL offers two: tight, and an extra 3mm width.
As for the vertical height setting, you again can use the Domino XL’s board thickness gauge, which centers the mortise in a variety of common board thicknesses, or you can use the Domino XL’s height gauge, which measures the distance from the bottom of the fence to the center of the mortising bit. Setting the height takes only seconds, and is accomplished via a single locking lever. Adjusting the fence’s angle is equally as simple for mitered pieces: simply loosen the other locking lever, adjust the fence, and re-tighten. Detents and an easy-to-read angle gauge make setting the perfect angle easy for various mitered cuts.
When it comes to aligning two pieces (like edge joining two pieces of wood for example), the Domino XL operates under the same principles as the DF 500, meaning it’s equally as precise. Whereas the DF 500 has a pair of built-in indexing pins (one on each side) that allow you to make your first mortise without marking or measuring, the Domino XL uses similar indexing pins. The difference is that the Domino XL uses six (three on each side), allowing even more fine tuning of Domino tenon placement without the need to measure or mark. These pins also make cutting multiple mortises that are in close proximity incredibly easy, as once you cut your first mortise, you can use the indexing pins inside this mortise for even, consistent mortise spacing.
If you’re joining larger pieces with a larger mortise spacing, the Domino XL also accepts the same cross stops used on the DF 500, allowing you to set a distance and then use the cross stop’s indexing pin to reference off the previously cut mortice. In other words, even when joining large pieces, just like with the DF 500, there’s no measuring or marking required. The same is true for the other DF 500 accessories: for creating a mortise in narrow boards, the Domino XL accepts the trim stop, and for mortising in round workpieces, it also accepts the hand rail guide. As is the case with the DF 500, if you’re considering a Domino XL, I highly recommend opting for the Festool Domino XL kit that includes the trim and cross stops, as they’re invaluable when joining larger pieces of wood as well as narrower pieces of stock.
So why did I buy the Festool Domino XL when I already owned the DF 500? For me, it came down to the work I was doing. I’ve been renovating my home for the past several years, accumulating new tools as I go, and when I started, I did a large amount of interior work that the Domino DF 500 excelled at. For me it was a game changing tool as far as speed and precision in joining wood, and I immediately fell in love with the Domino system. When the Domino XL was released, I knew that eventually I would have one, so when it came time to undertake a project that required a larger joinery method than what the DF 500 was capable of, I didn’t hesitate to add the Domino XL to my arsenal. From a cost standpoint, not including my own labor, the Domino paid for itself after my first door building project. It also opened up a huge range of new projects for me, especially when it came to building things outside my home, and it’s grown to become one of my most used tools for larger scale projects.
If you’re considering which Domino to purchase, my advice is to narrow down as much as possible the work you’re going to use it for. It’s tempting to take the bigger is better mentality, but for most indoor projects, the DF 500 performs brilliantly. It’s small, nimble and comfortable to use. If you’re worried that later on down the line you may want more capacity, do what I did and add the Domino XL to your tool stable. One or two projects in, and it will pay for itself anyways.
On the other hand, if you’re building things on a bigger scale on an even semi regular basis, the Domino XL is superb. I love the feel of the Domino XL, its ergonomics and its build quality, and once you use it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. I’ve built doors, a garden gate and several pieces of furniture with the Domino XL that I never would have attempted otherwise, and they all turned out beautifully. One thing to note on the mortise sizes of the Domino XL: there are some aftermarket adapters that let you move down to smaller cutter sizes with the Domino XL, although I personally haven’t used them. For me, when using the smaller cutters, reaching for the DF 500 has become like second nature, and I can’t picture using the XL in its place. If I was only occasionally using the adapter on the Domino XL I probably wouldn’t mind it, but considering how much work I do with the smaller cutter sizes, the DF 500 is right for me.
Long story short, if you have the budget for one and can’t decide which to buy, buy the one that’s best suited for the majority of your work, skip a few meals out for the next month or two, then buy the other one. You won’t regret it, and with the time and labor you’ll save on projects, they’ll pay for themselves in no time.
Like the Domino DF 500, rather than list a variety of random features of the Domino XL, I’ll answer the questions my friends ask me the most about it.
- Can I use the Domino XL to build (fill in the blank)? Usually this question ends with something large, and the answer is usually yes. The Domino XL will let you build massive pieces, whether it’s a garage door, an arbor for your outdoor living space, a garden gate, etc. For outdoor projects you can opt for sipo tenons, which offer even greater durability for outdoor projects.
- How much dust is there when cutting? Like the DF 500, I don’t think there’s any. The Domino XL requires the use of a dust extractor (I use the Festool CT 26), and together the two create dust-free cutting that are immediately ready to be glued.
- Is it hard to change the cutters? No, it’s pretty much identical to changing cutters on the DF 500. A single wrench that comes included with the Domino XL is all you need, and the whole process takes about 30 seconds after you’ve done it a couple times.
- What accessories do you use with the Domino XL? You’ll need a dust extractor for cutting, and like the DF 500, I highly recommend the Domino XL set that includes the trim and cross stops. I also splurged and bought both Domino XL tenon assortments, each of which is a Systainer packed with a variety Domino tenons and corresponding cutters. It keeps all your Domino tenons neatly organizes and will get you well on your way to some massive joinery projects.
If you’ve made it this far, you clearly want to learn more about the Festool Domino system, and you can do so at the official Festool USA website. You can also head straight to either the Domino DF 500 or Domino XL pages to see the tech specs on both. And while you’re at it, be sure to check out the current Festool Sweepstakes, as this month they’re giving away four SysLite LED Work Lamps.