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Published: April 11, 2011

Review: CT 26/36 E HEPA Dust Extractor

Who'da thought a vacuum could be this cool?

Available from Amazon.com

The CT 26 E was provided for review by Festool USA. While this review is specifically of the CT 26 E, the CT 36 E is identical except that it's slightly taller, slightly heavier, and has a considerably higher bag capacity.

Dust collection or, as Festool terms it, dust extraction, is a core concept that guides the design of almost every tool they create. Until you experience using their tools, it's hard to convey how nice it is to work virtually dust-free on a day-to-day basis. I'm awaiting the day they figure out how add dust extraction to their cordless drills.

I recently finished a utility cabinet where I cut down the plywood into panels using a TS55, cut 90 mortises using a Domino, sanded all the panels to P220 with an RO90 sander, and drilled several dozen screw holes with a T15 drill. Altogether, maybe a tablespoon (at most!) of sawdust ended up on the floor and most of that was from the drilling. The effectiveness of the Festool dust extraction system is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, to have dust extraction you must have a dust extractor. Up until recently, I've been using a regular shop vacuum with a jerry-rigged adapter. But when I was working on the review of the Festool RO 90 DX, Festool USA felt the RO 90 needed a Festool dust extractor to be properly evaluated, so they provided a CT 26 E for me to use.

At first, I really didn't agree that one of their fancy DEs was needed. After all, a Festool dust extractor is nothing more than an expensive shop vac, right?

Wrong.

I've been really, really surprised at what a step up the CT26 has been from my shop vac. While the initial price may induce sticker shock, it will quickly become an integral and invaluable part of your shop.

What's in the box?

When I first opened the box, I was a little surprised that the CT26 was the only thing in there. I thought, "There's no hose? $550 and the hose is extra?". Not to fear, after a few panicked moments I realized that the hose, along with a filter bag, power cord holder, and manual, were inside the CT26. I do find it a little amusing that owner's manual guide to assembling the CT26 starts off with explaining that you need to unlatch the top of the CT26 and remove all the accessories inside, considering that the owner's manual was inside, too.

The only real "assembly" required for the CT26 is to attach the cord holder onto the back with two screws. Other than that, all you need to do is insert the bag and slide the hose into the front.

A tour of the CT 26 E

First of all, the CT26 is just plain sexy. It has all the excellent product styling you've come to expect from Festool. Despite the overall blocky shape, the CT26 manages to look curvy and voluptuous. Yes, it's just a vacuum, but man what a looker. And when you get your hands on it, all the ergonomics are well thought out and everything feels sturdy.

The CT26 has incorporated many of the features first introduced on the CT Mini and CT Midi dust extractors. On the older CT22 and CT33, Festool offered an optional "hose garage" which attached to the top of the dust extractor. Like the CT Mini and Midi, the CT26 has incorporated the hose garage as a standard feature and makes a nice spot to store a hose (small or large sizes) and a Plug-it power cord (not included) for connecting a Festool to the on-board power port. Inside the hose garage is a convenient carry handle, which is positioned just right to make the CT26 fairly comfortable to carry.


The very top of the CT26 is the Sys-Dock which allows you to attach any Systainer, which will of course allow you to securely attach an entire stack of Systainers, giving you an easy-to-move mobile workshop. The Sys-Dock will also allow you to attach the new WCR 1000 WorkCenter or Oneida's "Ultimate Dust Deputy" cyclone separator. While the CT26 incorporates a Mini/Midi-style integrated hose garage, it retains the CT22/33's slide-lock style latches for the Sys-Dock rather than the vertical latches of the old-style Systainers found on the Mini/Midi. On the Mini/Midi, there are four vertical latches, whereas on the CT26 the front of the Systainer catches on a built-in lip and there are only two slide-locks, on the back. I find the slide-locks much easier to operate.

The CT26's front panel features an on-board power outlet and the CT26's two controls. The power switch can be used to the turn the CT26 on and off for use as a normal shop vacuum. But normally you'd leave the switch in the "auto" position, allowing you to take advantage of the power plug's ability to control the CT26. In this mode, the CT26 will automatically start whenever power is drawn through the outlet. Note that the outlet's 3.1 amp limit seems to be related to some UL regulation and Festools that draw a higher amperage (e.g. the TS55's 10 amps) work just fine. Click here to see Festool USA's official position on the outlet's amp limit.

You just don't know how convenient the auto-start is until you try it, turning a shop vac on every time you want to use the tool is a real pain. Not to mention all the times I would forget and spew sawdust all over the shop. The CT26 will also continue to run for several seconds after the tool stops, allowing it to pull in any last bits of dust being thrown clear of the cutters and also preventing lots of stop/starts when doing repetitive operations like cross-cutting on the Kapex saw or cutting mortises with the Domino.

Back on the front panel, the only other control is the suction control, allowing you to vary the CT26's airflow up to a maximum of 137 CFM, which lets you to match the airflow to your needs and avoid unnecessary noise. The front panel also has a blank plate that covers a spot to install optional modules. The only module available in the US is a compressed air module, which allows the CT26 to auto-start when used with an pneumatic sander. .



The CT26 comes with a 11.5' x 1-1/16" (3.5m x 27mm) antistatic hose. After living with huge static buildup on standard shop vac hoses, the anti-static hose is nice. However, perhaps because of the material required for the anti-static properties, the hose is somewhat hard to work with. The issue is that the hose develops a curve in one direction and it really doesn't like to bend the other way, so when it needs to rotate that would require it to straighten out and even bend the other way, which it really doesn't like, becoming very hard to turn. One person called the hose "aggressive" and that's pretty apt. I've noticed, however, that there's less tendency to do this lately. I don't know if it's because it's loosening up or I'm getting better at keeping it under control. I've heard that storing the hose hanging loose instead of coiled up helps a lot. One thing I'd really like to try out one day is the boom arm, I think that would help me a lot with hose control since it gets the hose up off the floor and out of the way.

The hose connects to the CT26 and to the tools with a simple slip fitting that's extremely good at staying attached without resorting to the inconvenient screw-on connectors many other vacuums use. The connectors are cleverly designed to hook onto both large and small connections, sometimes sliding over and other times sliding into ports.

Big Wheels Keep-on Rollin' (except when they don't)


The CT26's wheels are a pair of large dual-wheel casters in front and a set of really large wheels in back. It rolls easily over typical workshop obstructions like chips or extension cords. With the low center-of-gravity, the CT26 is really stable and tip-resistant.

Another feature introduced on the CT Mini and Midi that's been brought over to the CT26 is the parking brake. This is hands-down the cleverest and best way I've ever seen to immobilize a shop vacuum, so incredibly much better than the clumsy wheel locks on other systems. To "park" the CT26, just push down with your toe on the black part and pull the CT26 forward. The foot swings down and locks, lifting the CT26 slightly off its front wheels. The rubbery foot keeps the CT26 firmly in place. To release the brake, lightly kick the green release button. The CT26 will roll slightly back and the foot will swing back up and out of the way, you're ready to roll! Click in the rightmost image for a video of the brake in action.

Off with it's head!

Rather than the CT22/33's flip-top lid, the CT26's head unit comes off completely. Some people prefer the old design while others think the new system is an improvement. Put me in the "like it" camp. I like getting the top completely out of the way when changing the bag. The latches are well thought-out, when you pull up on them they detach and swing completely out of the way so you're not fighting them while pulling the top off. Releasing and then re-latching them is easy and intuitive.

Removing the top gives access to the collection bin. Normally you'd have a bag in here, but you can also use the CT26 as a wet-vac. In that case, you'd remove the bag. In the second shot you can see the liquid level sensor pins and the contacts that connect them to the top (the lower pins are the sensors, the upper pin is part of the anti-static system). In the past, there have some who've had issues with bags snagging and tearing on the sensor pins. In this new design, the pins are recessed to eliminate this problem.
When the CT26 senses the bin is getting full, it automatically shuts down. I haven't tried the CT26 with liquids, but I imagine emptying it is a whole lot easier with the fully-removable top vs the old flip-top CT22 & CT33 and another reason to like the new design.

Self-cleaning bags?

The CT26 comes with one of Festool's new "self-cleaning" bags. Now, that doesn't mean it'll hop out and run itself out to the trash can (now that would be a neat trick). Instead, what Festool means is that the bag will not become lined (and clogged) with fine dust or "filter cake" like a normal bag. The self-cleaning bags are not paper, but a soft, pliable fabric. Unlike a stiff paper bag typically used in a vacuum, the self-cleaning bag collapses when the CT26 turns off. This makes the bag flex and crack the cake. When the CT26 is turned back on, the bag re-inflates and presses against the sides of the bin, which is shaped to break up the cracked cake and let it fall to the bottom of the bag. The CT26 is also designed to allow the bag to be oriented sideways instead of vertically in Festool's other models, so the cake can spread out slowly and maximize the clean area on the sides. The net effect of all these features is that, while normal bags steadily lose their ability to pass air though their sides as the cake builds up, the self-cleaning bags keep near 100% efficiency until they're nearly full. And with a bag capacity of over 6 gallons (almost 9 gallons on the CT36) that'll take a while.

This self-cleaning bag was developed as set of technologies to deal with a not-yet-announced tool that generates a huge amount of fine dust that will overwhelm any current design (this future CT will also have an auto-cleaning filter). And since part of the magic comes from the shape and orientation of the bag cavity, I don't see these bags being offered as a retrofit for older models, but I'm just guessing on that.

Installing a new bag is easier than any shop vac I've ever used. As you can see in the photos, you just lay the bag in the bin, then slip the cardboard part into the bottom slot and then snap it under the retaining clip. The opening has a flexible rubber ring that stretches and tightly seals against the inlet.

Removing the bag is just as easy, just lift the clip and pull the bag back.

Do you like your lungs?

Most shop vacuums provide good chip collection but not so great dust collection. In other words, they capture the big stuff but blow the really fine dust right back out. Unfortunately, that super-fine sub-micron dust is the stuff that really messes up your lungs and is a potential carcinogen.

The standard Festool bag actually does a very good job at trapping dust, but only down to 5 microns. To keep your lungs healthy (and the lungs of anyone else around) the CT26 also uses a HEPA final filter to trap 99.97% of dust down to 0.3 microns, which is very clean indeed!

The filter lives in the bottom of the top section of the CT26. It's super-easy to change, just flip the green retainer handle and remove the filter frame. The actual filter pops out of the frame, just slip in another filter and you're back to work. I was quite surprised at how large the HEPA filter is, giving lots of surface area. As long as you use bags, the filter should last a really long time.

Performance

The CT26's performance has been simply stellar. Of course, it's only one component in a system, but it works very well in that system (I'm not saying that it wouldn't work just as well with non-Festool equipment, in fact it works splendidly). Dust extraction during sanding is almost total, with just a light coating left on the wood and no dust flying around. I've cut hundreds of mortises using the Domino and I don't recall ever seeing a single chip escape the CT26's clutches. When sawing with the TS55, some dust does escape, especially when exiting the wood since there's just open space in front of the blade as the lower corner is cut. But it's nothing compared to the dust that flies with a typical circular saw.

One of the first things you'll notice using the CT26 is how quiet it is. On low, the CT26 measured in the low-60s, which is about the volume of normal conversation. By way of contrast, my Rigid shop vac measured at 85dB, up in the zone where prolonged exposure can cause hearing damage. I used to be impressed by my Shop-Vac brand vacuum, which was only half as loud at 72dB, but the CT26 is only half as loud as the Shop-Vac!

A "you just don't know until you use it" feature is the variable suction. Now that I've lived with it, I don't ever want to live without it again. The ability to turn down the ferocity of the suction makes a big difference when using a random orbit sander. Too-high suction pulls the sander down into the wood, which can cause the sander to "grab" and be difficult to control, which leads to burning and pad edges digging large scratches into the wood. With proper suction, the sander instead simply glides over the wood. It also allows you to keep the noise to a minimum when your task doesn't require prodigious levels of airflow.

The CT26 versus it's siblings

There's no doubt the CT26 is definitely worth the money, it's an extremely well-designed and well-engineered tool that provides significant value. But, while I thoroughly enjoy having the CT26, I'm guessing that many hobbyist woodworkers might be well served with the Mini or Midi models, which will get you many of the nifty features of the CT26 at a 20-30% savings.

On the other hand, once you've decided you're going with a Festool dust extractor, it's easy to justify stepping up to the larger CT26. As I get older, I'm more and more concerned about the long-term health effects of my hobbies. While the Mini/Midi can be upgraded to HEPA filters, they're $40 and that takes away a large chunk of the savings you get by going to a smaller model. Smaller bags means higher bag costs in the future, the CT26's bags are almost half as expensive (on a per-gallon basis) as the Mini, plus they're self-cleaning and will probably last even longer. You also get 40% more airflow with the CT26/36.

On the other (third?) hand, it's difficult to imagine what circumstance would keep anyone from getting the CT36 instead of the CT26. For a mere 9% ($50) more you get 40% more bag capacity (8.9 vs 6.3) with only one extra pound in weight and 2 extra inches in height (28.7/21.3 vs 29.8/23.3). On a per-gallon basis, the CT36's bags are almost 20% cheaper, so over it's lifetime it'll easily be less expensive than the CT26.

Deciding between the models may be the strongest reason ever to visit and talk with your local Festool dealer.

Well worth the money

If there's a constant in my experience with Festool, it's my constant surprise at how worthwhile their products are. The initial cost is intimidating, but once I get into using the tools I'm amazed at the quality and performance I'm receiving. Then, once again, I realize that You Get What You Pay For

The CT26 was no different. I've spent around $400 on several shop vacs over the past decade, none of which approach the CT26's quality and sophistication. One (I don't recall the brand) died after a few years. The Rigid is horribly loud and incredibly huge and clumsy. The Shop Vac uses bags and filters like crazy and now, after using the CT26, seems obnoxiously loud. By biting the bullet and getting a quality tool to start with, I'd have been far ahead of the game by now.

If you simply can't swing the CT26's $550 pricetag, definitely check out the smaller models. But if you can absorb the short-term hit, the CT 26 E or CT 36 E would be a phenomenal addition to your woodworking arsenal and pay for themselves in the long term as well as giving you a superior tool.

For tons of extra information on the entire CT line of dust extractors, visit their micro-site at http://hepa.festoolusa.com

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