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"We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us"

Published: Aug 27, 2010
Updated: Sep 22, 2010 - Added section on Centrotec drill bits


Long-term review: Festool T15+3 Drill

Can a cordless drill really be worth $450 (or more) ?

Available from Amazon.com

T 15+3 Full Kit with right-angle and offset chucks $575
T 15+3 Base Kit $450

Last fall my old Ryobi drill began to fail. Well, the batteries were giving out and as I'm sure you know, a new set of batteries is darn near as much as a whole new drill. If I was going to spend that much money, I may as well get a new drill and upgrade to lithium-ion as well, so I began to search for a replacement.

I ended up looking at quite a few popular drills, which led to my article comparing seven different ones, "Seven Popular 18V Lithium Ion Drills"

While several of the drills were quite nice, all of them had either one major flaw, a couple big flaws, or a host of little ones. While the Bosch was my Nerds Choice, I didn't like it's lack of torque.

Then, during a visit to WoodCraft, I checked out the Festool T15+3 drill. And I was singularly unimpressed. Holding it for a few minutes, it seemed like just another cordless drill. It sure didn't feel like $450 worth of cordless drill.

But the salesman, clever fellow that he is, said something like "look, Festool has a 30-day money-back no-questions return policy. Take it home, try it for a few weeks. If you don't love it, bring it back."

Well, he knew what he was doing. After a week, I was pretty sure I liked it but I'd be returning it. After two weeks, I was beginning to think I'd miss it. After three weeks, I knew I'd never give it up. Seven months later I've used it on numerous projects and I'm extremely pleased with it.

So, what makes the T15 so special? It's not any amazingly unique features, I've seen variations of all this on other drills. But like other Festool products, the T15 takes those features and delivers them with an extra level of refinement and fantastic build quality. I could certainly do everything the T15 does with other drills and attachments, but with the T15 it's usually easier and more pleasant.

OK, I think you get the idea that I love this drill. Let's look at the specifics of what makes it so special

What you get

The basic kit includes the drill, charger, two batteries, and two chucks (keyless 3-jaw and Centrotec) in a Systainer 2 with an "attic" storage compartment, complete with adjustable dividers for holding bit, fasteners, etc. Looking inside, on top is the drill itself and the charger, with access to the keyless chuck and Centrotec chuck. Under the drill is storage for a couple of drill/drivers, while removing the charger exposes the second battery and storage for specialty chucks. With the full kit, you get the the eccentric and right-angle chucks. My full kit also included a bit holder and a 4mm Centrotec drill bit, not sure if they come with the basic kit or not.

 

Feels good in your hand

If you're going to use a tool a lot, it's important that you like the way it feels in your hand. For example, the Makita 18V drill I reviewed was nice but felt very clumsy because it was so top-heavy, the Dewalt was very heavy and the Rigid was just too large for a person with normal hands to comfortably hold.

One thing that strikes you when picking up the T15 is the weight and balance. At only 3.65 pounds, it's the lightest drill I've tested despite having a massive 2.6 amp-hour battery (typical drill batteries are only 1.3-1.5 Ah). And that weight is very well balanced, the center of mass is almost exactly in the middle of the handle both vertically and fore/aft. I think one reason I wasn't that impressed with the T15 that day in WoodCraft is that it had the eccentric chuck mounted, which is quite heavy at three-quarters of a pound. It significantly alters the way the drill feels.

The overall shape of the T15 is very nice, no sharp corners. The lighter blue section of the handle is a slightly soft, very grippy rubber that gives a good, positive feeling without being irritating. Controls are easy to reach and operate, I like the fact that I can push the direction switch without having to shift the drill halfway around in my hand.

A fistfull of bits

OK, maybe not a fistfull but more than any other drill I've seen. The T-15 has magnetic slots to hold 4 driver bits. I really like these, getting bits in and out is very easy yet they're securely held.

Sounds good to the ear

The T-15 clocks in at an ultra-quiet 72dB, a full 5db less than any other drill I've tested (keep in mind that each 10dB difference is twice as loud). By contrast, the Rigid R86006 was almost four times as loud at 91dB!

In addition to low volume, the T-15 also has a gentle, almost pleasant tone. Some drills are very harsh and irritating. Others, like the Dewalt I tested, emit an irksome whining sound (supposedly from the drill's electronics) that's very apparent at low speeds. The T-15 showed none of that.

No, Virginia, there is no light

One thing that seems to puzzle people is that such a high-end drill doesn't have a light. Personally, I've never seen a built-in drill light that was worth having. If you must have a light, Festool makes an optional light that fits on the T15 as well as converting to a headband light. At only $25, it's quite a bargain by Festool standards. And, unlike other drills, this one actually lights up the end of the chuck.

EC-TEC brushless motor

At the core of the T15 is an electronically controlled brushless motor. Most cordless drills use a brushed motor, which is simpler and less expensive to build. Brushless motors are far more complex and require an electronic control system. However, brushless motors can operate at higher speeds because there's no mechanical limitation imposed by the brushes and another part called a commutator required in brushed motors. Also, a brushless motor has a almost-flat torque curve whereas brushed motors lose quite a bit of torque at higher speeds. To put it in a nutshell, for a given size, brushless motors are faster, more powerful, generate less heat, and last longer while using less power.

This motor is responsible for the "+3" designation. While the T15 is a 14.4V drill, the increased motor efficiency gives it the equivalent performance of an 18V conventional drill.

Electronic control system

A big reason brushless motors are more expensive is the required electronic control system. Festool's ECS controls not only the motor's speed, but also provides overload protection and controls the electronic clutch.

The clutch is one area where Festool has really refined a conventional idea. We're all familiar with the mechanical clutches employed by traditional drills. Instead of depending on overwhelming a mechanical stop to prevent overtorquing, the ECS monitors the feedback from the motor and shuts it down when the torque reaches a level selected from a dial on the back of the drill. And instead of getting a horrendous ratcheting noise that sounds like the drill is tearing itself apart, with the T15 you just get a gentle "beep" to let you know it's reached its limit. Here's a video showing the clutch in action. On the first screw, I just release the trigger when it stops, on the second I hold it so you can hear the beep.

The ECS and electronic clutch combine for one of the T15's truly cool features. When you select a clutch setting of 10 or less, the ECS actually slows down the drill speed to allow fine control. And it's not just a single step, each step below 10 gets a little bit slower. Forced to guess, I'd say that it's operating at 1/3 speed by the time you reach 1. It's a small thing that makes a big difference. Click here to see a video of how this works.

In addition to the clutch, two other ECS controls are on the upper body: a traditional hi/lo speed selector and drill/driver mode switch. While the hi/lo selector is nothing special, the drill/drive switch is one of those things that doesn't seem special until you use it. A traditional drill requires you to turn the clutch all the way to it's maximum setting for drilling. With the T15, the drill mode overrides the electronic clutch and allows full power to the drill. A simple flick of the switch re-engages the clutch at the original setting. This is a nice feature when swapping between drilling holes and driving screws, since you don't have to crank the clutch back and forth (and remember what setting you were using) every time you swap tasks. If you were at a low clutch setting, engaging the drill mode also brings the drill back up to full speed. When you go back to driver mode, the speed also drops back down. It's those little touches that help make the T15 such a joy to use.

Sophisticated batteries and charger

Battery life is one area where the T15 really shines. To start with, the individual cells that make up the battery pack are tested and matched with each other to get the same charge/discharge pattern in all cells within the pack, which gives better efficiency. Combined with the fact that the brushless motor uses less power and the battery is twice as large as an average drill, this has manifested itself in truly outstanding battery life.

Once you have a high-quality pack, you need to protect it. The T15 has several ways to keep you from killling your very fine batteries. Completely discharging a lithium-ion will permanently damage the cells, so the T15 monitors the battery and shuts down if too little current is detected. Operating while hot is also bad, so temperature monitoring is also done. Finally, the T15's charger analyzes and monitors the battery to prevent overcharging. Some chargers warn against leaving the battery in the charger, but the T15's charger switches over to a trickle-charge maintenance mode so the battery can stay on the charger indefinitely. You can also put partially-discharged batteries on the charger and it will "top them off".

Service lifetime for lithium-ion batteries has a spotty record so far. Most drills are warranteed for longer than the batteries, sometimes much longer. Festool's "1+2" warranty covers both the drill and the batteries for three years. (Festool pays shipping both ways the first year, only return shipping the other two)

Festool officially lists the charge time at 70 minutes, but the few times I've noticed it seemed more like 45. The battery lasts so long that I've never been left waiting on the charger.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if the woodchuck had no chuck?

Festool drills are, as far as I know, totally unique in that they're the only drills I've ever seen with no chuck at all. Instead, the motor's output shaft protrudes right out of the front of the T15, ending in a standard size quick-change hex socket. Now I know, you're thinking "big deal, I can get a quick-change socket for my drill". But while you may have a quick-change system, you're still using it in a standard chuck, which means you're dealing with the weight and length of a chuck which is serving no real purpose.

The T-15's lack of a standard chuck gives it two real advantages. First of all, with no chuck in the way, the T-15 is the shortest drill I've ever seen. From front to back, the head is only 6-1/8",allowing you to easily squeeze into tight spots. Secondly, you don't have to deal with the weight of the chuck, which contributes to the T-15's excellent weight and balance.

Getting all chucked up

The hex socket also serves another purpose. Along with a locking plate, it makes up what Festool calls their FastFix chuck system. Instead of a standard chuck that's gripping attachments, FastFix allows you to put on a variety of special purpose chucks. The chucks slip onto the output shaft, then either lock onto the shaft or the locking plate. Again, as far as I know, there are no other drills that offer this kind of flexibility.

General use chucks

The T-15 base package includes a 1/2-inch three-jaw keyless chuck just like most cordless drills. Like all of the FastFix chucks, it has a tool-less mounting system. You just cup the chuck in the palm of your hand, pull an easy-to-grip ring to loosen the lock, and slide it on. When you release the ring, several ball bearings lock onto a detent groove in the output shaft for a secure, slop-free connection. Click here to see a video of how easy it is.

Other than the FastFix connection, the three-jaw chuck is just like a standard drill chuck. Except that it's very robust, this is the highest quality chuck I've ever seen on a handheld drill.

As I mentioned, Festool makes a variety of different chucks that fit the FastFix mount. One of these is provided with the base T-15 package, the Centrotec chuck, and it's the chuck that lives on my drill 90% of the time.

The Centrotec is essentially a quick-change bit system. It differs from the output shaft socket in that it provides a positive locking system. When the bit is inserted into the chuck, three ball bearings snap into place in a detent grooove of the bit.

I've used a lot of different quick-change systems over the years and they all suffer from the same problem. The bits don't fit tightly, so the bits wobble as they spin. The Centrotec chuck solves this by using a much longer than normal contact area for the bit and the tolerance of the socket/bit are fairly close. This provides a very sturdy, stable connection that minimizes runout.

The requirements of the Centrotec chuck means that everyday hex bits won't work directly in it, you have to use bits specially designed to fit the socket. This is also true of the Centrotec drill bits, which Festool describes as a "set". What they mean is that the Centrotec-compatible part is actually a shank that holds a replaceable bit using a setscrew on a machined flat in the bit. The concept is cool, but I wish they weren't metric-only. The Imperial bit set they sell are solid brad-point wood drills only.

Unfortunately, this has led to the myth that Festool drills can only use propritary bits. But as you can see, this is only if you use the Centrotec chuck. Normal bits fit the 3-jaw chuck just fine and everyday hex bits fit the output shaft and (as you'll see) the other specialty chucks. Also, one of the Centrotec bits is a standard quick-change hex driver. This combination is what I use the most on my T-15 for everyday use right now. But over time, I foresee adding more Centrotec bits to my collection. However, they tend to be crazy-expensive and it's hard to imagine they're that much better than regular bits. But that's what Festool's 30-day return policy is for.

Specialty chucks

One of the things that make the T-15 unique are the specialized FastFix chucks. Yes, you can buy attachments for other drills that sort of do the same thing, but not as well as these.

The eccentric chuck (included in the the full kit) is the one I use the most. It allows me to access things that are right next to a wall, panel, etc. The center of the driver socket can get as close as 3/8", but with a bit of tilt you can get hold of screws that are as close as 1/4".

The back of the chuck has nine bosses that fit into the recesses of the FastFix plate, allowing you to lock the eccentric chuck into one of 16 differennt angles, giving you lots of flexibility on how you hold the T-15. The outer ring then turns and locks onto the ears of the FastFix plate for a tight, no-slip connection. No clumsy double-handed adapter, but a tool that feels like it's purpose-built to do this one job.

The right-angle chuck is also included in the full kit and it's pretty self-explanatory. Since it shares the same FastFix mount, it will also lock to any of 16 different angles. The output shaft on the right-angle chuck is the same as the drill, so you can use it directly as a driver socket or mount the Centrotec or keyless chucks on it. The one thing I would like to see changed on the right-angle chuck is the inclusion of a FastFix mount on the end. There have been several times it would have been handy to mount the eccentric chuck to the right-angle chuck to make getting at some crazy screw placements easier.


The only other FastFix chuck that's not included in any kit is the Depth-Stop Chuck (DSC). It's very accurate and consistent. Some people find it difficult to use, but I'm not sure why. I've never had any problems.

The DSC locks onto the FastFix plate like the other specialty chucks. There are two controls on the chuck. The main body rotates to adjust the the depth where the driver will let go, each click of the body changes the screw set depth by 0.1mm. Helpfully, the directions on which way to twist for shallower or deeper are embossed right on the body of the drill. The green ring is a reverse-locking control, twisting it will lock the chuck and allow you to back screws out.

One feature I really like is the fact that you can remove the front nose of the chuck, exposing a standard hex driver socket. So, instead of being stuck with Phillips head screws, you can put any style driver bit you like in the DSC, my particular favorite being a square-drive bit. One feature I particularly don't like is the fact that, while the socket is magnetic, it's not a positive lock, so bits can catch and pull out of the DSC.

Yes, it's absolutely worth it

I began my journey with the T15 as a very skeptical user. Today, I'm absolutely sold on it. I recently had to use several other drills on a volunteer project. While the various Makita, Milwaukee, and Dewalt drills were fine, they in no way approach the sophistication and sheer niceness of the Festool T15. They don't approach the price, either. So, while the T15 is absolutely worth the money, for the average homeowner who only occasionally uses a drill, there isn't enough value in a fine tool like this. Likewise, they have no need for a $3,000 cabinet saw or a $200 plane. But for those who can afford it and use their drill almost daily (as I do) this is money very well spent.

 

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