Our Wood Shop
We make our kneelers from a converted two-car garage, about 1000 square feet, which happens to be Seth Murray's personal woodworking area. Working woodworkers know that real woodworking is less romantic than the picture books with the beautiful shops make it out to be. The reality is usually much more cluttered, noisy and dusty.
We started with a Ryobi 10" contractor table saw, a couple Porter Cable routers, a DeWalt random orbital sander and a dozen clamps -- just what we needed to make our prayer benches. We purchased S4S lumber from nearby Lumbermen's, Lowe's or Home Depot. As our needs and skills grew and local S4S sources became problematic we added a Ridgid thickness planer and Ridgid jointer so that we could create our own finished lumber from S2S or rougher stock. Then a cabinetry workbench and a Rikon bandsaw.
A word about Rikon...
We purchased our 18" Rikon bandsaw in February of 2005, (and have since also purchased their benchtop dual sander). It isn't the best bandsaw in the world, but it is solidly-built and dollar-for-dollar, it is a great buy. No problems whatsoever until August 2006 when the motor burned out. A five minute call to Rikon, and a brand new motor was on the way at no cost to us. Their customer service was outstanding, and has turned us into a lifetime Rikon customer.
These, along with an assortment of chisels, scrapers, other handtools and a few more routers, worked well for us for many years... until we started making altars, especially with tougher woods like teak. One pass on the planer or jointer and the blades were shot, and the table saw wasn't large, heavy or powerful enough to handle the heavier, tougher woods. Curiously, the answer for planing problem on tougher woods, short of carbide planer blades ($$$), is actually to "regress" back to a low angle shooting plane. But just try cutting a 3/4 inch MDF panel, or a 70-pound oak beam on common contractor saw. Not fun. The whole saw nearly toppled a few times, and more than once the sliding miter table popped right off in the middle of a cut. So I began eyeing heavy-duty professional cabinet saws.
We've also had trouble with cupped and twisted boards, for which there are two solutions: a plane and a lot of elbow grease, or a larger jointer. The thickness planer can't take out such defects and our jointer was only about 6" wide. Our boards are all larger than that, so we needed a larger jointer. But with the addition of a Performax 16/32 drum sander and dust collection equipment, we were just plain out of room, and a 12" or larger planer is an expensive proposition.
To upgrade the table saw, jointer and planer would cost about $4500, minimum, even if we went with less expensive models like Delta, Jet and ShopFox. These heavier machines would be a lot harder to move around and require re-wiring multiple outlets for 220V.
Then someone told us about European combination woodworking machines that combine multiple functions into a single unit to save space. We'd heard of (and seen) a Shopsmith. No thank you. Little bitty worktables. It would have been worse than the Ryobi. No, he said, not like that at all. These are industrial-type machines, weigh a ton, and can handle loads as large as we would throw at them. He mentioned that he was purchasing a Robland X31 (distributed by Laguna Tools), and asked if we would split the price with him. Of course, the tool would stay at his shop 30 miles from here, but we could use it when we wanted to.
I don't think so.
But we started saving and researching. I don't know of any that are actually made in America. We ended up going with the Belgium-made Robland NX31, the next "step up" from the X31 from Laguna Tools in California. It combines a ~12" table saw, 12" jointer, 12" planer, mortiser and shaper into a 6 foot by 6 foot chunk of iron and steel weighing in at around 1700 pounds. All functions are powered by 3HP, 220V motors. The entire machine, new, costs about $8500 as of the time of this writing.
Some people argue that combination machines are a pain due to the setup changes. There is truth to this. But in my small shop, it was much more of a pain and much more work to not only have to change setups, but to actually have to move machines any time I wanted to do something. Now, all of our main activities are in one unit, and even if it takes a half a minute to change functions (plus setup time), that is less time than it used to take. It takes longer for me to find where I left my cup of coffee. We do have to be a little more careful about planning the order of work, and when two of us are working at once, sometimes there are delays waiting for someone to finish with the table saw so I can use the jointer, etc. But otherwise, it is a good machine that has really helped us improve the quality of our products.
And that's about where we are, today, along with all of the dust collection equipment (more on that, below).
A Story about a Boy and his Saw
I write this true story of our purchase of the Robland NX31 not to slap Laguna, but because this is a big investment, people should be warned about what you are getting and what can go wrong with a purchase like this.
The Lessons to Learn...
- Know woodworking and machine maintenance before purchasing the machine. It requires considerable skill to tune and use it, and the makers (and manual) assume that the purchaser has the needed skills. If you cannot tear down, rebuild and true up a common contractor saw blindfolded, a full combination machine is going to be overwhelming.
- If you can work it, don't pay in advance for something like this. Pay upon complete, working delivery. Once they have your money, there is less motivation to do what may need to be done to serve your needs, and you can end up having to wait days or weeks to get something simple sorted out. And use a credit card as a final line of insurance -- not a debit card.
- Don't believe anything the salesman tells you about how much they back up their machines. It is all just words until something goes wrong and you see how they really respond.
- Don't sell the tools you are replacing before the new machine is installed and running perfectly.
- We usually have time and skills, or money to complete a task -- rarely are we flush with all three. I hate to say it, but given my experience thus far, if you have the "extra" money (about 50% more), and don't care to take the time necessary to tweak the machine into working order, you might consider buying from a company other than Laguna. I don't know from experience if the results would be any different.
- There is probably one person in the whole company who knows how to really help you -- maybe two. Find out who that is and treat them like the gold that they are. At Laguna, that guy's name is Jason Cotton (and I've since learned that he may be leaving).
- You could buy a better individual saw, shaper, planer, jointer or mortiser for less, but you could probably not get all of these together at this level of quality for a lower price. I did a rough calculation and the same set of individual tools with the identical functionality of the NX31 would run somewhere in the $10,000 - $12,000 range.
- If you have the space -- probably 1500 square feet or more -- the advantages of having individual tools may outweigh any space/money savings on the combination machine.
- If you are tight on space -- and why else would you buy a combination tool? -- or anticipate needing to move the tool, get the mobility kit. I am assuming you don't have a lift truck or pallet jack on hand.
- Make sure that you are serious about woodworking before making the purchase. It probably would be ill-advised to make a combination machine (or anything of this price) among your initial purchases unless you are already certain that you will be spending the next several years actively doing wood work. There are quite a few of these combination machines for sale from individuals right now. Most of the time it looks like they bought the tool, made one cut, then got interested in something else. Many times they never even took the tool off of the pallet.
The Real Life Story
There are companies that make lower quality combination machines, and companies that make higher quality ones. The price is proportional, and this is really all we wanted to spend (if even that). Indeed, I've heard the Robland referred to as the "Chevy" of the combination machine world: Not the prettiest or most refined, but they can get the job done. Other buyers had said good things about their customer service, and when I spoke with their sales staff, they said they're even willing to send a person out if there is a serious problem with the machine. So after saving for over a year, we were ready to make the purchase. And, as it turned out, Laguna was trying to sell off an "otherwise new floor model." We bought it, along with a mobility kit (we'd need some way to roll the thing around), and some bit sets for the mortiser and shaper. The total bill came to around $8000, with freight from California to Oregon.
August 9, Day 1
Delivery required a lift truck or a truck with a lift gate and pallet jack. Frank Peel, the Laguna salesman, pushed us to rent a lift truck, but when I spoke with FedEx, they said that their lift gate could handle 4000 pounds and there was no extra charge for lift gate delivery. The actual freight cost ended up being twice what we were originally quoted by Frank, though, so I don't know if some "fudge factor" got added or the original quote was just a mistake. FYI: Freight was about $600 from California to Oregon, and a local lift truck was $200-$300 for one day, so we made do. With the help of the FedEx freight driver we used a pallet jack to move the crate into our shop, signed for it, and began tearing the box down. That alone took an hour or two. It was well crated, except that Laguna failed to bolt it to the pallet. Not a problem in our case, but could have turned into a real problem during transit. Everything was well greased and packed, but we were frustrated to immediately find that a handful of necessary nuts, bolts and other odd items were missing. They had also sent the manual for the wrong machine -- the X31 -- so we had no way of identifying the missing parts by number. We called Laguna and they said they'd ship them up along with a proper manual.
We ordered the starting cutter set for the mortiser and the shaper. I've never used these tools before, and it seems to me that Laguna sent two of each tool set, but I might be mistaken. I mentioned it in my call and offered to send the extras back, but the customer support person didn't seem interested. I suppose it is better to be worried about what did not get shipped than the minor extras that did. Speaking of extras, Robland included a number of extra handles and assembly/adjustment tools. There's even an odd little steel disk that can be mounted in the mortiser that allows the mortiser to act as a small disk sander (with the addition of adhesive-backed sandpaper).
By the end of the day we had all of the boxes opened and realized that Laguna had also failed to send the mobility kit and the blade guard for the table saw. Another call. It took three of us to scoot the NX31 off of its pallet and situate it roughly where we wanted it on the floor. I've not been able to move it since. Can't even get it to budge. Hence the importance of the mobility kit.
August 10, Day 2
I began the task of tweaking all of the tables, slides and cutters into place and alignment. The mortiser was a snap. The jointer/planer took a bit more work, but isn't bad. Unfortunately, the jointer guard had fallen apart in transit. It has a powerful, spring-loaded mechanism that proved to be quite difficult and time consuming to reassemble. The shaper shroud arrived missing so many little nuts and bolts that there was no use trying to set it up and test it. Then came the table saw.
The table saw was a disaster. Many of the bolts had not been torqued during assembly and, as a consequence, the whole saw assembly was loose. It was out of alignment by about 3/32 of an inch for a ten inch blade, and it seemed to me that there was some damage to the infeed-side trunion. For small tweaks one might just adjust the sliding table path or rip fence mount, but something of this size on an $8500-machine indicates a serious problem. Another call to Laguna, but this time it wasn't just a request for missing parts, and the service person didn't know what to do. I sent an e-mail to their customer service desk describing the problem that night.
August 11, Day 3
By now I am getting irritated. We sold our table saw, thickness planer and jointer in the days just before the NX31 arrived (to make room), so our shop is dead in the water. I received an e-mail back that morning about a solution and spoke by phone with a Laguna support person, Jason. He apologized for the problems and arranged for Next Day shipment of replacement parts and a manual (which had still not arrived), but said he didn't have a replacement trunion bracket, and no way of getting one to me quickly because it would have to come from the factory in Belgium and the factory was closed for summer vacations.
He said we should be able to loosen the bolts holding the trunion bracket in place, and adjust it by sliding/shifting it one way or another. Apparently he was talking about some other machine because on mine the brackets are bolted to the top via drilled, threaded holes, not milled slots that allow such adjustment. Consequently, the saw cannot be shifted at all. This is more than a small design problem, and means that there is no way to make lateral ... or any ... alignment adjustments to the saw assembly on the NX31 -- something worth knowing before buying.
It turned out that the majority of the misalignment was due to bent bolts. I swapped these bolts with identical ones in other, less critical locations, drilled out the holes in the trunion bracket to allow for alignment adjustment, and reassembled the saw. A short while later I had the blade aligned vertically and horizontally.
Yes, I had to personally modify my brand new $8500 combination machine so that it would cut straight. Pathetic. Anyway, it was getting late, so I worked on the electrical. We already have a one-phase, 220V line in the shop, wired earlier for our bandsaw. So I made a male pigtail and connected it to the NX31. The terminal block on the NX31 is anemic. I'd be worried about letting it carry 1 amp, let alone 20-40 at 220V, but it seems to work fine. Finished up other work and went in to help the family out.
I notice from the stamping on the machine that our "otherwise new" machine was made in 2002. Beginning to feel like I just drove off of a used car lot. Yes, a sucker.
August 12, Day 4
The arbor on the NX31 is 5/8 inch, but the collet is 30mm with two pins. You just can't find blades to fit that around here. Only 5/8 and 1 inch. We drove the pins out and reversed the collet so that it was acting more as a blade stabilizer for a common 10" blade with a 5/8" bore. The threaded pins have some kind of thread-locking solution on them, but with enough torque broke free. Then we set about aligning the rip fence and sliding table.
The rip fence was easy. The sliding table took a couple hours, mostly because the extruded aliminum table isn't flat. Hopefully we won't have to do it again for some time. The table's deviation probably isn't enough to affect our products, but a buyer should be made aware of this. It is hard for me to tell how much wash it has with my tools, but it might have a bow as large as 1/32" over its four foot length.
So the tables are aligned, the blade is aligned, and we're ready for the first cut. We mount the board, start the motor, begin the cut, and come to a complete halt at the riving blade because I'm stupid. Most of the blades available for smaller, common contractor saws are "thin kerf," about 1/10th of an inch wide. It makes it easier for smaller moters to cut through wood. But the riving knife on the NX31 is more like 1/8th of an inch thick. The slot being cut by the blade was not large enough to pass through the riving knife. And so I did what any fool in a hurry would do: Not go buy the right blade, but remove the riving knife so we could do our test cut and get back to work. Yes, I know I'm not supposed to do this, let alone operate it without the blade guard (still AWOL), but we've got to get this thing running, and I'm not letting anyone else touch it, anyway.
It cut very nicely, and so did the jointer. The saw blade is still a hair off, but I'll deal with that later.
August 13, Day 5
It is Saturday, and I spend the day cutting boards to remake a picnic bench set. Also cut up some plywood panels to rebuild a portion of our dust collection system. All goes fine. It is really nice to have the sliding table and the larger platform on which to work. It took a few seconds to move the guards and fences out of the way, but it wasn't a problem.
August 14, Day 6
Take a day off. Go to church.
August 15, Day 7
The trunion bracket bolts and manual arrive. The bolts Laguna sent are much better than the ones already on the machine, so I swapped them out and continued working. It would be nice to shift the tool's position, but the mobility kit still isn't here, so I can't move the thing by hand. A pry-bar and some blocks later, it is done.
I'm trying to figure out where to store all of the various attachments and accessories when I notice that there is considerable overhang behind the machine. Most of the accessories end up in a box on the floor, out of the way just behind and under the shaper.
Jason called and apologized for all of the problems. He said that Laguna would be providing me with a credit good towards tool and accessory purchases as a consequence of their errors. He gave me some good pointers on lubricants and table seasoning.
August 16, Day 8
The mobility kit and missing items requested a week prior arrive. The mobility kit is missing a necessary bolt. Because everything on the machine is metric I had to go to a specialty shop to find a replacement -- you can't get replacement parts at your local home improvement store, except for the most common of bolts. The assembly drawings are for a different tool, but it is easy enough to figure out how it has to go together to work.
The missing blade guard is in the box, too, so we're finally to a point where we can resume shop production (that is, I can let the other workers use the machine without worrying about an negligent accident)... or so I thought.
August 17, Day 9
Shop dust collection has been an increasing weight upon my mind, but the dust collection on the table saw is a joke. It has a 4" port on the outside of the machine, but when you look inside, there is 2.5" hose running from the machine wall to the saw shroud. There is a 2.5" dust collection port on upper blade guard, though, and I am hopeful that between the two we'll have an improvement on the dust situation in the shop. Two 2.5" ducts does not a 4" duct make, but it is better than one 2.5" duct.
I drove 60 miles to the nearest place that had the dust collection fittings needed to patch the two lines into our 4" - 6" collection system, then go to try to attach the upper guard to the riving knife. I also bought a 12" combination saw blade, and wrongly assumed it would fit the collet. The NX31, it turns out, can hold a 5/8" or 30mm blade, not 1". I stopped in at Lowe's, bought a couple 5/8 x 1 inch flanged brass bushings, cut off the flange and used it as an insert to center the blade on the 5/8" arbor.
Try to install the upper blade guard. And try... and try.... It doesn't fit.
Looking in the manual, the guard matches the ones shown in the isometric diagrams, but not in the photographs. I call Laguna again. Jason, the only genuinely knowledgable support person I've spoken with there has already left for the day, so I got to talk with Ed. Poor Ed. After several minutes of trying to describe the problem, Ed went out to the Laguna shop, grabbed an NX31 riving blade and the same guard that I have. "They don't fit," he said. Okay, so I'm not nuts. It turns out that, after failing to include the blade guard in the first place, they then sent me the wrong guard. So our shop is idle again.
By then it was after 3:00 PM. Ed said he could get the right guard shipped out the next morning by 2nd day delivery. But it is Wednesday, which means I wouldn't receive it until Monday. "You mean Next Day, Ed." No, he wasn't authorized to ship anything by Next Day delivery without getting superior approval, and that would probably just delay it more, or so I was told. Perhaps Ed had abused his shipping privileges in the past. Who knows. But this means we won't have the guard, and therefore really can't resume operations (safely and responsibly, if not legally), for five more days. I do have to give Ed credit for being a good company man, no matter if that means blowing off a customer that just paid them $8000 and had put up with error after error.
I wasn't nearly as upset that they sent the wrong guard as I was that they wouldn't next day ship the correct one. If I'd just bought a hand drill from them for $50, I'd understand, but I'd just paid them $8000 a few days earlier and they had done nothing but mess up the deal. Now they wouldn't spend $10 more to overnight something. Talk about petty and stupid. Fuse lit and ready to blow, that evening I sent them a note saying I expect the guard by Friday, even if they personally have to drive it to Oregon, or they can just come and pick up their machine.
August 18, Day 10
In the morning I received an e-mail from Jason at Laguna saying he was having the guard shipped by Next Day air.
Spent a couple more hours trying to fine-tune the alignment on the saw blade using the good-ol' loosen, bump, tighten and check method. Not much fun, but it eventually worked out. Was told by Laguna that some users had upgraded the ducting on the saw to 4". Looking closely at it, however, I can't see how that could be done. There just isn't room to add the 4" hose and still allow for a full 45-degrees of movement without binding against a belt or the motor spindle. Will figure out how to make due with the two 2.5" lines once the upper guard arrives.
August 19, Day 11
The guard arrived. On the plus side, it is much tougher than the plastic one sent previously. On the bad side, the dust collection port is about 1 inch in diameter -- a token only. Might as well use a straw. The plastic one had a 2 1/2" diameter collection port -- also a token, but far better than 1". There is no way it is going to come close to capturing a fraction of the dust spinning off of a 12" blade. Oh well. At least we're running now.
Did some more work aligning the blade -- the outfeed side trunion bolts (re?)loosened themselves and the assembly was wobbling again like it did when it first arrived. Got them tightened up now. Still not perfect, but within about 1/128th of an inch. Good enough for us. The blade itself has as much wobble, so I'll leave it at this. Discovered that one does not need to block/jack the entire saw assembly remove a trunion bracket, but can just clamp a trunion block to the iron table. The clamp suspends the saw until the bracket is replaced.
And so, 11 days after the original delivery, we have a complete and working machine with all of the parts and accessories that should be there.
Annoyed with the miter fence. The tape measure in it is useful only if you remove the upper blade guard so that the fence can pass closer to the blade. Adjusted the tape in the fence, cut off the end sticking out. Now it can be set to position where it will clear the fence a give an accurate measure... but there is no positive stop to return to this position automatically if the fence gets moved, which happens about 20 times a day around here. Created a simple stop by using a bolt, washer and T-nut on the back side of the fence.
Still annoyed because there is also no stop at 90 degrees. My $200 Ryobi contractor saw had a 90 degree stop. My $8500 one seems to have left this out. Created one using a threaded rod with a hex coupler on one end. An additional nut binds the coupler in place. The shaft rests in the outermost T-slot on the infeed side of the fence, and makes for a positive stop at 90 degrees. If I need to slide the fence back more, the rod is easily pulled out without needing any tools. The stop can be adjust by turning the coupler a bit.
The miter fence's design could send weaker people (like myself) into full-on panic attacks. The T-nut to which the fence slide connects drops to the bottom of the slot and you practically have to engage in conjugal relations with the machine to get it reconnected. Feeling a little frazzled after several fence removals and replacements over a day, and needing to go to Confession after cussing so much at the machine's designers, I cut a piece of foam, glued it to the back of the T-nut, and now the foam keeps the nut suspended in the slot so that the bolt can get a purchase on it when replacing the fence.
Received a call from Jason. The Robland factory in Belgium responded to my problems. They are sending "new and improved" trunion brackets direct to us. Also requested some saw and planer blades to make up for the problems.
We had a router table built into the Ryobi contractor saw that we sold. It looks like the outfeed extension on the NX31 could be machined to become a router table, but decided to build a benchtop table to fit our Porter Cable routers.
Out of the shop today because my wife is giving birth to our fifth child, Grace Karolyn Murray (Karolyn after Pope John Paul II).
We have a rule in our shop that no one is to use a power tool without first having read the user/safety guide. A few days earlier I demonstrated the table saw to our other woodworker/apprentice and allowed him to use it. This evening I returned from the hospital to find that he'd done some more work, but forgot to hookup the dust collection. As a consequence, the entire interior of the machine has a thick coating of walnut chips. In addition, he took it upon himself to use the jointer without training and (apparently) without reading the manual. In the process he destroyed the blades and damaged the saw rip fence. He's lucky to still have all of his skin on his hands, though I'm not sure he'll have it all on other parts of his body when I finish with him in the morning.
Finished the benchtop router table. Equipped it with 4" dust collection. Still needs some tweaking. Purchased another CMT blade for the NX31 because the one we purchased earlier is leaving ugly blade marks on everything -- not burns, but a pattern of scratches indicating a bad tooth or something. Yes, the table is square -- it isn't that. Also performed additional tweaks on my poor-mans 90 degree stop. It was a degree off. We'll see how it holds up. I may need to do something different there due to slop in the fence pins.
Our little right angle stop just isn't working consistently. We'll have to work something else out.
The replacement brackets arrived from Robland in Belgium. They are quite different from the ones on the machine in our shop, and a definite improvement.
I've called five different knife sharpeners to discover that all of the local ones are either out of business or can't handle 12" planer knives. Removing the blades requires a 7mm wrench. I don't have one and one was not included with the NX31. It is late, so I drove to nearby Lowe's and purchased one.
The piece of #$!@&* Lowe's/Kobalt wrench broke while attempting to loosen the very first retaining bolt.
Purchased an Armstrong 7mm wrench at the local NAPA store. Removed the blades. Drove the blades in to WoodCraft where I needed to pick up some accessories, anyway, and return a triple-chip CMT blade that is leaving score marks on all cuts. They told me it would take two weeks for their sub to sharpen the blades -- too long to wait. They had two different sharpening systems on hand. The Tormek vertical wheel which, with the necessary jig, would be around $600. Then a typical horizontal wheel system for about $100 plus $30 for the planer blade jig. I opted for the latter, fool that I am.
It didn't take many passes to notice that the jig was not flat. Probably a good 32nd of an inch warp which, due to the grinding angle, is amplified into a curvature on the edge of the blades of about 1/8th of an inch. I spent two hours filing the table. Still not flat, but better than nothing. Sharpened the blades. Went to reinstall them on the NX31, but discovered that two of the springs had fallen out of the head. Found them in the dust hood and installed the blades.
Hey, it works!
Still have not received the two table saw blades and planer knives from Laguna. The CMT blade I returned to WoodCraft was the only one I could find within a 30-mile radius that had a kerf width that matches the riving blade. Looking for 300mm blades on the Internet, I find almost nothing in the USA. The few available come from places I've never heard of (which doesn't necessarily mean much, but makes me nervous). I end up ordering a Forrest 12" blade with a 5/8" bore, .126" kerf and a stiffening plate; it should work fine.
Sent an inquiry to Laguna about the status of the blades.
Still awaiting the saw blades and planer knives. No reply to my e-mails to customer support or their accessories/tool-sales people. Made a call today. No reply to the phone message, either.
The good news is that the Forrest table saw blade arrived. Don't buy the stiffening plate if you are getting a blade with a 5/8" bore. It won't fit because the 5/8" portion of the arbor is large enough for only one blade thickness. The plate ends up on the threads, which are considerably smaller than 5/8". However, the blade cuts very well even without the plate. Most edges are smoother to the touch than pieces that come off of the jointer. Spent an hour fighting with the riving knife to get it lined up with the new blade.
Now that we have a decent blade, we are back in business.
First use of the shaper. Still have all of my fingers. The dust collection shroud leaks like a sieve. Probably half of the dust/chips are strewn across the table. Working on getting it to seal/seat better.
Spent some time using the mortising function. Two problems and a curiosity: The head/chuck is a off-center (I can see I'm going to need a dial indicator to measure these things). Also, don't waste your time or money buying the starting mortise bit set from Laguna. It is (s)crap metal. The 1/4" boring bit is so far out of whack it bores holes about 1/16"+ larger. The 3/8" boring bit is a little of the same. Didn't try the larger ones. I can't tell exactly how much of the problem is the bits and how much is the chuck. It is either only the bits, or both. I removed, cleaned and re-seated the chuck with minor improvement.
Even if the bits aren't the immediate problem -- and I'm pretty sure that they are because a close inspection reveals other damage to the bits indicating that hey were probably under some heavy object or something -- I'm ordering a nice 3/8" upcut spiral bit from elsewhere. The one provided has a 2" long shank, and about 3 1/2" body (for a total length of 5 1/2"). The length is nice, but it just isn't a quality tool. While cutting the bit often chatters, resulting in an unplanned-for larger mortise. With a shorter, carbide bit, this problem should go away.
The curiosity: The bits Laguna sent are left-hand twist. If I activate the mortising starter on the front of the machine, the head spins clockwise -- as if holding a conventional, right-hand twist bit. To get the provided bits to work, I started it as if running the planer/jointer (spins the head in the opposite direction). The left-hand bits and counterclockwise rotation will have the effect of loosening the mortising head (were it not for retaining pins).
Received a call from Ed at Laguna tools. Ed did not remember me, but I remembered him. Anyway, he said there was no record of my saw and planer blade order and that I'd need to check with Jason tomorrow. Sent an e-mail to Jason asking about the status.
After a lot of looking, Vortex Tool Company was where I ended up ordering. They had a 3 1/2" overall length 3/8" solid carbide 2-flute bit for $54. Pricey, but the best deal I could find for a solid carbide 3/8" bit over 3" in length. (If the bit is under 3" in length, there won't be enough cutting length to plunge a sufficient mortise.) Longer 3/8" bits are available, but they begin to get very expensive.
Also ordered the Freud RP2000 panel raiser shaper cutter set from Amazon.com (best price I could find).
Received a reply from Jason at Laguna saying the saw and planer blades would ship today. Trying to rig up some kind of dust collection shroud for the mortiser. Not as easy as it might sound. It is a tight space and there is nothing obvious to which to clamp or bolt a collection hose.
Ended up sliding a 1/4"-thich piece of plywood vertically into an open gap in the arm that supports the jointer guard. Bolted a PVC coupler to that and attached the hose there. Added a poor-man's cardboard shroud to assist in the pickup, and the mortiser is now operates pretty much dust-free (larger chips just fall to the floor, but the harmful dust is collected by the vacuum).
First intense use of the jointing/planing unit. I'd done some minor use in the past, but am now making a walnut/cherry coffee table for the better half (anniversary gift). While matching up the boards for the top, decided to face and re-thickness them due to warp. The drawback is that they were already cut to finish-width, so snipe could be a problem. Facing went fine -- some blade marks, but nothing that won't sand out easily. Opened up the machine for thickness planing and ran a test board. The dust collection worked very well; some heavier chips fell through but it was otherwise nearly dustless. The indicator tape was off by an 1/8th and was bent. Took some filing and hammering to get it to slide properly in the slot and adjusted.
Ran another test board and then the table-top boards. The planed faces came out very nicely, ready for finish sanding. The undersides were a little marked up by the grooves in the table. The motor didn't even slow down while taking 1/8th inch off of an 8" wide walnut board. No tear outs, except a little at the end of the board that was due to the walnut grain pattern, not the planer. Better yet, the snipe wasn't visible to the unaided eye. It measures at only 0.008" -- only 1/128th of an inch. So, the thickness planer is clearly a solid performer. It is missing some things I took for-granted on my previous, Ridgid planer, like pre-set stops at common thicknesses. Also, like the other geared items on the NX31, it looks like it moves 4mm per handle rotation instead of an even 1/16th of an inch.
Still have not received the tooling/accessories promised by Laguna as consideration for all of the problems with their machine. However, did do a first test run on the mortising bit I purchased from Vortex. Wow! Like I said, don't waste your money on the Laguna bits. The Vortex bit cut like a hot knife through butter. No chatter. No tear out. The 3/8" bit cut a mortise .385" wide; not having an indicator, I don't know if the .010 is due to the bit or the chuck, but it is a lot better. The inside of the mortise is so pretty its a shame no one will see it.
Still have not received the promised materials from Laguna, and they are not responding to my inquiries regarding the status. I guess this is what they mean by "stand behind their products 100%". At least the tool works.
Despite 6 e-mails to customer support and three phone calls, still have not received promised tooling from Laguna. Have been waiting about a month and a half now. Just left yet another message.
Faxed a letter to Laguna's general manager about the overall purchasing experience.
Received a call direct from Laguna's general manager, Greg Godbout, apologizing for the problems. He said he would personally have the blades, plus some extra, sent immediately. He explained that some staffing overload problems were really at the heart of the lack of service and that they are working on it.
A Year Later
The tool continues to run very well. Sometimes we get clogs in the dust line from the table saw shroud, but otherwise no problems.
I'll add pictures for these as we get time.
Make a right-angle stop on the cross-cut fence: The less expensive X-31 appears to have a right angle stop, but for some reason this feature was left off of the NX-31; to get it you have to purcase a special fence from Laguna. I already have enough extras collecting around the saw, and it seemed to me that there should be a way to accomplish this without additional expense (or inconvenience of having to make more tool-setup changes). After a lot of experimenting, it turns out that this can be done for the cost of a bolt, a nylon locking nut, a couple washers and a small scrap piece of metal. It is a basically a copy -- I discovered this after doing it -- of the stop on the X-31. Slide the support wing on the sliding table back to the fence so that the infeed side of the wing is flush with the infeed side of the fence when the fence is at right angle. Drill a hole in far end of the infeed face of the wing. Cut a metal tab about 1 1/2 inches long and attach it at the hole using a bolt, locking nut and spring washers. Align everything so that when the tab is up and the fence pulled back against it, it is at a right angle with the table path.
Deal with the annoying jointer gaurd: The NX-31 and similar tools come with the jointer gaurd mounted to the side of the outfeed table of the jointer. This puts it in the way of sheet and cross-cuts greater than about 30". I suspect that most people just "lose" the gaurd, but safety is a big deal here, so we try to keep all gaurds in place without crippling our effectiveness. After some study, we couldn't see any good reason not to mount this gaurd on the infeed table, instead. By drilling a couple matching holes in the side of the infeed jointer table, grinding an angle on the mounting cylinder, and drilling two index holes in the gaurd mounting block, you can move the gaurd so that it mounts on the infeed side of the jointer table. This clears the path for large cross cuts and avoids the annoyance of constantly removing and replacing the gaurd.