When the conversation turns to the best in shop vacuums, two names invariably crop up. Both Fein Tools and Festool have taken the “shop vac” concept to levels that have actually earned their machines a new designation: Fein and Festool “dust extractors” not only run circles around the typical shop vacuum in general clean-up mode, they’re also designed for woodworking dust collection, and do a bang-up job of catching the dust and debris put out by bench top and hand held power tools.
The amazing thing about the vacuums from both manufacturers is how well their dust collection function works. Just hook a Fein or Festool dust extractor up to a random orbit sander and you’ll see what we mean. A machine from either manufacturer, in fact, can make working with a variety of power tools virtually dust free. If you’ve never had the experience operating sanders, biscuit joiners, portable planers and other small power tools without letting yourself in for major broom and dustpan work, all we can say is: try it, you’ll like it!
Okay, so both manufacturers put out top of the line vacuums. How do you choose the best one for you? It’s tough to take sides, but here are a few observations that may help you make up your mind, including an assessment of a few recent upgrades from Fein that we think are definitely worth taking into account.
Historically, Festool has arguably had the edge when it comes to comes to on-the-job dust collection. Not that there’s anything lacking in the Fein vacuums’ abilities. It’s just that Festool CT series vacuums are so perfectly adapted to the task. They’re built from the ground up specifically for the purpose. Their relatively small footprint and compact rectangular shape make them easy to transport to a jobsite, where good dust collection is extremely important. And if you team them up with Festool’s line of top-shelf power tools and the clever Systainer system, you can stack all your favorite dust-makers neatly on top of your trusty Festool dust-catcher and roll the whole works around to wherever you need it.
Festool vacuums come standard with a pleated filter and bag system that catches particles down to one micron – plenty, for almost any situation. The hose and cord fit neatly into a “garage” on top of each of the Festool models, adding to the already easy to move around design. And while it might not be the first thing you’d rate as a “must have”, you’ll quickly develop an appreciation for a Festool vacuum’s “roll-ability”. With an extra large, non-swiveling rear caster and two smaller swiveling casters in the front, CT vacuums will roll around the shop or jobsite with ease, and won’t get hung up on any miniscule piece of debris on the floor.
Fein vacuums, on the other hand, are not without their own standout qualities. In fact, there’s one area where the Fein Turbo series vacuums just can’t be beat: they are amazingly, blessedly quiet. The first time you turn on a Fein vacuum and hear it’s teeny, tiny voice, you may feel the need check and see if the thing is actually working. When you do, you'll find that just like Festool CTs, Fein vacuums are miles ahead of the typical shop vac in terms of power.
Fein vacuums are built more like shop the vacuums you’re used to seeing, and for comparably priced models, have a larger capacity. The Festool CT Midi, for example, has a 3.3 gallon bag-capacity, whereas the Fein Turbo II boasts nearly triple that, with room for 9 gallons of dry debris. An advantage? That depends on what you’re after. If you want a vacuum that’ll suck the shavings out of a “lunchbox” planer or a portable table saw without having to be emptied frequently, then yes, definitely.
In terms of power and overall quality, the difference between the two manufacturers is, for practical purposes, too close for consideration. Both are built to last, using quality components and first-rate engineering. Both provide exceptional suction at appreciably lower noise levels than the vast majority of models on the market. And both, importantly, have a tool-actuated mode, which means they’ll turn on and off automatically when you turn on and off a power tool that’s plugged into a receptacle on their respective control panels.
Until the most recent generation of Fein vacuums, though, Festool did have at least one clear advantage. Festool vacuums are all outfitted with a suction level control that lets you dial in the level of power you need for a particular job. This is especially important when collecting sanding dust. If the suction is too high, it will have a tendency “clamp” the face of the sander to the material. With a random orbit sander, this effect can even result in nasty swirl marks. Dialing down the power, you’ll be able to find the perfect balance of dust collection suction and a comfortable sanding experience.
And we could site a somewhat clunky design of the “classic” Fein vacuum. While a vast improvement over the cheapie, uncooperative plastic casters you’ll find on many a lesser shop vac, the four caster set-up supporting the tall, slightly squared-off Fein vacuum body always felt a little tippy. Mixed in with such a plethora of fine qualities, it’s not a huge grievance. But if you're already spoiled by having a Festool CT follow you around the shop like a devoted beagle, you’d notice room for improvement.
Low and behold – Fein’s answered both counts in a new Turbo II design. Perhaps the best all-around choice for the average woodworker among the three Turbo models, the middle sibling now features a suction control dial, just like all Festool models. Fein also lowered the Turbo II center of gravity, streamlined the shape, and added two extra casters in the front for improved stability and maneuverability. Best of all, they managed to keep all the good parts in the process. The new Turbo II has the same impressive capacity, powerful two-stage motor and whisper-quiet voice as always. Now who’s king of the shop vacs? It’s still a tight race. And who knows? Maybe Festool’s busy plotting a response.