Thursday, June 13, 2013

Update: Elmo the Altendorf Saw (Now With Humbling Picture of the Saw I Use)

Ever wonder what the most advanced table saw in the world looks like?

That's the Altendorf F45. Altendorf named it Elmo. No, I'm not really sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with Oscar's unwillingness to leave the trash can, Grover being weirdly lanky, and Big Bird being too tall to effectively use it.

You can balance a quarter on it's edge on the table surface with the saw running and it won't topple over. Why would you want to do this? Well, primarily to show off, usually at a trade show trying to sell them to woodworkers I'm told.

But seriously, that's my uncle's table saw. Altendorf is a German company that's been making saws for over a hundred years. The consensus among woodworkers is that they make the best saws in the world, and Elmo is their best. Their price reflects that. Nobody but professionals (or those with more money than brains) can afford Altendorf saws. Realistically, you should be running a high-volume shop to make owning one of these suckers worthwhile.

All that being said, if I'm spending a few days in my uncle's shop, you bet your ass I'm playing with this saw.

There are two things that set Altendorf saws apart from other table saws, precision and computerization. First off, precision: you can set this saw's fences in thousandth of an inch increments (.001). To put this in perspective, 1/8 of an inch (we Americans commonly measure 1/2, 1/4. 1/8, etc) is .125 inches. This level of precision allows you to make remarkably well-fitting pieces and is incredibly useful for custom work or restoration work.

Where this saw shines is how computerized it is.

The digital interface

This touch screen allows you to set the saw blade height, rpms at which that saw blade spins, to tilt the blade in tenth of a degree increments, rip fence dimension, two cross cut fences, and to enable the small scoring blade that ensures no splintering when cutting a veneered plywood.

On my saw it's important when making up pieces to set the saw once and then cut all of the pieces you need. If I need five pieces that are two inches wide at home, I set the rip fence to two inches and cut five pieces. If I cut four, move the rip rip fence, and then realize I needed five, I will *never* get that rip fence in exactly the same place. I can get close, but my saw has nowhere near the precision of the Altendorf. On the Altendorf if I forget to rip a piece at two inches, I just set the computer to two inches again, and I know that within .001 inches, it's going to be two inches.

If a person were so inclined (and pros often are), you can program entire projects into the saw's computer. It will tell you what pieces to cut, when, where, and automatically set the fences and blade to the proper settings. All you have to do is move wood around and cut, cut, cut. This saw will cut your project's parts dead accurate, and if you put in your lumber dimensions, it will make the cuts in the most efficient manner possible, minimizing waste.

I mentioned the scoring blade, and this is something I really wish my saw had. Plywood is an incredibly useful material because it reduces cost, weight, and time in countless projects. Even among high-quality custom cabinets or bookcases, the sides and shelves are commonly made of plywood and then covered with a very, *very*, thin veneer of whatever material you're using (red oak, walnut, maple, etc...). As veneer companies have gotten more sophisticated, they have been putting thinner and thinner veneers on the plywood. The thinner the veneer, the more likely it is to chip when you cut it. In order to cleanly cut veneer, you need a high-quality saw, a really sharp blade, and ideally, a scoring blade. A scoring blade is a small blade that raises up slightly (1/16 of an inch or so) and in front of the primary cutting blade. By scoring the veneer ahead of the primary blade, it radically reduces (if not eliminates entirely) chipping of the veneer.

Like I said, there's virtually no reason for anyone not running a high-volume shop to own Elmo, but boy is it a cool toy to play with if you've got the chance.

To compare here's the saw I use (which I only have because my uncle got Elmo and hooked us up with his old saw):

Note the lack of a digital interface

No computers. No automated fences. No scoring blade. However, all things considered, it's a damn good saw. It was sufficient for my uncle's business for years. He ran an awful lot of work through this thing and it's still ticking.

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