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New Tool in the Shop: Powermatic 701 Mortiser Review

This thing was very intuitive to use out of the box, and if you learn a few tricks (mentioned below) it’ll be darn close to perfection.

This may sound sacrilegious, but I’ve long avoided mortise and tenon joinery.  I’ve used lock-mitre bits, dado-based joints, biscuits, dowels, traditional and machined dovetails, and most recently pocket-hole joinery for a cabinet.   I’ve done a few mortises out of necessity with my router, but it was such a pain I just avoided it and designed stuff using other joints.  Well, now that I’m building a planer cart out of machined 4×4 stock, the most appropriate joinery to get the look I want is mortise and tenon.

I did a few of the mortises on my router table, and then said screw this.  The newest addition to my shop is the Powermatic 701 mortiser.  In my ideal shop layout, I allowed for “future tools”, and this is one of them.  I’ll take you through my decision process as to which mortiser met all my criteria, and how that turned out in real life.  Then you’ll be ready to evaluate your choices to meet your own criteria.

Mortising apparently generates a lot of chips, which for some reason I wasn’t expecting. I will add a 2-1/2” dust collection hose with a flexible capture nozzle attachment.

Why I Wanted This Tool

There are many ways to make a mortise, I know.  You can use a handheld router with a straight bit and a guide, a router table with a fence and a straight bit, a drill bit with some clean-up by a hand chisel, a mortiser attachment on your drill press, or a Festool Domino machine.

Since I didn’t have a mortiser, I used my router table most often if I had a few mortises to do and it was really necessary for the project.  This involved careful setting of the fence, then slowly bringing down the workpiece to the spinning bit, hoping I’m accurately hitting my mark where the mortise starts.  When making multiples, I’d set a stop block to make them all the same.  I would start the mortise somewhere in the middle, then when the stock is flush with the table, move it back and forth from stop block to stop block.

WoodChip Tip: Now you have a rounded mortise—you can either square up the sides of the mortise or round the tenons.  I prefer to take a file and clip off the corners of the tenons.  You can use a flush-cut saw (without set in the teeth) to make a small cut along the shoulder and into the tenon before taking off the edge and face corners.

I’ve never been tempted to buy a drill press-mounted mortise chisel attachment simply because the drill press really isn’t meant to perform this task, which requires quite a bit of force to get the chisel to cut down into the mortise.  The typical drill press hand-levers don’t provide enough leverage.  Also, I’m afraid of bending something that will lead to increased run-out.

A hand-held router is another option, but it took a lot of time to set up a bit, adjust the guide fence or use bearing-guides.  I didn’t use this method unless I had a whole batch to do.

So, I decided that ideally a mortiser would make things far more convenient.  Besides that, the other benefit is a dedicated station will provide instant access to doing the task, eliminating the need to clear off the router table or set up the hand-held router.  Plus, now I get square-cornered mortises to match my square-edged tenons.

With that decision made, which mortiser to buy?  I have no intention of buying another mortiser for a long time so it’d better be a good one.

P.S. A multi-router is on my “explore” list, especially if I start producing more projects on a regular basis.

I am a big fan of beefy metal tools; if they’re accurate and strong you will not be disappointed. I don’t think this machine will have any problems with flexing out of alignment.

Mortiser Criteria

Be demanding.  The engineer in me wants a precise machine, one whose parts are beefy and accurately machined, and has no weak spots.

I also want:

  • The operation itself to be quick without sacrificing the quality of cut
  • I want minimal set-up time.
  • No parts should bind or stick but still have no play.
  • Convenience.
  • Worry-free maintenance.
  • Ergonomics are critical as well, since some force is involved when using this.
  • I want the handle to have a natural feel; I shouldn’t have to have my wrist at an odd angle when pulling the lever.
  • Besides a minimal set-up time during normal operation (fence location, stock positioning, etc.),  I want it to be intuitive to use.
  • Out-of-the-box performance.

If I’m paying several hundred $, I expect all of this…Yes, I’ll pay for it, but I want it.  A few $ is not worth putting up with daily inconveniences.

WoodChip Tip: Why did I wait so long to buy a dedicated mortiser?  I try to buy tools as I really need them.  Up until now, most of my work didn’t involve mortise-tenon joinery, and quite frankly I kind of avoided it.  But my projects, in order to make them look like I wanted them to, started to really need a lot of mortises.  Now, I could have bought the mortiser, along with a CNC machine, a multi-router, panel saw, and every other tool out there and say “there, done!”  But I would’ve had to take out a loan for all that even before making any money from it, and what if I decide that I don’t need or like to use one of those tools??  Make do with what you have and incrementally upgrade, but the next tool you get should be the one that will have the biggest positive impact on your work than all the other ones you could get.

Hunt for a Tool–Process of Elimination

Now that my criteria list was in-hand, I could start looking.  I read online reviews, went to Amazon.com to see how others rated the brand I was interested in, and read a recent woodworking magazine review.

I began with a “short list” of brands, which I based on their consistency with quality and high ratings for their other tools, and of course which brands I’m personally happy with in my shop.

I looked at:

A process of elimination is the way I usually do this.  If a particular model doesn’t meet one of my primary criteria, I stop looking at it.  For example, the Delta had a lot of quality control complaints on Amazon.com, and an Allen wrench is needed to lock the chisel in place.  The Craftsman requires an Allen wrench to adjust all sorts of things, and it had limited stock capacity.  Many of the mortisers have issues like ½ Hp motors, poorly thought-out hold-downs, non-ergonomic lever handles, requiring a tool to adjust things, cheesy MDF tables, etc.  That left the Powermatic and the General.  Now I look at the positives.

I saw right away that the Powermatic was built heftier, which to me means less deflection, more vibration absorption, and less chance of my abusive use damaging it.  Knowing that hogging out material in a piece of hardwood is no easy task, I wanted superior motor power.  The Powermatic 701 has ¾ hp.

The other thing the Powermatic has which is a check-mark in the accuracy and convenience columns is the guide wheels.  These help hold the stock flush against the fence while allowing me to slide it along to create a long rectangular mortise.  Other cool features include small plates that pivot to help you adjust the bit-vs.-chisel clearance, easy cam levers, and a rack-and-pinion fence adjustment and lowering mechanism.

I like the universal nature of the tilting and swiveling headstock on the General.  But it just didn’t have a big enough table, and the hold-down and clamp device looked inconvenient to use when making longer mortises (you have to loosen it every time you want to move the stock sideways to elongate a mortise—that will get annoying real fast).

If everything else is equal, these small but important built-in conveniences sell me on tools. Here we have a tool tray and integral cone chisel sharpener (which really works).

Integral to the mortiser are the chisel-auger spacer guides to take guessing out of the set-up.

Final Decision

This was enough to make my choice the Powermatic 701, but I always double check before I dive in.  I look at low ratings such as a 1-Star rating on Amazon.com and I look up any online “complaints”.  I ignore the one-off reviews of a grumpy customer who received a “bad apple” and look for a pattern of comments.  For the Powermatic, a common complaint was that for being one of the more expensive models, it doesn’t come with chisels.

This wasn’t a deal breaker, though.  But, I think Powermatic is taking a risk that if I buy a super-cheap mortise bit, I’ll blame the poor performance on the machine.  Perhaps they didn’t want to make the tool pricier, and they don’t want to include a cheap chisel either.  I never understood tool companies that provide inferior bits and blades with a premium tool—it just makes customers conclude the machine is a poor performer.

So, if I’m getting a premium machine, I can’t skimp too much on the chisels.  I chose the CMT ½” chisel to start.  For now, it’s going to allow me to make medium-sized mortises, which I can vary by flipping the stock around (which I do anyway to ensure a centered mortise).  I got both at Amazon.com since my past purchases all went well and the prices are hard to beat.  I’ll also look at Tools-R-Us since I had a good customer service experience with them.

This is my first Powermatic tool, so if this mortiser continues to serve me well then I’ll definitely look at this brand for other tools.

First Use

Out of the box it was mostly put together.  I just had to put on the lever-arm, and a few other parts.  The instructions were simple and clear, and I didn’t even throw anything across my shop.

I re-read the basic set-up instructions, checked it twice, and plugged it in.  I put my hand on the switch and turned away in case anything came flying off.  Nope, sounded pretty smooth.  Now to make a test mortise.

There really wasn’t much to put together here; just the lever arm and a few other items.

I marked a machined Douglas Fir 4X4 with a marking gauge.  Then, I positioned it against the fence and lowered the bit (while unplugged, of course!), which told me how much I needed to move the fence to align the edge of the chisel.  This is where the cam-lever fence lock and rack-and-pinion adjustment features shine.

Once I set it, I took my first plunge.  It took some raising and lowering of the chisel and bit to make first cut to clear chips.  This practice to get the tiny technique nuisances was highly useful.  It also got me to adjust the “play” or tightness of the main sliding column to minimize the chances of chisel deflection in the mortise.  I also honed and lapped the chisels to make sure I’m starting out sharp.  I learned to slow down a bit to make the mortises more precise-looking.  While most mortises are hidden by the tenon’s shoulders, if you make through-mortises it’ll show in the side that the tenon pokes through.  You want those to be clean and square.  This is where zero deflection of the bit (and a sharp chisel) are critical.

It was a bit confusing to me at first learning to use the swing-out spacers, which are there to help you adjust the height at which you insert the chisel and auger bit (this spacing will vary depending on the size bit you use, so they provide two spacers).  I think the instruction manual could’ve been clearer on this procedure, but I figured it out.

Another thing you need to be aware of is squaring the chisels.  It’s not automatic.  I use the rack-and-pinion feature on the fence slider and slide it to the bit while it’s loose, and then put the one of the flat chisel faces against the fence, then tighten it in.  Should be good to go for a while.

I used the guide wheels to keep the stock against the fence while sliding it side-to-side to create a long mortise for practice.  It was pretty easy, especially after you apply paste wax to the table and fence.  The wheels are a bit of a pain to get in and out of the T-track once you loosen them as you’re changing workpieces, though.

These guide wheels allow you to move the stock side-to-side to make an elongated mortise easily, while keeping the workpiece tight to the fence.

I found it necessary to use a tap from a rubber mallet if the tables weren’t waxed and the guide wheels were pushing tightly against the stock.

It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of maintenance hassles with this machine.  Every so often, during my “puttering-around-the-shop” time, I’ll check the tightness of the set-screws, and make sure the surfaces that slide against each other are greased properly.  I’ll also apply Boeshield and paste wax while I do the other cast iron surfaces in my shop.

What Would I Change?

I must say that I wish the design of the sliding column were improved; there’s got to be a better way to minimize the play from side to side while also preventing it from binding.  The current design uses set screws that you tighten against the dovetail-shaped column, but that creates additional friction.  Perhaps a mechanism like that on the new Bosch GCM12SD 12″ Axial-Glide Miter Saw would work.

Okay, is it just me, or does it seem like the tool manufacturers just don’t have woodworkers test their products before going to market?  They should, as a basic practice, line up their new tool and all the competitors and have real, warm-blooded woodworkers test and evaluate all of them.  From this, they could really perfect their product.  Imagine if you’re a company whose tool has no “Cons” listed in the woodworking magazine comparison charts!  But I guess I’m dreaming again…

Here is the chisel/ auger I bought to get me started. The instructions were pretty good for the most part; things that weren’t clear I was able to figure out fairly easily.

 

I really appreciated the tool-less adjustment levers, especially when making a lot of mortises. I wish the hold-down had a cam-lever, though.

I found the chuck access provided plenty of room to loosen or tighten the auger bit.

Aftermath

Now that I’ve used this tool for a while, I’m really happy with it.  Yep, there are some improvements Powermatic could make, but in my opinion they’re ahead of the competitors’ models in terms of accuracy, durability, and ease of use.

What would a new tool be without accessories?  For now, the mortiser sits on my temporary workbench.  But, my workshop design calls for a dedicated mortiser station.  To me this means a mobile cabinet stand, complete with integral storage, infeed/ outfeed support, and dust collection.  At this point I don’t see the need to add a custom-designed table but sometimes I can’t help myself.

In my overall workflow, I decided to place it in the Wood Shaping/ Joinery Area.  When the mortises are done, I usually make the tenons.  I prefer to sneak up on the tenon dimension for a snug fit into the completed mortises.  So, from the mortiser, I’ll usually go to the workbench and mark the tenons, then head to the bandsaw, router table, or table saw to make them.

Ultimately, what I prefer or require may be different than what you need for your shop.  I hope that this gave you a good list of things to consider as you go down your list.  Perhaps you’re looking for a floor-standing model.  Or you are willing to pay for a more industrial/ production type machine with an X-Y table.  My new Powermatic mortiser is more than adequate for what I need, and if you are looking for a dedicated mortising station there are several good choices out there.  But you just need to watch out for some inconveniences on several models that you’ll regret later.  Again I found that by paying maybe 30% more, I got a 100% better tool.  To me that’s well worth it.

What is your mortise-making strategy?  What method do you prefer for making tenons?

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