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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 9/26/98

The P-C 557
A Tale of Two Biscuit Machines:
By Jim Mattson

As luck would have it, I recently got the opportunity to test drive the new Porter-Cable 557 biscuit machine and compare it to my ancient Virutex joiner. A friend who has a four-man shop let me borrow it after one of his machines, a nine year old Virutex, was repaired. He bought the 557 with hopes it would replace their severely worn Lamello machine. However, his guys didn't like the P-C so loaning it to me was no big deal. Considering the hype around the P-C in print and on the Web, I eagerly awaited a look at this puppy.

If you're unfamiliar with the P-C 557, it has the unique ability to make slots as narrow as 1" by swapping out the main blade and installing a smaller one. As it turned out I never even looked at this feature. I didn't have a call for such small biscuits (#FF) during my test run and they really don't give you enough of the baby biscuits for even a tiny project.

Still, my Virutex joiner is almost 14 years old and it will probably need retirement someday. With this in mind, in the last five years I've tested as many biscuit machines as I could lay my hands on. Borrowed were newer models from Freud, Lamello, Ryobi and DeWalt. For the way I do biscuiting, none of these machines compared favorably to my Virutex. If the P-C was up to snuff, perhaps one could join my shop.

First Impressions
The first thing you wonder when you get the 557 is, 'Did they make a mistake?' The plastic case it travels in is so large you think maybe there are two joiners in the box or at least every accessory known to the biscuiting wide world.

This isn't the case (no pun intended..:) The 557 is a bit larger than my Virutex, but not that much larger. Opening it up you'll find almost a cubic foot of unused, mostly inaccessible space. Normally my biscuit machine never leaves the shop but I could see myself going to a jobsite and toting this gorilla up four flights of stairs - no thanks. Fitting it in the truck among all the other stuff would be a pain. If you go on the road with your biscuit joiner, pull this one from it's box and tuck it into something else.

The second thing you realize when you pull it from the case is the handle - it is sweet! Only the DeWalt machine feels this comfortable and gets your plunging hand back where it can really stabilize the plunging motion. When you feel the biscuit machine settle into it's niche, getting a nice, smooth plunging motion is simple. I liked it!

The position of the lock-on button was a little awkward at first since it sits too far back for easy access. After a couple hours you get entirely used to it and realize this might be better from a safety standpoint - no accidental engagements.

The second handle, the one used to stabilize the machine during plunging is normally mounted atop the motor where it's almost useless. This has caused me and many other woodworkers to abandon this handle and apply pressure directly to the top of the fence. Porter-Cable mounted the 557's handle to the back of the fence mount where it doesn't move during use - a much better place for it. Still, I want one mounted to the fence itself. Sorry.

The next surprise comes after starting the 557 up. The noise it makes is just a tad rougher than other biscuit machines but comments to the Tool Survey suggest this is normal. It isn't self-destructing. Oddly, I've noticed this with other portable power tools and I'm starting to wonder what gives? Any tool designers in the audience?

The Killer
The journeymen in my friend's shop are pretty evenly split over which of the two machines they prefer. When they grab a biscuiter off the shelf, two guys like the Lamello and the other two pick the Virutex . When I went to borrow the P-C they all agreed the 557 is inferior for one reason - it throws dust in your face.

The Porter-Cable 557 has one thing other biscuit joiners don't have and that's a slot open to the front of the base for the saw arbor. This larger slot provides the additional 1"+ plunging clearance needed for engaging the tiny blade when cutting #FF size slots. Where other machines have a slight opening on top of the base, the 557's is relatively huge, letting small sprits of dust to come swirling up around the machine. Once free from the saw's slipstream, this dust mingles with exhaust from the motor's cooling fan to get it in your face in a hurry.

Now I don't usually wear a mask and goggles for biscuiting. I don't hook my Virutex to a vacuum either. Years of experience have told me where the dust is going to go and I avoid it. It isn't that easy with the P-C. Removing the bag helps get more dust out the machine's exhaust port. My friends put a piece of duct tape over the opening (photo above) to help contain the dust. Still, it was a surprise the first time I tried it. I suspect a vacuum attached would help a lot.

This isn't to mean you can't adapt to the trajectory of the dust. Biscuiting from the side gets you effectively out of the target range. If you're already accustomed to biscuiting with other machines, the transition to the P-C will be disappointing. Plan on changing your stance.

Update! - I have it on reliable authority Porter-Cable has fixed this problem with their new machines. Given that many of the older machines are still out there, if you find yourself wanting to buy one second-hand, it might be wise to take it for a test drive first. - JM

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