ETS EC 125 from Festool
5″ sanders are the most common size in the power sanding world. If you own one sander, it is likely a 5″ round orbital sander. Their popularity is based on practical size and range of task types they can complete.
That said, not all 5″ sanders are the same. And here is an example of how three 5″ sanders from a single power tool manufacturer can be different from one another.
Festool has introduced a new 5″ sander to their lineup this year, and they sent us one prior to its release to evaluate for functionality in painting and wood finishing tasks. The new entry is called the Festool ETS EC 125.
When a manufacturer puts out a new sander, and they already have about 14 sander models, the first question we have is where does it fit in their line of sanders.
What is the purpose of the new one?
So let’s take a look at some similarities and differences between this new ETS125 and the two other 5″ Festool offerings in terms of features and performance in painting and wood finishing tasks, and determine from practical standpoints where the new model fits the line.
What is it?
In tech terms, the ETS EC 125 is a 5″ random orbital sander powered by a 400 watt brushless 3.3 amp motor with a 3mm stroke.
What does that all mean?
Well, often in tool assessment it is easiest to arrive at what a tool “is” by understanding what it is not. Within the Festool line, that is fairly easy to do, because there are two other 5″ members in the family.
Although this new sander is formally referred to as an “ETS”, it is not to be confused with the previous Festool ETS125 sander. The new “EC” sander is completely different in design and functionality.
The 5″ EC sander is packed into a short housing with a long tail end design. In terms of sheer physical traits, it looks like the offspring of a 5″ Rotex and the incumbent ETS125. It is shorter than both (a full inch shorter than the old ETS125) and is closer in length to the RO125.
While it looks like a hybrid from the Festool 5″ gene pool, it is more compact than its 5″ siblings and with an entirely different design.
The ETS EC 125 fits the palm of a working hand better than Festool’s other 5″ sanders. In terms of weight, for such a stout looking chassis, it weighs in at only 2.6 pounds, just a tick higher than the ETS of old, and significantly less than the suddenly portly looking Rotex 125 (4.4 lbs). It more closely resembles the coveted realm of shop based air sanders, but without the lofty price point and compressor inconvenience.
Amongst regular users of sanders, weight is an important consideration. It is the characteristic that determines whether a sander enters the popular class of sanders that can easily be used with just one hand in any task orientation while under power at any abrasive grit.
In addition to weight, balance is another key consideration in a sander. The ETS EC 125 has the best balanced design of not only the 5″ Festool sander class, but perhaps across the brand as a whole.
We look for orbitals to be “sporty”, and the ETS EC 125 is, with more power than Festool orbital offerings in the same weight class.
If we consider 5″ Festool sanders as collectively covering an overall power band, the pre-existing ETS125 would be clearly the least powerful of the group, and the Rotex 125 would be the most powerful.
By default, that puts the ETS EC 125 somewhere in the middle.
— Prep to Finish (@PreptoFinish) March 21, 2016
That is not a bad place for Festool to introduce a sander, as most users of Festool sanders would likely agree that there has been a recognizable gap in task applications (and power) between the old ETS125 and the 5″ Rotex.
Specifically, the gap has been in the mid grits: 120/150/180/220. Those are “clean up” grits, after the rough sanding has been done, which is the hard work. We want orbital sanding to be easy work, and with two hand technique required for optimum balance, Rotex sanders aren’t the fastest in those grits. Rotex owns the 100 and below grits, but can be beat in efficiency through the mid grits by a sportier rig.
Where the ETS EC 125 hits that range of the power band is with a 400 watt (3.3 amp) brushless motor and 3mm stroke (as compared with 200w, 1.67 amp and 2mm in the pre-existing 5″ ETS). On paper, this lands the EC closer to the RO125 digits, which are 500w, 4.2 amp and 3.6mm. Not surprising, as the Rotex line is generally considered to be the flagship line of Festool sanders. The result…mid range grit power.
How do the specs translate to performance?
A Smoother Ride
Putting a new power to weight ratio in a well balanced housing that is optimized for extraction makes the ETS EC 125 unique to the group.
I don’t think any Festool user will tell you that Rotex sanders are physically easy to use for extended periods, day after day. Because of their power, your full attention is required, and the experience is usually best enjoyed with two hands for ideal results.
It is a relationship between tool and user that is worth the effort and required technique. However, on many tasks, a less intense option might be preferred. In other words, there are times when the RO125 is overkill for the task at hand. Orbital sanding in the middle grits is a good example. The later in the week it gets, the more we are looking for one handed sanders, especially in the afternoon.
By way of further comparison, at the lower powered end of the Festool spectrum, the orbital family (ETS/DTS/RTS), there is a vibration factor because the tools are so lightweight and perhaps a bit tall for their pad radius. This design makes the orbitals sensitive to suction levels from the dust extractors they attach to.
Most users agree that with the smaller orbital sanders it is best to turn down the dust extraction at the vac so that the tool isn’t drawn too hard to the surface being sanded. Failure to do this with the orbitals can make them feel “jumpy”, because they are lightweight and trying to overcome the surface turbulence caused by strong vac suction. Additionally, some users have observed that the orbitals can feel “tippy”, because the height of their housings can be a challenge to balance and keep smooth on the surface.
The new design in the EC125 eliminates some of these performance obstacles in the critical area of user experience. It is one thing for a tool to be great for ten minutes on a bench top, but in real life, we need them to be great in our hands all day long in a variety of awkward task situations. Because sometimes, it is necessary to sand for some very extended periods.
The performance difference seems to be related to the fact that the fresh air intake in the new design allows the EC125 to breathe better on the surface, which means that the extraction does not need to be reduced so much, resulting in less of the fine residual surface dust that contributes to swirls left behind in the sanded surface.
There is a lot of cause and effect in sander design. And, no doubt, design enhancements definitely impact price point. This sander rings up at $385, which is $190 more than an existing ETS125 and $95 less than an RO125. The ETS EC 125 falls close in price to the RO90, which currently sells for $430.
For those who are new to the Festool system, the sanders and dust extractors (and abrasives) are designed to work together as a system. The sanders basically inhale fresh air from the perimeter of the base pad and pass the fresh air to the center of the abrasive pad on the surface being sanded to assist with drawing dust out smoothly through the holes in the abrasive disc and out to the port located on the back of the sander where the extractor hose attaches. The dust ends its journey when it arrives in the bag located inside the extractor.
Better design of the fresh air flow at the sander pad makes it possible to turn up the dust extraction with less of the surface vibration that users had experienced with the old ETS125 (and the small orbitals as a group). When vibration occurs during sanding, it is transferred to the hand and forearm of the user. Reducing vibration during power sanding is a good thing for all involved in the process: the tool, the surface being sanded, and the user.
Range of Tasks
With its evolved and well balanced design, the ETS125EC is strong across the expected 5″ sander power band, and particularly well suited to tasks calling for the upper midrange of power.
At higher abrasive grits, the ETS EC 125 can float in fine finish applications that require no swirling and a smooth finish. It wants to be moving fast at higher grits. At the same time, while not as powerful as a Rotex, it can still go low grit sanding for multiple layer material removals. The EC handles these tasks very well, with excellent dust extraction, just not as fast as a Rotex. An ideal place to implement this sander is in the middle grits for easy float sanding through the grit steps.
Having one pleasingly designed 5″ sander that can competently tap into both ends of the sanding spectrum (low and high grit sanding) efficiently and with quality results is desirable. It definitely fills a gap in the sanding program. That is not to say that the previous orbital line couldn’t cover that spectrum, it is more a question of time.
It’s all about Time.
In the field, when selecting tools for tasks, we often think of them as time machines. The amount of time it takes to complete tasks, whether with a sander, paint brush or sprayer, usually boils down to the number of passes we have to make with the tool during each step of the prep or finish process. That is, the amount of work involved. Or, the amount the tool requires us to work.
When one tool can accomplish a task in fewer passes than another tool, it is more efficient. But only if it is easy to use on the task. In other words, yes, a RO125 will strip fascia boards faster than most sanders, but at the top of a 32′ ladder it is not always the ideal choice for all users. If our working lives were spent on bench tops with clamped stock, there would be little need for any sander other than a Rotex. But, life in projects is just not that simple.
For those who work in a variety of task types (vertical, horizontal, bench top, roof top, ladder work), often the tool selection decision comes down to convenience, user friendliness during tasks and the understanding that quality can’t be compromised. There are many days when we leave the shop and want to carry just one sander to solve all of the sanding tasks that we will encounter that day. Therein lies the value of a tool that is capable and easy to use in many situations.
At the end of the day, when something can be done more efficiently, it really has to be. If you are a professional, it is how you make money. If you are a hobbyist, it is how you complete projects faster and enjoy more of your free time.
A Lightweight Generalist with Middleweight Power
Time will tell, as the ETS EC 125 gets out to the masses, but it appears on first look that this sander can deliver efficient and easy solutions to a variety of common sanding tasks.
Is it as aggressive or powerful as a Rotex? No. Can it produce the fine finish sanding results of an orbital specialist? Maybe. Can it perform competently across the grit range in all typical 5″ sanding tasks? Definitely.
As a whole, the Festool family of sanders crosses just about every category of sanding on the planet. Sometimes, in our testing and daily use of sanders, we label them mentally as specialists or generalists. Specialists do just a few things at an extremely high level. Generalists do many things at a well above average level. The ETS EC 125 leans decisively to the generalist side, which is an important category, because many users are seeking the “one that can do it all”.
If your “all” translates to projects where there is a lot of mid grit sanding in many different orientations and types of tasks, the ETS EC 125 is worthy of a close look.