Detailed Review (Final)
When I first set eyes on the new 16” and 24” Omnijigs I just had to have one. This was a real mans dovetail jig; big, heavy, solid, and tough looking. But, I was warned by people at three different woodworking stores not to purchase this jig because of numerous customer complaints and first hand experience. After doing some research online (very few reviews about these jigs online) I bought one anyway. I bought the 55160 16” Omnijig, the 16” Variable Finger Template, a D3 dovetail bit required to cut narrow pins, the tool storage box, the dust collection system, and a Universal Stop Kit. The whole thing set me back over $600. I walked out of the store with enough boxes to fill the back of my jeep. But the love affair ended about as quickly as it started.
The new 55160 Omnijig is built like a tank, about as precise as a dull hatchet, and is extremely user unfriendly. I played with the 16” Omnijig and optional 16” variable finger template for 3 days trying to cut large and small pin through dovetails with little success. My plan was to work through all the different cuts this jig can make. But it was so painful trying to get clean, good fitting through dovetails, I simply gave up and never moved on to cutting other dovetail joints. Other than the dust collection (which works extremely well), the new Omnijig is a disaster. It is clunky, way too difficult and time consuming to set up properly, and has numerous weak points in the design that make this jig difficult to use unless you are Norm Abrams.
Generally speaking, the concept is good, but the engineering is horrible. I would love to take a run at re-engineering this jig with precision in mind as the number one goal. (I was in charge of Intel’s World Wide Motherboard Manufacturing test systems for several years, so I understand the tradeoffs between over engineering and manufacturing costs.) After three full days with this jig I think I know where the weaknesses are. The new Omnijig has so much potential to be a top notch dovetail jig. Too bad Porter Cable missed the mark. Here are my observations about weaknesses in the design of this jig.
• First, a word about thumbscrews
Porter Cable has elected to use inexpensive thumbscrews to secure stops, finger templates, and the stabilizer bar. Thumbscrews simply run the end of a ¼” machine screw into a mating surface to lock/wedge parts in place. This is not a precision locking mechanism and, unless you pay close attention, can and will cause alignment problems. Is this simply poor engineering or a misguided effort to cut cost?
• Stop Mounts
Two stops, one on each side of the jig, are used to set the position of the template on the template mounting bars. Stops are nothing more than specially fabricated ¼” machine screw (stop rods) that thread through a crude casting (the stop). Stops are mounted to the jig by dropping them into an oversize “well” and secured in place with a thumbscrew that drives a ¼” machine screw into the back side of the stop; wedging it in place. I suppose this brut force approach could work, but it is not a very precise or elegant design. Stops are a very important component on this jig and should fit into a precision mount that precisely secures the stop into the jig. I also noticed that stop rods rarely align precisely with the stops pins on the finger templates. One stop rod may be perfectly aligned while the stop rod on the other side of the jig is grossly out of alignment with the template stop pin. Since stop rods are supposed to be adjusted to .001, this kind of misalignment will results in at least .005 or more error. This is supposed to be a precision tool and I expect near perfection in this alignment.
• Stop Adjustment
The new Omnijigs comes with “factory set” stops for the various cuts that can be made on the jig. That means stop rods are supposed to be set to the appropriate lengths that determine the distance the template slides onto the mounting bars as required to accurately cut pins and tails. This is a standard adjustment on all dovetail jigs, and everyone seems to have their own way of doing this. On this jig, the length of the stop rods is key to a good fitting joint. Since there are no vernier gauges (like on the Leigh and other jigs), adjusting the template properly on the template mounting bars is a trial and error process that involves loosening a jam nut, adjusting a machine screw, and retightening the jam nut. This is a very inaccurate mechanism, adjustments are time consuming, and is best done by removing the stops and using a digital caliper to dial in the proper adjustment on both left and right stops.
Unfortunately, the stops that came with my jig were not adjusted for an optimal joint; even though they were set very close to factory specifications. I spent several hours attempting to fine tuning them. But, using jam nuts to secure adjustments to .001 accuracy is simply ludicrous.
• Template Mounting
Templates slide onto two .5” square mounting bars that are independently mounted to the left and right side of the jig base. There are two weak points with this system; both are with the template, not the base jig. First, the left and right side openings in the template that the mounting bars slide through are not precisely sized to fit snugly on the mounting bars, resulting in loose fitting templates that rattle up and down on the mounting bar. My variable finger template fit snug on the through dovetail side and very loose on the half blind side. I had to sort through four new, out of box, 16” variable finger templates before I found one that fit snugly on both mounting bars. On the templates that were too loose, I noticed the end cap castings were of poor quality and did not fit well together, resulting is a range of different mount openings from .505” (good) to .6” or more (bad). It is my opinion these openings should be the same size to within .005” and fit snugly. This is a quality issue.
Next, templates are secured to the square mounting bars via thumbscrews on the template end caps that simply run the end of a ¼” machine screw against the mounting bar, securing/wedging the template in place. The circular motion of the machine screw against the mounting bar causes the template to move up and down and in and out; especially when the template is loose fitting. Porter Cable claims this is resolved by pressing down and in on the template as it is secured to the mounting bars. I don’t think so Porter Cable! This is simply a lousy design and should be replaces with a design that employs some sort of self aligning mechanism to precisely secure the template to the mounting bars and against the stops. This problem is exacerbated when a template fits loosely on the square mounting bars (as I mentioned above).
• Moving the Template Up and Down
As I have already mentioned, the template mounts to the jig by sliding over the mounting bars. Each mounting bar is attached to independently moving, cast iron, wedge based slide mechanisms that are attached to each side of the jig. The slides are used to move the template up and down in the jig and are secured in place with large knobs that tighten the casting against the sides of the jig. The good news is the template and mounting system is massive and solid; effectively eliminating concerns about vibration. The problem is it takes three hands to loosen, adjust the template up or down, and re-tighten it in place. What typically happens is the template is so heavy it gets wedged at an angel; one end high and one end low. This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the massive weight of the template and template bars and cast jig mounts. Basically, you end up man handing the template to set it in place; especially if you are trying to set the template at a 1/16” or so above the horizontal board so you can adjust fingers. By the way, the Instruction Manual says to lower the jig in place BEFORE you make finger adjustments… Huh??? Operating this mechanism is more of an annoyance than anything else, contributing to the overall user unfriendliness of this jig. This mechanism should be redesigned so that template height adjustments can be performed smoothly and easily with two hands.
• Finger Adjustments
The weight of the massive template system makes it very difficult to slide fingers into place when the template is resting on a horizontally mounted board (as per Instruction Manual). This means the template must be loosened and raised just a bit every time you want to fine tune or move a finger position. And as I mentioned above, raising and lowering the template is not a simple operation. This is more of an annoyance than anything else; contributing to the overall user unfriendliness of this jig.
• Adjusting the Horizontal Board
As with the finger adjustment, it is difficult to adjust the horizontal board with the massive template resting in place. This is exacerbated by the knurled surface on the jig base used to helps hold the horizontal board in place. As with fingers, it is best to loosen and raise the template to make this adjustment. This is more of an annoyance than anything else; again, contributing to the overall user unfriendliness of this jig.
• Clamp Bars
The clamp bars are nice and strong but are too long and tend to get in the way when setting up and using the jig.
• Stabilizer Bar
The stabilizer bar is used to help keep the router base in the same plane as the fingers. As with the stops and finger templates, the stabilizer bar is secured to the .5” square mounting bars using a thumbscrew to drive the end of a ¼” machine screw through the stabilizer bar and against the mounting bar. Since there is lots of room for movement in the stabilizer bar mounting slots, this can result in a stabilizer bar that is not locked in plane with the template fingers. (Yes, this happens!)
I ran into a very interesting stabilizer bar problem on my jig. I was able to lock the stabilizer bar in plane with the tails side of the finger template. But I was not able to make the left side of the stabilizer bar in plane with the pins side of the finger template. There was about a 1/16” gap between the plane of the fingers and the plane of the stabilizer bar that I simply could not get rid of. Believe me, I fooled around with this for about an hour before giving up. I could not determine if this was a stabilizer bar problem or a template finger problem. This is unacceptable because it can (and did) cause errors when cutting pins.
Here are a few things I like about this jig.
• Jig Body
The best feature about this jig is the heavy cast iron jig base. It is very heavy and solid as a rock. No vibration here.
• Template Fingers
Template fingers are extremely well made. They fit and slide well on the finger template (unless it is sitting firmly in place on a horizontal board).
• Dust Collection
The next best thing about this jig is it’s dust collection system. It is a simple design, it’s easy to mount on the jig, and is very effective at catching virtually all dust and chips.
This is a $500 jig and over $600 with variable finger template and accessories. I expect much better quality and precision from a tool this expensive that carries the Porter Cable name. At the end of the day, I ended up returning everything for a refund. I felt bad returning all these boxes to dealer; but Porter Cable has a 90 day customer satisfaction return policy.
There is no one more disappointed with this jig than I am. I really wanted the 55160 to work as well as it looks. Maybe one day the folks at Porter Cable will make some improvements.