Everything you need to know about routers.
If you’re going to buy just one router for your workshop, I recommend a mid-sized router in the 2 to 2-1/4 hp range. Smaller routers are handy for fine details, but they don’t normally run slow enough to handle larger router bits. On the other end of the scale, 3-1/4 hp routers can be too heavy and awkward for everyday hand-held use. They’re best suited for use in a router table. Amid-sized router is the perfect choice for a one-router shop and might be all you need for many years.
A good plunge router can do anything a fixed-base router can do, and more. So why do some woodworkers prefer a fixed-base router? Because a plunge router is usually taller than a fixed-based router, it has a higher centre of gravity, so you might find it harder to balance. As well, many woodworkers feel that a plunge router isn’t designed for router table use.
Plunge routers have come a long way though. By choosing the right one, with an easy-to-access fine adjust system, and minimal play in the plunge mechanism, it can easily replace any fixed-base router in a router table. A recent trend has most manufacturers offering ‘combo kits’, allowing you to switch the same motor into a fixed or plunge base, effectively offering two routers in one. My advice is to either buy a combo kit or a top of the line plunge router, and never look back.
Like all power tools, compare the amperage of the motors you look at, not just the stated horsepower. Most 2 to 2 ¼ hp routers will draw between 10 and 13 amps. Buy a brand name router with a higher amperage draw and it will likely have a little more power. While power isn’t important for most detail work, it can be vital for large raised panel cutters or heavy-duty trim work. Try trimming the end grain on a 1½” thick solid maple table and you’ll see what I mean.
Most of the better routers now have a soft start feature. This brings the router to full speed over a second or so, resulting in a very soft feel in your hands. Without this feature, the router comes up to speed so quickly it can jerk in your hands and make you lose control. Also, look for what is called “electronic variable speed” or “electronic feedback circuitry”. This feature regulates router speed, keeping it more constant even when faced with higher loads. It also gives you more control and smoother cuts.
Just like your drill press, larger diameter bits require a slower speed. When cutting speed is too fast, the wood will burn. The ideal speed is the fastest speed (just short of burning) that gives the smoothest possible cut. Most routers with ½” collets have variable speed because they’re designed to run larger bits. A single speed router is restricted to very limited work with small diameter bits. I prefer a router with a lower speed on the slow end of the scale, allowing me to use larger bits more safely and without burning. I like to run my router as slowly as 8,000 rpms compared to 10,000 rpms. As for the fast end of the scale, I rarely use 22,000 rpms, let alone 24,000 or 25,000. This is one situation where less is more.
Just about any larger, variable speed router will offer both ¼” and ½” collets.
This is important, as larger bits aren’t made with a ¼” shank size. The shank is just too weak and would break in use. Some routers also offer ⅜” collets or even metric ones, but most bits on the market have either ¼” or ½” shanks.
A plunge router is plunged downwards until you hit a stop for the desired bit depth. A good stop system is key. Some routers have three posts and a stop bar to set various depths. These posts are often like bolts that you can adjust up and down with a screwdriver. My favourite system is called a turret stop, sometimes with as many as eight steps, each a specific distance apart. This is very handy when I need to make a deep cut, perhaps cutting ⅛” deeper per pass. I can set one of the lower turret steps to my final depth setting and then back-track as many steps up as I need, working on just one step per pass.
In addition to being able to stop where you want to, you need a method of getting there, and accurately dialing in a final depth. This is where fixed-base routers excel, because turning the motor in the base will dial in a specific depth. However, many plunge routers have excellent depth controls and fine adjustment ability, making them easy to use in a router table. More importantly, a plunge router that allows you to adjust it easily in a table saves you from having to buy a router lift. Spend more on a router with good depth control and there’s no need to spend hundreds on an expensive lift accessory.
Routers have traditionally required two wrenches to loosen and tighten the collet, much like a table saw. But many manufacturers offer one-wrench systems. There is usually a lever or button that locks the spindle in place while using a single wrench to change bits. This gives you one less tool to misplace, easier and quicker bit changes, and less chance of taking three layers of skin off your knuckles. Well worth it.
The location of the on/off switch is important. I prefer routers that allow me to turn them on while both hands are on the handles. This is a safety issue. My number one complaint with combo kits is that the switch is usually on the motor. So when you place the motor in the plunge base, you cannot easily reach the switch while your hands are fixed on the handles. My favourite type of switch is built right into the right pistol grip handle. Consider the location of other controls as well, such as plunge levers and fine adjust controls. Convenient controls result in a safer tool you’ll really enjoy using.
Some routers, such as the plunging models, have pistol grip handles. Others have round knobs, with various sizes and shapes. Look for handles that are comfortable to use for long periods and aren’t too hard or slippery. Some handles are too large if you have small hands. D-handles are another option, although you don’t see them as often. Some routers have detachable D-handles as an optional accessory. These handles make one-handed routing possible, although I don’t recommend it except for very experienced woodworkers using smaller bits.
This might seem unimportant, but there’s nothing worse than a power tool with a short cord, requiring you to use an extension cord every time. Some routers come with generous 8′ or 10′ cords, allowing you to reach a nearby receptacle without the dreaded extension cord being dragged around.
Some of the more dust conscious among you might appreciate good dust hook-up capabilities. Many routers now come with vacuum ports and plastic shrouds that surround the base to make dust collection more efficient. If your router doesn’t come with these attachments, they are available at extra cost.
Personally, I’ve never been able to envision dragging a dust hose around with a portable power tool. Perfect balance is required to achieve fine results with a router, and I don’t like having the weight of a hose dragging off one side. Regardless of whether you use vac assisted dust removal, make sure you use a good dust mask and keep your ambient air cleaner running. Don’t forget hearing and eye protection either! Not only are routers noisy and dusty machines, they often throw out sharp splinters of wood, causing a hazard for your eyes.
The router can arguably accomplish more than any other power tool in your workshop. But remember that while a router can do a lot of things, some of those tasks require a jig that may take a whole weekend to build. You will have to decide when another machine makes more sense than building elaborate jigs all the time. Still, a router is an indispensable machine that no serious woodworker should be without. Learn to use it well and be cautious about the safety aspects. Then enjoy the new world this tool will open up for you.
|Fixed Base Routers
|Plunge Base Routers
|Combo Kit Routers
|Porter Cable 895PK
There are hundreds of router bits to choose from, and virtually all of them are solid carbide or carbide tipped. For optimal performance and longer life, look for bits made with micrograin carbide. For safety, select chip limitation style bits – their design reduces the effects of kickback. You can very easily spend more money on your router bits than you paid for the router, so you want to keep the bits for as long as you can. We recommend regular cleaning of your bits followed by honing with a 600 grit diamond file on the flat radial face of each surface. Apply a lubricant to the bearings and spray the bits with a dry coat lubricant. Finally, keep your bits in an appropriate storage container – carbide is brittle and can easily chip.
Still not sure if a full or mid-sized router is what you need? Then a palm, or trim router may be just the ticket for you. A palm router has several advantages over its larger sibling – it’s considerably lighter and smaller, so you can easily use it single handed; it’s size and weight also make it much safer to use than a full size router, particularly for those new to routing; palm routers are easier to manipulate when you need to do precision routing, such as for string inlaying, or shaping tight corners; and, for tasks like trimming edge banding, plowing narrow grooves and routing out hinge mortises, they beat the pants off the larger routers. Even better, a top of the line palm router costs about half the price of a top of the line full size router, while ¼” bits are less expensive then ½” bits. For just about any job that requires a bit up to 1 ¼” diameter and where the depth of cut will be 1″ or under, I use a palm router. Taking multiple shallow passes is the best, and safest way, to make deep cuts. You’ll get the cleanest cuts.
The Bosch Colt palm router (PR20EVS) has a number of features that earn it a ‘best of class’ rating. Adjusting bit height is a breeze. For quick height adjustments simply flick a quick clamp lever, and twist the motor housing, lowering or raising it the desired amount. You can make micro fine depth adjustments by turning a knurled wheel on the back of the base. A full turn of the wheel moves the bit 3⁄64″, a ⅛ turn moves it a mere .006″. One wrench bit change is great, and soft start means no jerking around when you turn it on. Its ‘constant response’ circuitry delivers consistent speed under load, which makes for smoother cuts, and the 1 hp (5.7 amp) motor delivers ample power. It’s not as noisy as the larger routers, and has very little vibration, even at full speed. I also found it to be the most comfortable (and hence most manageable) palm router that I’ve used. It comes with a good quality fence, wrench and storage case. Best of all, this router sells for just $174.99. We’ll be posting a full review of the PR20EVS on the new “Product Reviews” section of our web site this spring.
Because routers are such popular workshop tools, there are dozens of aftermarket accessories, as well as a plethora of plans for shop-made jigs. To begin with, get a good introductory book, such as Carol Reeds “Router Joinery Workshop”, ISBN 1579903282. Buy or build a router table. It will expand your routing horizons, and is much safer for most operations than freehand routing. Our favourite after market table is made by JessEm. (Want to build your own table? Contributing editor, Michael Kampen, shows you how to build one in an upcoming issue of the magazine). A set of guide bushings is indispensable for template work. With a circle cutting jig you can not only cut perfect circles, but also arcs and ellipses. Hand cut dovetails are ‘de rigueur’ for fine furniture, but for cutting two or three dozen on a set of kitchen drawers, a dovetail jig is the way to go. Coincidently, Canada makes the two top rated dovetail jigs (Leigh and Akeda). Likewise, if you do a lot of mortise and tenon joinery, then a dedicated mortise and tenon jig is a worthwhile investment.