By Hendrik Varju
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.
Plunge or Fixed-Base
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.
Above table bit height adjustment
Power and Circuitry
Like all power tools, compare the amperage of the motors you look at, not just the stated horsepower. Most 2 to 2-1/4 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 1-1/2″ 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 1/2″ 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.
Variable speed dial
Just about any larger, variable speed router will offer both 1/4″ and 1/2″ collets.
This is important, as larger bits aren’t made with a 1/4″ shank size. The shank is just too weak and would break in use. Some routers also offer 3/8″ collets or even metric ones, but most bits on the market have either 1/4″ or 1/2″ 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.
Fine Adjustment Control
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.
Fine adjustment control
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.
Single wrench bit change
Auto spindle lock
Quick release latch
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.
One Amazing Tool
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.
Note: Prices listed in this review were correct at time of printing, but may not reflect current prices. See links/retailer for updated prices.
|Fixed Base Routers|
|Plunge Base Routers|
|Combo Kit Routers|
||Porter Cable 895PK