Tool Primer: How to Select and Use a Router

The router can do an incredible number of tasks: cut grooves and dados, used with guides to make parts, do complex or simple joinery and create edge treatments for wood.  The router can be mounted on a bench or table top or it can be manipulated by hand.  The router is the single most versatile tool in the woodworker’s power tool box.

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The heart of of any router is an universal motor with a collet attached on the business end.  This collet accepts a carbide bit which cuts its profile into the wood. By adjusting the bit’s depth and controlling its motion, the user can accomplish many important tasks in the workshop.

Routers come in many different classes and types.  Routers can be defined by motor horsepower, collet size (usually 1/4” and 1/2”) and base type (plunge or fixed).  Lastly, routers can be used in two ways – as handheld machines or mounted underneath a tabletops.

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A handheld router with a plunge base on top of my home brew router table set up.

Horsepower is the most important consideration to start with when buying a router.  Small routers, often called trim routers, can handle any small to medium sized job, such as building small boxes, simple joinery and edge treatments.  These have a motor range of 1 to 1.5 hp.  Full-size routers range from 2 hp to 3 hp.  If you expect to work small jobs, such as light edge treatments, small boxes, inlay, signs, etc, I suggest buying the small trim router.  If you are building furniture, get the larger router.

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From R to L:  Trim Router, Plunge Router, Fixed Base Router.  Notice that the plunge and fixed base routers are the same model.

Most router bits come in two sizes, 1/4” and 1/2”.  This refers to the diameter of the shank of a router bit. The bit (as in, drill bit, router bit, spade bit, etc.) is the business end of the router.  It spins at an incredible rate of speed, cutting out its profile into the wood.

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A 1/2″ collet in my hand, while the trim router has a 1/4″ collet.  

By controlling the router bit’s movement via bases, jigs and depth of cut, the router can create any number of cool effects.  Sizing is a bit of a misnomer.  Thicker diameter shanks belong to larger routers, as the increase in metal dampens any “chatter” or shaking the bit may have while in use.  Larger diameter bits need thicker shanks to work correctly.  So, for example, you may find a 1/4” radius round over bit in both 1/4” and 1/2” sizes, but big panel-raising bits come in the 1/2” or larger size.  A good full-size router will come with 1/4” and 1/2” collets to give the user some flexibility.  Which one do you need?  Well, for 90% of beginner to intermediate woodworking, a 1/4” shank is more than plenty.   Beefy 1/2” shanks really come into their own when a shop begins major production work or specialty projects.

Lastly, routers can have two types of bases.  A plunge router is used (generally) upright and the user pushes the bit into the workpiece.  Fixed bases, on the other hand, don’t plunge.  The user adjusts the depth of the bit and brings the bit to the workpiece from the edge.  The fixed base also allows a user to attach the machine to the underside of a table top.  Used with a fence, this creates one of the most useful workbench tools in the shop.

So which router to buy?  Almost any will do the job for beginner to intermediate woodworking needs.  It’s more important to look for certain features, rather than brands, then find the price point that works for you.

I recommend looking for a package with a both fixed and plunge base, 1/4” and 1/2” collets and a larger 2hp or greater router.  Lastly, look for a router with a base plate that accepts guide bearings.  With a router like that, you have the ability to do anything.  Have router, will woodwork.

Certain brands should be avoided, though.  What makes the router amazing is its flexibility and the sheer number of aftermarket attachments available.  Budget brands, like Harbor Freight, often don’t work with standard router accessories and don’t have the engineering quality to work precisely.  Craftsman router plates come in odd sizes and force you to use their specific accessories.  Skil and Black & Decker, while both fine brands (I am especially partial to Skilsaws and palm sanders)

Porter-Cable routers are considered “industry-standard” sizing and will fit nearly all aftermarket accessories.

Of course, no router is complete without a strong selection of bits.  When buying bits, make sure your bits come with ball-bearings and carbide teeth.  Old-style HSS bits dull quickly, are hard to sharpen and burn the wood when guided by the bearing.  They aren’t worth the savings.  Lastly, begin by buying a set rather than individual pieces.  You never know when you’ll need a certain profile or when inspiration might bite.  A 10 to 30 bit set will get you a lot farther, a lot quicker and longer than piecing together your individual collection on your own.

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A mid-range set of bits, all 1/4″.  A set like this will set you back between $50 and $100, depending on the quality of the maker.

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