Choosing the Right Router

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This article is from Issue 2 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The router is considered by many woodworkers to be the single most versatile machine in the shop. Here’s what to consider when shopping for this essential tool. 

By Carol Reed

One of the most frequently asked questions about woodworking tools is, “Which router should I get?” Answering that question isn’t as simple as suggesting a brand name or a particular model. As with any woodworking tool, your choice depends on how you expect to use the tool. The router is the most versatile power tool in the shop; however, this very versatility is often the most intimidating factor in deciding which one to buy. 

New router users are sometimes tempted to only consider cost, but that is always a mistake. Not all routers are created equal, so if you’re new to routing or ready to step up to the next level, there are a lot of things to consider.

The router is a high-speed motor that accepts shaped cutters, called router bits. Bits are available in hundreds of different shapes and in several shank sizes. The shank is captured in a collet, which in turn is held onto the motor shaft with a nut. 

Different bases are available for the router motor, with some routers using a dedicated base specific to a particular machine. Basically, there are two types of bases available: fixed and plunge. Fixed bases are the most versatile and most easily controlled. Plunge bases have their handles much higher off the surface of the work, making them top-heavy and sometimes difficult to control. Often they are relegated to table use, demanding the use of a fine-depth adjustment. Not all plunge routers (especially older models, if you’re looking at used machines) offer a fine-depth adjustment. In this case, the cost of an aftermarket fine-depth adjustment mechanism must be added to your investment. 

On both types, switches are located in different places and depth-setting mechanisms differ. Some are easier to fixture and use with jigs, and some hold their value better than others. To use a router only in a table really limits the use of the machine. If you think of the router table as just another jig, then you’ll want a router that can be used with multiple jigs.

Routers are available in different power ranges, and are manufactured using a variety of materials.

With all these variables, making the right choice for you and your shop can be difficult. Let’s take a look at what types of routers are available and the most common uses of this versatile tool.

Types available

 Let’s first group routers by size – small, medium and large. When speaking in terms of size, both physical size and power are considered. Each type of router has particular applications at which it excels. 

Most manufacturers have bundled at least one of their router offerings into a kit that includes both plunge and fixed bases.

Small – 10 amps and below

 Small routers include trim routers and low-power models. A trim router, sometimes called a laminate trimmer, is a single-speed (30,000 rpm) machine originally developed for the cabinet trade to trim countertop laminates. It has a very small footprint of approximately 2" x 2". Some manufacturers offer different bases for special applications. A trim router has no handles and is held by gripping the motor. Finally, a trim router’s collet only accepts 1/4" shank router bits.

Sometimes, women consider a trim router for general use because they are attracted to its small size and light weight. But trim routers truly aren’t intended for general use as they don’t have enough power for most jointing operations. As the name implies, they are best used for light-duty trimming. 

I use a Porter-Cable trim router as a dedicated hinge mortiser, a perfect task for a machine of this type. Hinge mortising removes little material and the light weight of the machine offers total control over the operation. Further, I mounted it on a shop-made offset base, making control of the routing operation very sure and comfortable.

One step above trim routers is a group of small machines available with both fixed and plunge dedicated bases. Their light-duty motors are less than 10 amps and many only accept 1/4" shank bits. They usually sell for less than $100 and their buyers are often inexperienced woodworkers thinking that these routers are a good place to start. Unfortunately, their uses are extremely limited, and even a beginning woodworker will quickly demand more than these routers can offer. In addition, their value has diminished dramatically and it is difficult to recover your investment on the resale market. I held a moving sale recently, and priced one of these at just $5 – it was still there at the end of the day.

Medium – 10-12 amps 

The next group of routers includes machines weighing 6-7 lbs., with motors of 10-12 amps. These routers accept multiple bases, and have three sizes of available collets to allow the widest range of bits. The initial purchase usually includes both 1/4" and  1/2" collets. Even the smallest of hands can easily control the weight of these machines. There are more aftermarket accessories available for this group of routers than any other group.

Typical routers in this group include machines from Porter-Cable, Bosch, Makita and DeWalt. These routers offer the most options and the name brands hold their value extremely well. This group is the most-used by professional woodworkers in every woodworking trade, from furniture making to trim carpentry.

In this range, the motor is powerful enough to handle large bits in a router table, but the machine is still light enough to control when performing delicate handheld routing operations. A router of this size is easily mounted to a variety of jigs, and many have multiple bases available, so a wide range of operations is possible at minimum investment.

Jointing operations and decorative cuts, either handheld or cut on the router table, are duck soup for this group.

Large – 13 amps and higher

Large routers feature 13-amp or larger motors and weigh in at 12 lbs. or more. Both fixed and plunge bases are available. Many first-time users “plunge” right in, buying a large and expensive plunge router and mounting it in a table. Sometimes the decision is made as a result of other users, especially on Internet forums, sharing what they bought. What other people buy might not be the best choice for you. The best choice for you is what you will use.

routers with d-handles — like these machines from Milwaukee, Porter-Cable and DeWalt – offer a high level of control. Note that the trigger switch is extremely easy to reach in the handgrip.

Construction materials

The materials used in the construction of the router are important for both the longevity of the machine, and ease of use. Obviously, metal lasts longer than plastic, but what didn’t become apparent until I started teaching router classes was that too much plastic actually made the operation more difficult. Here is why:

A running motor generates heat and vibration. Most materials expand when heat is applied. When dissimilar materials are heated, their expansion rates are different. For example, after using a router with a plastic depth-setting mechanism around a metal motor body for a short period of time, one of my students noted that the mechanism was binding when trying to make a depth adjustment. Making an accurate depth setting proved to be impossible, and no amount of a variety of lubricants seemed to help. This was on a fairly expensive popular-brand router, proving that cost is not an indicator of usefulness.

I have also seen discussions on Internet forums about dissimilar metals like aluminum and magnesium coming into contact with one another. Some have suggested a dielectric corrosion can take place. I’ve not observed this personally in my shop, but I do suggest that a liberal application of paste wax to both surfaces will serve two purposes – it provides an inert separation of the dissimilar metals, while at the same time providing lubrication. This makes depth setting easier and more accurate.

through-the-base dust control – as shown on the DeWalt and Festool routers – is a definite plus to look for when router shopping.

Available features

When offered the choice between variable- and single-speed motors, go with variable. Materials to be routed may demand varying speeds, as may different types, sizes and shapes of bits.

Switches and their locations differ between brands. Some models, like the older Porter-Cable 7529, have multiple switches. I especially like one of the latest models, the new Porter-Cable 890 series, which has a switch that protrudes above the top of the motor, making it easy to slap “off” quickly. In addition, when the machine is standing upside down on my bench, there’s no way the motor can accidentally be turned on. (Of course, your router should be unplugged when working on it.) Some woodworkers dislike router motors that twist in their bases to adjust depth, such as the venerable Porter-Cable 690, because the location of the switch changes depending on the depth of the bit. In a router table, I simply plug the router into a secondary switch, mounted to the table in a location that never changes. In a handheld machine, I’ve never personally found this to be a problem. Again, the switch on the top of the machine is a good choice, as long as it still permits the machine to sit inverted on a bench top.

Depth-locking mechanisms are varied – some simple, some complex, some too positive, some offering fine adjustment. A simple thumb screw still works the best, if the router doesn’t have fine-depth adjustment. The toolbox-latch type locks are the least useful, because they are too positive. Because they have only two positions – either totally loose or totally tight – it can be difficult to make fine adjustments. They are best teamed with fine-depth adjustment mechanisms.

Fine-depth adjustments are wonderful, and absolutely essential on plunge routers. On fixed-base routers, mechanisms that make it easiest to get within range of your fine adjustment are best. The Bosch 1617 has positive stops between ranges, and then allows fine adjustment within that range; unfortunately I always seem to be at the wrong end of my fine-adjustment range after clicking in to the general range. On the other hand, the Porter-Cable 890 has a quick release to get within range, and then allows fine adjustment. I much prefer the latter option.

Probably the most-overlooked feature is the ease with which the machine can be mounted to jigs. Yet the router is the one tool that demands to be jigged, to really permit control and repeatability of cuts. Turn the router over and look at the screws that hold the sub-base on the machine. Note the location of the screws. What you want here is symmetry – equal distance between the screws. It is much easier to locate, mark and drill holes in your jig to mount your router when the locations of the holes don’t dictate up and down or right and left. Therefore an equal distance between holes is much preferred. 

changing bits isn’t always a chore for table-mounted routers. The Triton router can remain in the table when swapping bits.

Proprietary and aftermarket accessories

A router right out of the box is already the most versatile tool in the shop, but it becomes even more useful with accessories. The first accessory to consider is a different base. An increasing number of manufacturers are offering fixed and plunge bases for the same motor. An inexpensive stripped base (usually one lacking handles) for dedicated use in a router table or for mounting in jigs is most handy. Some woodworkers like the control offered by D-handled bases, but you can make an offset base to duplicate this one at a much lower cost.

The next accessory I look for is a 3/8" collet. I often use 3/8" end mills in the place of spiral router bits because they do an excellent job at a lower cost, but for that I need a 3/8" collet. The major brands all offer this accessory.

While many routers require the use of two wrenches to change bits, some offer a spindle lock for one-wrench bit changing. I personally have found them awkward to use, as my thumb isn’t strong enough to hold it in while using a wrench with the other hand. Test both methods to see which works best for you.

Edge guides, centering pins, and dust-collection devices are also offered as aftermarket accessories. Aftermarket vendors support all major brands. 

A comment about dust-collection devices: It’s relatively easy to control dust when a router is used in a table, but handheld use is another situation. Beware of collection hoses than impede your control of the router. A collection device that limits visibility isn’t likely to make you happy. I “control” dust in handheld situations by simply sweeping up afterward. I can do that in my climate. If your woodworking is done in an enclosed shop in the winter, consider building a “dust room.” Enclose your routing area with shower curtains on rods, or drape hard-to-clean areas with a cloth when routing. 

Router cost

How much should you expect to spend? Except for trim routers, machines under $150 are often both limited and limiting, and their resale value is questionable. If you become frustrated with your smaller machine, three things can happen and they are all bad. You decide routing is not for you and so limit your range of woodworking. You might decide to sell the machine and discover there is a small market and the return on your initial investment is minimal. (Remember the $5 router at my moving sale?) Or you decide to get a better machine and now your total investment is greater than if you had purchased a more expensive, mid-range machine the first time.

Routers between $150 and $250 present the best value overall. Package deals, like a motor with two bases, often fall in this price range and offer the best setup for the least money. This group also holds its resale value extremely well.

Very large routers cost more than $250, and you should be certain you have a specific application for this machine before willingly spending that much money. Resale value in this group is pretty good, but not as good as the middle group.

Final choice

So, my final choice would be a 10-12 amp, 6-7 lb., name-brand router that offers a variety of bases, includes a 3/8" collet, and has base-hole symmetry. Some of the more popular name-brand routers include DeWalt, Bosch, Makita, Milwaukee and Porter-Cable. My shop sports all of them, as well as a couple of others. 

This final choice offers the widest range of applications, in both handheld and table operations. If I could only have one, this would be it. You should not be disappointed.

Carol Reed

Carol Reed, “The Router Lady,” a former college woodworking instructor, is a professional furniture builder and author of “Router Joinery Workshop.” She demonstrates at woodworking and home and garden shows around the country. Her Web site is routerlady.com.

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