Router Table Basics

Want more from your router? Turn it on its head.

In terms of woodworking mach-inery, hand-held routers earn the workshop MVP award. Considering how easy they are to use freehand or paired with a jig, it’s not surprising to discover that many woodworkers haven’t considered pointing the bit up. 

Mounting a router in a table tranforms this handy tool into a small shaper. This arrangement leaves your hands free to manipulate the work, and enables you to use stops, fences, and hold-downs to control the cut. This orientation also offers a fresh vantage, allowing you to see what the bit is doing to the work.

Using a table-mounted router isn’t difficult, but it isn’t fool-proof. This primer will help you begin to unlock the powerful potential of your most prized tool in the shop. To start, follow the set-up sequence below, and then review the advice about proper feed and guidance. Next, check out the techniques for profiling edges and joinery. You’ll soon wonder how you managed without it.

Step 1: Level the insert

Level the playing field. An insert that sits below or above the surrounding table can lead to an inaccurate cut, or stop a workpiece in mid-pass. Commercial router tables like this one are equipped with set screws to level the insert with the table. For a shop-made table, masking tape or metal shims can suffice.

Step 2: Set the bit height (3 ways)

Standing square. A combination square is convenient because it can stand on its own next to the bit as you adjust the depth of cut. Although some rules are graduated in 64ths, those fine lines are tough on old eyes. Plan on making a few test cuts.

Try building blocks. Key blocks enable you to set a bit’s height by sight and feel. Stack the blocks to obtain the desired setting, add a top block, and then raise the bit until it starts to touch.

Go digital. Electronic measuring devices, like Wixey’s Mini Height Gauge, allow you to obtain line-splitting accuracy without squinting. If the battery’s dead, you can resort to the rule.

Step 3: Set the fence

Start with the front. Set the rule on top of the bit and measure across the bit’s centerline. With your free hand, rotate the bit to verify the fence-to-cutting tip distance.

Fine-tune from the back. Stop blocks and shims let you sneak up on a perfect cut. The distance you move one end of the fence will be halved at the bit.

Step 4: Choke up on the bit

Mind the gap. The opening behind or below the bit can snag an edge of your workpiece. If you’re using a commercial table, insert a close-fitting ring and slide the fence faces until they almost touch the bit.

Shop-made solutions. This clamp-on auxiliary fence and hardboard table overlay offer a cure for router tables that don’t allow zero-clearance adjustment. Rest the fence on the hardboard before raising the spinning bit. 

Proper feed and guidance

Unlike a table saw blade, a router bit’s performance is not affected by the angle of the fence. The key is feed direction. Whether you’re using a fence or a guide pin, always push the work against the cutter’s rotation. The force generated by the bit’s rotation helps drive the work against the guide. Feeding the work with the cutter’s rotation (climb cutting) pushes the piece away from your guide, resulting in loss of control and a scalloped edge. In the worst case scenario, the bit can grab the piece from your hands and toss it across your shop.

Safety First

Keep an assortment of accessories close to your router table for safe stock feeding. Scrap wood, double-stick tape, and hardware can be handy for cobbling together shop-made safety solutions.

Correct Feed Direction

Use a fence. Regardless of the fence’s orientation to the table, feed the work against the bit’s rotation, in this case from right to left.
Or lever it against a guide pin. Brace the work against the pin, then pivot it into the bit. As the cutters bite into the wood, they will draw it against the bearing.

Incorrect Feed Direction

Don’t climb-cut. If you feed the work in the direction of the bit’s rotation, it will push the stock away from the fence, pulling it from your grasp.

The Right Way to Rout a Wide Groove

Start with the inside edge. To avoid a climb cut, consider the second cut when positioning the fence for the first. 
Push the fence back, then rout the rest. By routing the outer side, the bit continues to push the work against the fence. 

Small strips and big bits

By offering a large table and fence, a table-mounted router is better equipped for managing  long strips and big bits than a freehand router. Unlike a bearing guide, a fence offers the flexibility to adjust the cutter’s height, or to shape an edge without the bearing’s guidance in order to create a variety of different profiles from a single bit.

Repositioning the workpiece, as shown at right, offers even more profile possibilities. To better handle large panels, consider adding a tall auxiliary fence and anti-tip rail.

Get More Bang from your Bits

Rout a little... Burying the bulk of this big bit below the table enables it to create a small cove. 
...or a lot. To ensure a crisp, clean profile, take incremental cuts, gradually raising the bit or shifting the fence.

Go wide. Making molding from wide stock helps keep hands away from the bit and prevent chatter. After routing the profile, rip the strip from the stock.

Try standing. Routing a workpiece with its face against the fence creates a different profile.

No tipping, please. Outfitting your router table with a tall fence and guide rail can help support raised panels and other large workpieces.

Precise joinery with basic bits

A router table can become a capable tool for joinery with just a modest assortment of bits. Compared to a table saw-mounted dado set, a router bit may not remove material as quickly, but for standard-sized cuts, installing a bit is faster than assembling, testing, and restacking a dado set. In terms of cut quality, a bit can produce clean, flat-bottomed cuts that rival the best dado set. And for stopped and plunge cuts, a bit is your best bet. Unlike a stopped tablesawn dado, which terminates in a ramp, the routed version ends with a straight wall.

Rabbets, tenons, dadoes and grooves differ only by configuration and amount of material removed. By using the techniques shown, you’ll achieve precise results, and free up your saw for other tasks. 


Face the fence. Light passes are the key to clean cuts, but shifting the fence can lead to error. Adding an auxiliary face exposes less bit without affecting the set-up. (Note: When rabbeting on a router table, you don’t need a bearing-guided rabbet bit; a straight bit will work.) 


Tenon tamer. When using a miter gauge to cut tenons, you can employ the fence as a depth stop. Just make sure it’s parallel with the miter slot. Although any straight bit would suffice, a large-diameter planing bit reduces the number of passes and produces smooth cheeks.


Two jigs for smooth safe cuts. An auxiliary fence eliminates any mid-fence gap that might snag the workpiece. An MDF backer keeps the piece square to the fence and controls exit tear-out.
Dadoes done right. For dadoes that exceed the range of your router table’s fence, use a miter gauge with an auxiliary fence to better support the work and mimimize exit tearout. Clamp the stock to the fence for safety and stability.


Three steps for stopped cuts. Stopped grooves require a few extra set-up steps. To start, set the bit and fence, and then mark the bit’s perimeter on the fence as shown.

Stop and take the plunge. After aligning the joint-extent marks on your workpiece with the lines on your fence, clamp stops in place. Then, with the work against the right-hand stop, lower the leading end onto the spinning bit.

Slide to a stop. When the piece reaches the left-hand stop, hold it against the fence and turn off the router. Wait for the bit to stop completely before removing the piece.

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