Your Woodworking Router Buying Guide

If you’re considering adding a router to your shop, it can be hard to get good information. Although a router shouldn’t be an essential piece of equipment, it is a versatile tool that will help you to tackle more complex projects. A router is a great tool for joinery, custom wood inlay and edge shaping. If you have a good router, you will use it frequently, but learning how to choose a wood router is essential. There are many types and models to choose from and we will examine them in this brief woodworking router buying guide.

What Is a Wood Router?

Man Using a Palm Router

A wood router is comprised of three main parts: the motor, a housing, and the cutting bit. The two common housing styles are fixed and plunge base, and the motor tends to be in the ½ – 3 hp range. A larger motor and case to house it may seem like a great idea, but it may make your life harder if you’re carrying out delicate work.

How to Choose a Wood Router: Applications to Consider

No woodworking router buying guide would be complete without an examination of the potential applications:

Flush Trimming: This is the flush cutting of a piece of material using a flush-trim router bit. This bit has a bearing at the top or bottom which is useful for flush-trim laminate for countertops, veneering or jig making.

Edge Profiling: This is probably the most common home shop application for a router. Adding a smooth chamfer or clean round over bevel to an edge is easily achievable in just a few minutes with the right router bit.

Joinery: With the correct fence or a homemade jig you can cut a wide variety of joints, including rabbets, dadoes, and mortise and tenons. The cuts are accurate and reliable which is useful if you need to process a number of work pieces.

Inlays: These can be roughed out with a router to take your woodworking skills to the next level.

Hinge Mortising: This is a hard task with hand tools, but a trim router can make fast work of this task and you can be hanging your door in next to no time.

Types Of Routers

When you’re learning how to choose a wood router there are several styles and motor configurations to consider, and they all have their own pros and cons to consider:

Understanding Base Styles

Many people focus on the size of the router motor to make their choices. But, this is a mistake because the style of the base is equally important. There are three base styles to choose from and choosing the right one will be determined by the projects that you want to tackle:

1.     Fixed Base

This should be considered as the standard base with fixed handles and knobs on opposing sides of the base to hold and guide router operations. A fixed base can be mounted on a router table, but they would be limited to edge routing. This base is a good choice for guide bushings, such as: box joint jigs and dovetail joints. A fixed base typically has a quick setting ring to make rapid depth adjustments.

2.     Plunge Base

This is a versatile base that can be used for anything that a fixed base can do and more. Any operations where the router bit needs to be plunged into the wood away from the edge can be achieved with a plunge base, including dado cuts, mortising, fluting and bind grooves. A plunge base has a spring-loaded mechanical system to move the motor up and down on the work-piece. There is usually multiple depth stop settings and micro adjustments to fine tune the cuts.

3.     D-Handle Base

This is a D-shaped handle that incorporates a pistol-grip and locking trigger power switch that’s paired with a knob. Together these two elements replace the pair of knobs found on a standard router base.

If you cannot decide which router base you need, it’s important to understand that many manufacturers offer a combination kit. This will give you a plunge and fixed base in a single kit to improve versatility. In many cases, this is a better and cheaper option than purchasing a fixed base and plunge base router separately.

Understanding Router Sizes

There are many router styles and motor sizes to consider, but they can be broadly defined in three categories:

Woodworking Router Buying Guide-Palm Router

1.     Palm Routers

These are compact tools with motors that deliver 1 hp or less power for an impressive power to weight ratio. A palm router is a great tool for edge forming, slot cutting, window cutouts, decorative inlays, hinge mortising, trimming and smaller dovetailing tasks. These tools use ¼” shank bits which limits their utility for larger routing jobs.

2.     Mid-Size Routers

These tend to have motors in the 1¾”-2½” hp range and they are a popular choice because they’re easy to use and versatile. These routers can handle a wide variety of tasks, including panel cutting, circle cutting, template designs, larger dovetailing and everything that the palm router can do too. A router in this size range can accept a ¼” and ½” shank bit and they can be found on multiple bases. Due to their popularity, mid-size routers tend to have a wider range of aftermarket accessories.

3.     Full-Size Routers

A full-size router is the workhorse in many well-equipped workshops. These tools tend to have motors in the 3-3¼” range and they are designed for full scale production. These routers are often paired with a router table or a CNC operation setup. These are large scale tools that would be cumbersome for everyday use.

8 Things to Consider Buying A Wood Router

1.    Which Router Size?

As we’ve shown there are three main categories, palm, mid-size, and full-size routers. The trim router is the fourth specialized category to consider if you’re going to trim laminate regularly. Your first router should be a mid-size machine because it’s versatile and there are a lot of accessories. But, over time, many woodworkers pick up a palm or even a full-size router to tackle smaller or larger projects.

2.    Corded or Cordless Router?

Most routers are corded units, but there are some routers that are powered with lithium-ion battery packs. The speed, torque and run times are sufficient to handle most light routing tasks. But the batteries do add weight which can make cordless routers unwieldy and top heavy.

For your first router, we recommend a corded model which offers more power. If the horsepower is not specified, choose a router with a higher amperage rating. If you do need portability, keep a quick charger and a spare battery on hand to limit downtime.

3.    Base Type of Router

The two main base types are fixed and plunge, both hold the motor vertically, but the choice you make will be determined on how you expect to use the router. As we mentioned earlier you can cover both bases with a combination kit.

4.    Collet

The higher quality collets are manufactured from tempered steel to fit snugly in a tapered shaft that connects to the motor. A poor collet may be made from a lump of steel that’s cone-shaped with a shallow profile which doesn’t offer much grip. These collets tend to make cutting harder and they wear out quickly. Heavy-duty routers tend to have ½” collets and the best models have a range of collets to accommodate varying shank sizes. Budget models may have sleeves to fit narrower shanks, but these are not as efficient as a high-quality collet.

5.    Switch on the Router

The switch should be simple to prevent distractions during routing operations. If you choose a router that has a switch that cannot be locked in the “On” position, you will encounter problems when routing.

6.    The Side Fence

This is a standard accessory on every router, and it can have a dramatic effect on the routing operations. A good side fence will have adjustable cheeks, a fine adjuster and removable rods. These features are less important if you’re planning to mount and use your router on a table exclusively.

7.    The Wood Router Plunge Depth

Wood router with bits

Some routers allow the collet to plunge through the router base which is useful to regain the cutting depth lost when a guide bush and template or a router table is used. Sadly, many manufacturers don’t offer much information on this topic. The plunge depth usually tells you the router body travel distance up and down the plunge legs. A collet that can be plunged down to touch the bench top is sufficient and deeper cuts should be considered as a bonus feature. That said, shorter plunge depths can cause problems during certain routing operations.

8.    The Plunge Lock

There are two common methods that lock the plunge in place: a clamping lever or a twist knob. Twisting knobs tend to be found on lighter router models and levers are found on medium or heavy-duty routers. If you’re going to use the router a lot, you will have a better routing experience if you opt for a separate plunge lock clamping lever.

Conclusion: Your Woodworking Router Buying Guide

We hope that you’ve found this woodworking router buying guide to be useful. It’s easier to make choices if you have a good understanding of your specific routing needs. Choosing a corded medium-size plunge router or a fixed base with a combination kit should meet the beginner and intermediate needs of most woodworkers.