Routers are arguably the most versatile tools out there, and the more you know about your router, the more you'll enjoy using it in your own shop. Learn how to pick the right size, type, and set of accessories to get the right router into your home.

How to Choose & Use a Router

Routers come in different sizes, power capabilities, constructions, and more, and learning which features are vital to your needs will help in selecting the right router for your shop. Discover the features that match your needs, then shop online or in-store.

Types of Routers

The first portable electric routers were large, cumbersome machines, but they've come a long way since then. Modern routers have many technical improvements that make them lighter, easier to handle, and more accurate than their predecessors. Along with a wide range of bits and accessories, routers are the most versatile and popular power tool in woodworking today.

Special cutters and accessories produce decorative edges, sign lettering, and even complex designs that simulate hand carving. Routers can even be used to cut synthetic materials, such as plastics, MDF, and light non-ferrous material.

There are two basic types of routers available today: fixed-base (also called "standard" or "shop" routers) and plunge-base. Both will perform virtually any common routing task, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

  • Teal and silver fixed base router

    Fixed-Base Routers

    Fixed-base routers consist of a motor which is clamped securely in a base. Many users still prefer the simplicity and compact design of fixed-base routers, and newer models often incorporate more sophisticated features that make them easier now to set up and use. However, for plunge cuts, the fixed-base router must be tilted into the workpiece, which takes a little practice to master. But for general use, they are often good choices for the home workshop. And most professional woodworkers own at least a few of these.

    SHOP FIXED-BASE ROUTERS
  • Teal and silver plunge base router

    Plunge-Base Routers

    A plunge router's motor moves vertically on a pair of spring-loaded posts attached to the base, allowing the bit to be "plunged" into the workpiece and retracted without lifting the tool. With a plunge router, it's easier to make through cuts (such as panel openings), stopped dadoes, deep grooves and mortises, template pattern work, and operations which require multiple cuts.

    On the minus side, the plunge router is usually a bit more top-heavy, and since the handles are fastened to the motor, some users find them trickier to maneuver and adjust.

    SHOP PLUNGE-BASE ROUTERS

Sizes & Capacities

Two main things to consider in a router purchase are horsepower and bit shank capacity.

  • Two hands using small teal and silver router on wood

    Small & Compact

    For models, hobbies and crafts, and light decorative woodworking, a small router or trimmer of 1HP or less works quite well.

  • Darkened shot of man in safety glasses using router

    More Power & Capacity

    If you plan to do more challenging projects, work with hardwoods, or use the tool for shaping and forming operations in a router table, a router with 1 3/4 HP or greater and 1/2 inch bit shank capacity is a better choice. You'll need the additional power for deeper cuts or making cuts in one pass, and the 1/2 in. bit shank capacity lets you use a wider range of bits while minimizing "chatter" when cutting denser materials.

Router Construction

  • Two hands guiding a blue and silver router along a piece of wood

    Light-Duty or Occasional Use

    For light-duty or occasional use, a lightweight router with an all-plastic motor housing will work just fine. If you are a serious woodworker, you'll want a router which has a durable metal housing on the drive end of the motor to support the side loads generated by larger bits and heavy cuts.

  • Small router and big router resting on a wood shop table

    High-Strength Applications

    To maintain high strength without adding much weight, high-quality routers use materials that are tough and durable without making the router difficult to hold and maneuver. A well-made fixed-base machine is able to deliver high performance and give you years of dependable service for most routing applications.

Features & Options

From electronics to accessories and everything in between, look at the following when making a decision on which router to purchase.

Blue and silver router with various cords and accessories

Electronics

The electronic variable speed (EVS) control lets you select the right speed for a particular material, or slows the motor speed as required to use larger, job-specific bits. In addition, the electronic module maintains speed when the motor begins to slow down under heavy loads and has a maximum-load-sensing feature that helps prevent motor burnout in extreme conditions.

Fingers adding a router bit to a router

Fine Adjustment

Many newer routers have sophisticated fine-adjustment mechanisms, which allow you to precisely set cutting depth. This feature is especially useful for inlay work, dovetails, and other jobs which require precise bit positioning for successful results. If you plan to use your tool in a router table, it's also important to select a fine adjustment that will work when the router is mounted upside-down.

Hand holding handle on yellow and silver router

Switches, Handles & Levers

Try several tools before deciding which router feels best. Plunge router locking levers should be easy to reach and use. Many users prefer a spring-loaded lever, which locks the motor in place when released. Switches on both plunge and fixed-base routers should be easy to reach and operate. On well-designed motors, the switches can be serviced or replaced without major disassembly.

Router collet

Collets

The collet is the part of the motor spindle that holds the bit and is designed to firmly grip the bit shaft and keep it running true and straight. A good-quality collet should be long enough to grip the bit firmly and has several precisely machined slots to let this collet compress evenly for maximum holding power. A self-releasing collet is designed so that its nut pulls it free of the motor shaft, releasing the grip on the bit shank.

Black table mounting kit for router

Table Mounting

Some important considerations are the size of the base opening (with the plastic sub-base removed), height adjustment mechanism, and method of bit changing. On plunge routers, a spindle lock can be an advantage, and the quality and comfort of the collet nut wrench are always important. Strong, forged collet nut wrenches are more comfortable and last longer than wrenches made from stamped steel.

Router with chip bag attached to it

Chip Collection

Many newer routers offer chip collection, and if this is important to you, it's worth considering. If not a standard feature, check to see if it's available as an accessory. Keep in mind that all router chip collection systems require an external shop vacuum with hose, and you may not want to use the hose and vacuum in all circumstances. Good chip collection systems won't block your view of the bit or otherwise get in the way.

Box of router bits of various sizes

Carbide-Tipped Router Bits

For everything but occasional use, carbide-tipped router bits offer the best value because they last longer, produce a fine finish that requires little or no sanding, and can be re-sharpened many times.

Two hands guiding a blue and silver router

Guides

You'll also need a way to guide the router, which can range from self-piloted bits with ball bearing guides, to template guide sets and adjustable edge guides.

Hand holding a router at the corner of a countertop

Accessories

There are also many specialized accessories for making dovetails, mortises, and other intricate cuts, and quality router tables are very popular because they allow the router to perform the work of a small shaper. Most importantly, don't forget to buy goggles, hearing protection, and a dust mask or respirator. Even with chip collection, wood particles can irritate nasal passages and lungs.

Related Articles