The typical DIY toolbox probably includes a power drill, sander, and perhaps a powered saw like a jigsaw. With these tools you’ll be able to carry out the vast majority of jobs, where drilling, cutting, and fixing parts together is concerned, but for more specialist jobs there are other tools to make your life a lot easier, one such tool is the router.
Routers are tools specially designed to create rebates and intricate patterns in wood, plastic and metal parts in a similar manner to a hand chisel but with far greater speed and precision. Certainly if your livelihood is furniture making then a router is an absolute must, and if you’re a keen amateur DIYer then you’ll also reap the benefits of using a router.
We’ve spent a lot of time reviewing several market leading routers (as well as some lesser known models for comparison), highlighting the key features and benefits of each, as well as the downsides and views of users, all here in one convenient location.
What is a Router?
As mentioned above, routers are the tool of choice for creating rebates and patterns, and specifically this will allow you to create more professional looking joints between two pieces of wood, and to shape the edges of wood with a custom moulded form, and if you’re particularly creative you can use a router to carve out decorative shapes and patterns in the face of a wooden panel.
It’s important to note that there are different types of router available that give slightly different results, so it’s worth being clear on what you want to achieve and which routers are able to provide that, before you make your choice.
The questions you’ll need to ask yourself when deciding what type of router to buy:
- Do I need to do plunge cutting?
- Is portability important? ie. Will you just be working at home, or out on site as well?
- Do I want a router that’s mounted to the table, or one that I can use on site?
Types of Router
There are essentially two distinct types of router, those with a spring loaded base known as ‘Plunge’ routers, and those with a fixed base.
These allow you to make precise cuts through the middle of a work piece, rather than just at the edges thanks to the vertical movement the design of the sprung loaded base permits. With a plunge router you can make deep grooves, mortises, and depending on your skill and patience, intricate patterns and templates. Though generally more versatile than fixed base routers, plunge base routers are more expensive.
Fixed Base Routers
As the name suggests the base on this type of router doesn’t permit any vertical movement, so a fixed based router is primarily designed for working the edges of a piece of wood to create custom edging features. Fixed base routers work best when used on a level workbench in order to achieve the most accurate and precise result, and when used in the way their precision far outweighs that of a plunge router. They also have the distinct advantage of being cheaper than a plunge router
For the best of both worlds, some manufacturers off a solution that allows the base of the router to be switched between a plunge base and a fixed base, with these tools it’s simply a case of moving the motor unit between one and the other.
One of the really great things about this design is that you can buy a router with one type of base, and then upgrade buy buying the other type as and when you require it, which equates to quite a cost saving in the long run. This type of router also offers a lighter weight solution, particularly important when moving frequently between sites. With that said however, if you find yourself switching between the two regularly, then it could work out more economical in terms of time to simply have two different routers to grab and put down as required
Speed And Horsepower
Among the variables you’ll notice between different routers is speed and horsepower, somewhere between 1 and 3 is fairly common, which in turn will set the rotation of the bit to between 8000 and 30000 rpm. For routing is softwoods, you won’t need a great deal of power, but when it comes to hard woods, plastics and metals, a fast speed is essential. The size of the cutting bit is also important to note, as it could have quite a significant bearing on what you are intending to use the router for, for example a tiny bit will be no good for cutting wide rebates or large mortices.
Typical Router Accessories
There are several different accessories that can be used with a router, and many of the best routers on the market will be supplied with them. Some typical accessories and their uses include:
Different Router Bits
There are countless different designs of router bit available, with each suiting a routing technique or end result. Most types are available in a variety of shank sizes, but should fit your router if they’re designed to be used with it. Note also that carbide tipped bits are your best bet, especially if you intend to do a lot of work with the router either in a short space of time, or over a period of many years. If you really intend to put your router through its paces then solid carbide tips are even stronger and longer lasting than carbide tipped bits.
Some typical bit types include:
- Chamfer bit – designed to cut a straight angled face or ‘chamfer’ along the edge of a piece of wood where the two edges meet
- Beading bit – designed to cut a curved face or ‘fillet’ in a similar manner to a chamfer bit
- Cove bit – similar to a beading bit but with the fillet cut inward
- Dovetail – designed to cut a dove tail shaped groove in the wood to create the characteristic ‘dove tail’ joint as often found on higher quality furniture
- Rabbeting bit – cuts a stepped down recess at the edge of a piece of wood, most commonly used to create ‘lap joints’
A router table is a specially designed surface that allows you to mount your router in an upside position with the cutting bit pointing upwards, protruding above the height of the table surface. When you pass the work piece across the table the router is able to engage with it and cut away material as desired. Router tables can either be free standing with their own set of legs, simply as a unit that is placed onto your existing work bench or ‘Workmate’
These are guides that are typically used in conjunction with a router table to give you a straight edge to push the work piece along, thereby guaranteeing a straight and accurate cut
Jigs and Clamps
Jigs are specially designed structures to hold your work piece whatever position you wish whilst carrying out your routing work. Clamps may be used with a jig or by themselves to achieve the same goal
Electronic Feedback Sensors
A modern innovation in the power tool world, the aim of feedback sensors is ultimately to make your use of the tool more efficient, and to prevent the motor from being over loaded and thus causing damage. Essentially the EFS monitors how much torque is being applied to the motor and adjusts it to suit the material and task.
A great safety feature, a soft start mechanism prevents the motor from going at full pelt the moment the router is switched on, which could catch you off guard and cause the tool to make an unwanted cut. Instead switching on a soft start router means that the motor builds up speed in a more gradual, less jolting manner.
Spindle Lock Mechanism
Many routers require the use of two wrenches to undo the bit locking mechanism, but for greater convenience many manufacturers are now opting for a ‘spindle lock’ mechanism to make the process easier and without the need for tools.
More often than not you’ll find that more powerful routers have two handles so that you can get a solid grip on it as you work. For an even more comfortable and secure experience, particularly necessary when working for long periods of time, rubberised handles are a great way of maintaining grip and reducing the irritating effects of vibration.
Vacuum Cleaner Port
Just like sanding and sawing, routing can throw up a lot of saw dust which can be irritating to your lungs, eyes, and quite simply the quality of your attention to the job. Many routers now have ports for you to attach a vacuum cleaner to, thus greatly minimising the amount of dust that’s able to get into the atmosphere around you.
Despite the many variables and features to look out for when buying a router, you’ll probably find that buying it is the easy part, it certainly takes time to develop the skills needed to operate a router to a professional level, especially with a plunge router operated free hand. For this reason it’s been well worth your time looking through this guide, as it’ll allow you to weigh up what is, and what isn’t quite so important to you’re when looking to buy a router. For instance, for some a spindle lock will be absolute essential if they regularly need to change bits, but for others who only need to replace the bit occasionally, it’s more of a ‘nice to have’ feature than anything else.