If you’re a new woodworker, you have likely heard of wood routers but may not be familiar with what they are. Or, perhaps, you may be trying to decide whether to buy one but aren’t sure which type of router to buy.
This article will provide the basic information about what wood routers are used for, how to set them up, and common features. This information will prepare you to choose the best type of router for your woodshop.
What does a wood router do?
Wood routers are staple tools in the shop of almost every woodworker who works with power tools. This is because they are extremely versatile for shaping edges of boards, cutting joints, and even flattening large wood slabs and jointing edges for perfect glue joints.
A router consists of a motor mounted in either a fixed base or plunge base. A collet attached to the end of the motor’s shaft holds a router bit that incorporates the tool’s cutting edges.
The motor is located above the bit in a vertical position. The motor can be integrated as a one-piece unit with the base or it can be removable from the base and installed in a different type base or mounted in a router table.
Routers can be used as handheld tools or mounted upside down underneath a table, cabinet top, or table saw extension wing with the bit protruding through the top’s surface.
With handheld routers, the woodworker grasps handles on each side of the router body and guides the bit into the workpiece.
In the case of a router mounted in a table or cabinet, the workpiece is guided into the bit, often with the aid of a fence or starter pin that allows you to pivot the workpiece into the bit while maintaining control of the board so that it’s not thrown back toward you.
In either configuration, the router bit removes wood very quickly as it rotates, leaving behind a shaped edge, recesses for joinery such as mortises, dovetails, dadoes, and rabbets, or a flattened surface.
Uses for a wood router
Routers can be a very quick method for cutting several types of woodworking joints. In fact, with the correct jigs that you can make in your shop or purchase, a router can often take the place of any other power tool for many types of joints.
Examples of the various types of joints you can make with a router are:
- Mortise and tenons
- Box/finger joints
- Lock miter joints
- Cope and stick joints
In addition to joinery, routers are used for several other woodworking tasks, including:
- Shaping edges (roundovers, bevels, ogees, coves, beads, etc.)
- Flush trimming edges or laminate
- Jointing edges of boards
- Surfacing or leveling boards or slabs that are too wide for a jointer
- Creating raised panels for doors or furniture panels
- Routing inlays
- Boring holes
- Cutting circles
Who Invented the Wood Router?
Before the invention of the powered wood router, woodworkers relied on hand planes, saws, and chisels to make moldings, shape edges, and to cut grooves, dadoes, rabbets and other joints.
However, the wood router took over these tasks for many woodworkers thanks to George L. Kelley of Buffalo, NY, who appears to have invented the first handheld electric router. Kelley was granted US Patent 877,894 on January 28, 1908, for a “routing-machine”, which was designed primarily for routing stair stringers.
Kelley’s patent application stated:
“The machine forming the subject of the invention is capable of a great variety of uses, such, for instance, as cutting regular and irregular grooves or channels of different dimensions and shapes in the surfaces of boards for different purposes, but the machine is especially suited to cutting the grooves in stair stringers to receive the stair risers and treads….The primary object of the invention is to produce a practical, efficient and highly desirable portable routing machine capable of being moved about and used on work benches, or elsewhere, where the work can be done to the best advantage, and which can be operated to produce work of various kinds with rapidity and accuracy by unskilled labor.”
It wasn’t long before woodworkers and cabinetmakers quickly began to realize the time and physical labor savings they could get from using wood routers. Not only did they save time and physical labor, but one router and a selection of bits soon replaced many hand planes previously used for many furniture making tasks.
Types of Wood Routers
Wood routers come in a variety of styles, including plunge routers, fixed base routers, combination router kits, trim routers (also called laminate trimmers), and CNC routers. Many woodworkers own several types of routers as they each have their own advantages.
Plunge routers vs. fixed base routers
Plunge routers feature a mechanism that holds the router bit above the work until the router is turned on. The router bit is then slowly introduced to the workpiece by lowering the motor on spring-loaded rods to the desired depth of cut.
Plunge routers are more versatile than fixed based routers for making cuts on the face of workpieces, such as when routing a mortise. This is because lowering the bit into the work is easier and safer than tilting the bit on a fixed based router into the surface of the workpiece.
Plunge base routers are also ideal for making deep cuts because the depth of cut can be quickly adjusted by raising or lowering the bit while the motor is running.
Fixed base wood routers require the cutting depth to be set before turning on the tool. The bit protrudes through the base a fixed distance and remains set at that distance until you change it.
Because the bit remains at a consistent cutting depth, many woodworkers feel a fixed based router offers more accuracy. However, they should always be unplugged after each cutting pass so that the bit can be lowered safely to the next incremental depth.
Fixed base routers may be easier to control because the handles are closer to the surface of the workpiece, providing greater stability when moving the router.
Plunge routers, on the other hand, have a higher center of gravity because they are taller (to allow the bit to be retracted above the workpiece) and are thus more likely to be tipped over during use.
Fixed base routers are also ideal for use in router tables as it is easier to adjust the cutting depth mechanism than with a spring-loaded plunge router.
Both plunge base and fixed base models may accept either ¼” or ½” router bits, or both, depending on whether the router comes with interchangeable collets.
Motor sizes for full-size plunge and fixed base routers range from 1-3/4 HP to 3-1/2 HP. Routers with higher horsepower can drive larger bits and plow more easily through very hard wood.
Just keep in mind that the extra power comes with added weight!
Combination Router Kits
Combination router kits are very popular with woodworkers who can’t or don’t want to spend money on multiple routers. The kits come with a fixed base, a plunge base, and a motor that can be used with either base.
Combination kits give you the advantages of both types of routers at a more affordable price than buying two separate routers.
The disadvantage of a combination kit is that you have to switch the motor from base to base, which is not as efficient as being able to have two routers set up with different types of bits. If you can afford only one router, strongly consider buying a combo kit.
Trim routers aka compact routers/laminate trimmers
Trim routers are smaller versions of fixed base routers. These lightweight routers have small motors, usually 1 HP or less, and accept ¼” bits up to around 1-5/16” maximum diameter.
Trim routers are handy tools for cutting decorative edges like roundovers, small bevels, coves, beads on workpieces. They also are useful for cutting small recesses such as hinge mortises, cutting grooves for inlay, and flush trimming edge trim, veneers, and laminates.
If the routing job doesn’t require a large router or isn’t involving very hard materials, I’ll grab my trim router almost as often as my larger models because of the lighter weight and portability.
Computer numerical controlled (CNC) routers are automated machines that make cuts based on information the user enters into prompts from computer programs.
A bed holds the workpiece as it’s being cut, and a gantry moves the spindle, or router motor, in programmed XYZ (horizontal and vertical) patterns through the cutting paths.
Stepper motors drive the gantry, and an electronic control unit processes the signals from the computer program. Because of the programmability, CNC machines are highly accurate and can make repeatable cuts over and over.
Because of their expense, size, and training needed to operate, CNC machines were once found almost exclusively in large cabinet shops and furniture manufacturing facilities.
However, in the last few years, several manufacturers have introduced smaller versions of these tools for the home workshop.
Some models take up less than three square feet of shop space and weigh less than 150 pounds. The units can be purchased with an industrial spindle, which is basically a router motor, or the user can install a router motor.
Extensive training is not required to learn the included software for designing projects and the cutting path the tool will make.
CNC router kits are also available at a lower price than the cost of a commercially assembled kit. However, these kits often do not come with all components needed to make the tool fully operational, and many are imported units that may be of questionable quality.
Parts of a Wood Router
Considering how versatile they are, wood routers are not very complex tools. They basically consist of a base that holds a vertically mounted motor.
The motor rotates a shaft, which has a collet on its end to hold the router bit. The motor is turned on and off with a power switch.
The bit protrudes through an opening in a flat base plate that rests on the workpiece being cut.
Round knobs or D-shaped handles allow the user to guide and control the router.
Depth adjustment mechanisms allow the router motor and/or bit to be raised or lowered to increase or decrease the depth of cut made.
Variable speed routers have a speed control dial that is used to increase or decrease the motor speed.
Better quality routers have soft-start features that allow the motor to gradually come up to the set speed. This feature helps the operator to keep the router under control when large bits are installed or the router is set at a high speed.
Several types of accessories can be made or purchased to increase the router’s functionality.
Router tables allow you to make very precise, accurate, and complex cuts that may not be possible with a handheld router.
A properly equipped router table can take the place of a dedicated shaper or molding machine for light work. The fence and router table top provide stability for the workpiece and allow you to use both your hands to guide the piece into the bit.
Router tables can be free standing floor models, benchtop units, or simply a router insert plate installed in a table saw extension table.
You can build your own router table from plans you purchase or that you draw yourself or buy a commercially produced router table or insert plate.
Look for router tables that have miter gauge slots and fences that lock down securely. You should also consider buying or building a table that incorporates feather boards to hold the work against the fence and tabletop
Router Edge Guides
Router edge guides allow the router to be repeatedly positioned at a set location from the edge of the workpiece.
The edge guide consists of a fence that rides against the workpiece edge. The router is connected to the fence by metal rods that fit in standard attachment holes on the router base. This setup allows you to rout grooves, flutes, and mortises parallel to the workpiece edge.
Router circle cutting jigs
Router trammels and circle cutting jigs let you cut perfect 360-degree circles or arches of various radii with the router and a straight bit.
It’s been my experience that routers cut cleaner circles in wood than any other woodworking tool, including jigsaws. The sharp edges of the bit combined with the consistent geometry of the bit pivoting on the trammel point reduce the likelihood of grain tearout, especially when removing material in incrementally deeper passes with a sharp bit that is rotating at the proper speed.
Guide bushings screw into the base plate opening, surround the bit, and guide the router against a reference surface. When template routing, a template is attached to the workpiece.
The template is constructed in the final desired shape of, for instance, a furniture part such as a tapered leg. The guide bushing rides against the template, guiding the router bit as it removes material.
The final result is an identical copy of the template.
Butterfly key and other inlay templates
Butterfly keys are patches made of wood or other material that have been shaped to resemble a butterfly’s wings or a bowtie. They can be solely decorative or used to strength workpieces by bridging cracks or gaps in the board.
Templates for butterfly keys and other shapes of inlays can be purchased or made. These templates make use of bushings described earlier to guide the bit as it cuts the recess for the key or inlay.
Sign making templates and jigs
Sign making templates are letter-shaped accessories used with a router to carve lettering for signs. Again, they are used with guide bushings to keep the router on track.
Sign making jigs can be purchased to hold the templates in place during routing, or the templates can be taped down.
Dovetail and other joinery jigs
Dovetail and mortise and tenon jigs are used to rout parts for these types of joints. These jigs can be simple single-piece templates or complex tools with adjustable fingers that allow you to cut a wide range of joint sizes and shapes.
An example of a great dovetail router jig is the Leigh jig featured in the YouTube video from The Wood Whisperer below.
How to Set Up and Use a Hand Held Router
You need to know how to set up a wood router properly in order to get the best results from the tool.
Setting up and using a wood router is not complicated, but you should take extra care around the bit because it extends from the base of the tool and is exposed. You need to be aware of the bit’s sharp edges at all times.
Even a router that is turned off can cause a serious cut if you brush your bare hand or arm against the bit’s cutting edges.
Let’s take a look at the basic steps for setting up a hand-held router for shaping edges or routing a rabbet, groove, or dado.
Make sure the router is unplugged. Never change a router bit with the router plugged in! Router bits can do as much damage to your fingers as a table saw blade, so safety is a priority.
Select the right size collet for the bit. If your router has different sizes of collets to hold the bits, select the one sized for the bit you plan to use.
Install the bit securely in the collet. Make sure the collet is tight enough so that the bit won’t slip or come out of the collet, but not so tight that the collet is deformed when you tighten the collet nut.
Usually, you will finger tighten the collet, and then use the collet wrenches to turn the nut to the final tightness. Some routers come with only one wrench but have a spindle lock that is depressed to keep the spindle from turning as you tighten the collet nut.
The bit should be inserted until it is about 1/4 inch from the collet nut face. Inserting the bit until it bottoms out can cause the bit to get stuck and be very difficult to remove later.
Adjust the depth of cut
Several factors determine the proper depth of cut:
- The size (HP) of the router motor. The depth of cut should not be so deep that it strains the router motor. You should reduce the depth of cut and make multiple passes at increasingly deeper depths if the motor slows down or if you have to use extra force to move the bit through the wood.
- The type and size of bit. Small bits, such as 1/16 inch straight bits used for cutting veins for inlay, will break if you try to remove too much wood at one time. Larger bits like straight or spiral bits are designed to remove larger amounts of wood in one pass. However, excessive depths of cuts with these bits can also cause burning of the wood and shorter lifespan for the bit. Most router manufacturers recommend removing no more than 1/8 inch of wood at one time and using several passes for deeper cuts.
- The type of wood. You can make deeper cuts in softwoods like cedars or pine. However, you want to take shallower cuts in hardwoods like maple, ash, oak, etc., to avoid excessive strain on the motor and bit.
How to set the depth of cut for a Bosch RA1166 plunge router base
The steps to set the depth of cut vary depending on the type and model of your router. Follow the instructions for your particular router to ensure the depth is set properly.
The steps that follow below are used to set the depth of cut on the Bosch RA1166 plunge base and the RA1161 fixed base that come with the popular Bosch 1617EVSPK combination kit.
To set the plunge router to the desired cut depth, sit it on a flat surface such as your workbench or table saw top, loosen the plunge lock lever, and then lower the router housing until the bit touches the surface.
The bit is now in the “zero” position, from which you will make the final depth adjustments.
Next, turn the depth stop turret so that the lowest stop is aligned directly beneath the depth rod. Release the depth rod stop so that the rod comes to rest on the stop. Move the depth indicator until the indicator line is aligned with zero on the depth scale.
Set the final cutting depth by sliding the depth rod up until the indicator line is at the desired depth as shown on the indicator scale, and tighten the depth indicator knob to secure the rod in position.
Many routers, like the Bosch plunge base, have a fine depth adjustment system that allows you to make very precise adjustments to the cutting depth of up to 1/32” in 1/128” increments.
The fine adjustment knob is turned counter-clockwise to increase the cutting depth. The knob is turned clockwise to decrease the depth of cut.
During use, the plunge base should be locked securely in place for each pass, and then lowered gradually until the final cutting depth is reached when the depth stop rod comes to rest on the turret stop. The plunge lock lever is spring-loaded and will return automatically to the locked position.
To raise the router, depress the plunge lock lever to the left and release pressure on the router. The router will automatically raise the bit from the workpiece.
How to set the depth of cut on a fixed base router (Bosch RA1161 fixed base)
Like the plunge base, the fixed base that comes with the Bosch 1617EVSPK combination kit, is equipped with a micrometer type fine adjustment system to provide micro adjustments for very accurate cutting depths.
The Bosch 1617EVSPK motor housing has three horizontal notches spaced ½ inch apart for coarse adjustments of the bit depth in three ½” increments. To set the depth of cut on the fixed base, the base clamp lever must be released.
Large depth adjustments are made by depressing the coarse adjustment release lever and lowering or raising the housing to the desired depth.
The fine adjustment knob is then turned clockwise to lower the router bit or counter-clockwise to raise it.
Once the adjustments have been made, the base clamp lever is fastened to secure the motor.
Selecting proper router speed
The speed at which a router removes wood is astonishing! As the motor spins the shaft, the shaft of the bit rotates at speeds from 8,000 to 25,000 RPM. However, the edge of a router bit travels faster than the router shaft speed.
This means the outside edges of a bit with a two-inch circumference being rotated at a shaft speed of 18,000 RPM are actually traveling at over 160 MPH!
A good quality router has variable speed adjustment to allow you to select the proper speed for the routing operation at hand. The speed should be matched to the size of the cutting bit. Proper speed selection results in a higher quality finished cut and extends the life of the bit.
Router bit speeds should be reduced for larger bits because of the safety hazards as well as to avoid excessive wear and tear on the router motor, bearings, and bits.
Your router’s exact speed settings, if so equipped, may vary. However, here are commonly recommended speed settings for bit sizes:
Router Feed Direction
In handheld use, the router bit rotates in a clockwise direction. In most cases, the feed direction, or direction in which you move the router is from left to right, or counter-clockwise, for outside edges.
The feed direction is clockwise, from right to left, if you’re routing the inside edges of a cutout.
When the router is mounted in a table upside down, reverse the feed direction to right to left for outside cuts and from left to right for interior cuts. Just remember, the feed direction is always against the bit’s rotation. Because the bit is rotating into the wood, the grain is lifted up and provides resistance, making it easier to control the router.
Moving the handheld router from right to left is known as climb cutting. Climb cutting can provide smoother cuts as the grain is pulled down during the cut, reducing the splintering and grain tear out that often result from the counter-clockwise feed.
However, climb cuts can be dangerous if not done correctly because the router naturally wants to move in the direction of the bit’s rotation. If moved in a counter-clockwise direction, or from right to left, the work piece exerts less resistance to the bit’s cutting edges. This reduced friction can make the router lurch forward, causing you to lose control of the tool if you are not firmly holding it.
Additionally, if the workpiece is not securely clamped to a bench or other work surface, it could be grabbed by the bit and propelled through the shop.
Click here for an article from The Router Workshop that has great visuals showing the proper feed direction.
Types of router bits
A router is of no use to you if you don’t have router bits to cut woodworking materials. Therefore, you will want to purchase a few basic router bits you buy a router and add to your collection as your project needs dictate.
Router bits come in two shank (the part that fits in the collet) sizes, ¼” and ½”. You will need to buy bits that fit the collet for your router.
If your router has interchangeable collets and can accept either size, opt for the ½” shank bits when available. These bits are heftier than the ¼” bits and are less likely to snap when excess lateral force is exerted on them like when routing mortises.
Most router bits will have either high-speed steel or carbide cutting edges brazed to the bit. Because carbide is harder than steel, their edges will stay sharp longer than the steel bits. However, there is a trade-off in that carbide is more brittle than steel, which can result in the cutters chipping if you don’t handle them carefully.
Look for bits with thick carbide so that they can be reground to sharp edges multiple times. Also, make sure the brazing is smooth and not shoddily done. Poorly fused carbide tips can break off the bit.
Consider buying bits that have anti-kickback features as part of their design. These types of bits have larger bodies that stop the bits from taking too large of a bite and catching on the workpiece.
Anti-kickback bits also tend to last longer as the larger mass allows the bit to run cooler.
You also need to determine how you will use a bit when selecting one. Some larger bits, like raised panel bits, should be used only in router tables because their size and weight make them too dangerous for use in handheld routers.
Recommended basic set of router bits
The following selection of bits should handle a majority of routing tasks you will be doing as a new woodworker. These bits can be purchased individually or as part of a set.
A note of caution: You can find router bit sets that may contain 50 or 70 bits with different profiles. These sets are often inexpensive, with each bit costing an average of $2 each. However, I recommend you do not purchase sets of bits that contain profiles you are likely to never use. These router bit sets are often poorly made and quickly lose their sharpness.
Instead, you will be better off buying the best quality of bits you can afford over a period of time.
- ¼” straight
- ½” straight
- 3/8” spiral upcut
- ½” 14 degree dovetail
- ¼” roundover
- 3/8” radius cove
- 45 degree chamfer
- ½” flush trimming
- Rabbet bit with set of bearings of various sizes
- Slot cutting
Featured image credit: Copyright: yanik88 / 123RF Stock Photo<