Buying Guide

Selecting a Router

Router Basics & Safety - Selecting a Router

There are a few basics common with all routers:

  • Router bits have either a 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch shank. You can get most bits on either size shank. If you're doing some heavy-duty routing with a bit that has a 1/4-inch shank, take shallow cuts and feed the work slowly, or you may snap the bit in two.
  • The shank fits in a nonadjustable chuck called a collet. A router with a 1/4-inch collet won't take a 1/2-inch bit; but most 1/2-inch collets are removable and can be replaced with a 1/4-inch collet, so that you can switch back and forth between 1/4- and 1/2-inch shanks.
  • Carbide-tipped bits cut more cleanly than high-speed steel, which tends to char the wood.
  • Bits designed to shape the edge of a piece of wood generally have a bearing, called a pilot, in the center of the shaft. Guiding the pilot along the edge of the wood guides the router through its cut without letting it cut too deeply. 
  • Ball bearing guides are far better than solid steel pilots, which will mar the wood as you cut.
  • Bits designed to cut grooves through a piece don't have guides. To guide cuts with these bits, attach a fence to the router, or clamp a fence to the work.

Safety Alert

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and practice safe use until you feel comfortable working with the tool.
  • Wear safety glasses and hearing protection when operating a router.
Types of Routers  - Selecting a Router

There are two broad types of routers: fixed-base and plunge base. Some routers offer the versatility of a fixed base and plunged base which are interchangeable. If you’re choosing between one or the other, the plunge router has an advantage if you want to start a cut in the middle of a board. You put the router over the starting point, turn it on, and push the spinning bit into the wood.

Soft-start and speed control of your router

  • Because the router starts at such a high speed, it will jerk in your hands when you first turn it on. A router that uses a soft-start feature revs up to full speed a bit more slowly, assuring a smooth start.
  • Large-diameter bits, like those that make raised panels on doors, suffer from the crack-the-whip syndrome—the outer edge is spinning more quickly than the shaft—and should run more slowly. If you plan to use bits like this, look for a router with electronic speed control that you can adjust to slow the bit down.
Fixed-base router - Selecting a Router

A fixed-base router adjusts by sliding up and down in its base. It’s easy to adjust and works well for the projects on the site. To adjust the depth of cut on a fixed-base router, you generally loosen a lock knob and either turn the base or adjust a knob. Fixed-base routers are a bit easier to make fine adjustments on but are harder to adjust on the go.

Plunge base router - Selecting a Router

A plunge router travels up and down on spring-loaded rods; you can adjust the depth of cut without having to turn off the router. It simplifies starting a cut in the middle of a board, and you can set it to make cuts at a series of different depths.

Router Bits - Selecting a Router

Given the various styles of router bits, each of which comes in a variety to sizes, you have literally hundreds of bits to choose from. You’ll never need even a fraction of them, and your best bet is to buy a bit when you need it.

Here’s a typical selection available at your home center:

(Counterclockwise from bottom left), The first bit is the flush trimming bit (A). A bearing on the bottom of the bit rides along one surface, plywood in this case, and trims the surface above it, in this case plastic laminate, so that the two surfaces are flush with each other. A chamfer bit (B) is used to rout a decorative edge. The roundover bit (C) routs a radius on a piece of stock. The rabbeting bit (D) routs a recess along the edge of the board. It’s often used to rout a recess to house the back of a cabinet. (Counterclockwise from bottom center), The dovetail bit (E) routs a flat-bottom groove with sloping sides and is most often used with a jig to cut dovetail joints in drawers. The straight bit (F) routs a simple groove, which is often used to house shelves or other parts of a cabinet. The cove bit (G) routs a decorative groove on the face of a board. The ogee bit (H) routs a decorative groove along the edge of a board. This bit has a 1⁄2-inch shank, unlike the other bits on this page, which have 1⁄4-inch shanks. Most bits are available on either shank; the 1⁄2-inch shank is more durable, and 1⁄4-inch shanks do occasionally snap off. If you want to use 1⁄2-inch shanks, you’ll need a router that accepts them; not all do. On the other hand, most, if not all, half-inch routers will also handle 1⁄4-inch shanks. If you’re not sure what you’re buying, or what you need, ask the sales staff.