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Choosing a Router Table
Above all, a router table top needs to be rigid and as near as possible to perfectly flat. In many router table operations - router-cut joinery, for example - precision is of the utmost importance. Even minor irregularities in the tools surface can translate into skewed joints, uneven rabbets and dadoes and other problems.
Along with flatness, a router table surface needs rigidity. As we all know, the stock we mill on a router table is itself never perfectly flat and true. Many times, it needs to be "persuaded" into conformity with the router table's absolutely rigid geometry. A router table that flexes even slightly when it encounters the downward pressure necessary in feeding wood will never reliably produce accurate cuts.
What's the best material for a router table top? As tool manufacturers have known all along, very little beats a hefty cast iron surface for a flatness, stability and durability. A cast iron tool surface also has the mass to soak up the inevitable vibration from tool motors and other moving parts, a heft that also helps keep the tool firmly planted on the floor. If you use your router table on a daily basis or even if you just want the utmost in accuracy and durability, investing in a router table with a cast iron top is worth serious consideration.
Even if cast iron is arguably the best material for a router table, it's not the most frequently used. Most commercially available router tables are made from other materials, such as MDF (medium density fiberboard) or solid phenolic resin. More affordable and much lighter than cast iron, these materials can be perfectly acceptable substitutes, and even be a better choice when portability is a concern.
Because of its low cost and reasonably reliable stability, MDF has become one of the most popular materials for both shop-made and commercial router tables. For a hobbyist on a limited tool budget, an MDF table is often the most practicable choice. That doesn't necessarily spell compromise. As long as it's made to reasonably high standards, an MDF table top can provide years of light to medium-duty service. Here are a few things to look for:
To maintain rigidity and provide good workpiece support, a full-sized MDF router table top should be at least 1’’ thick. Along with meeting this minimum thickness requirement, a MDF table tops should be surfaced on two sides with a material that provides easy sliding and prevents surface wear. Many MDF and particle board machine tables are surfaced with melamine, which provides basic protection from damage by moisture and wear, and is slippery enough for easy stock feeding.
Some MDF tables are surfaced with HPL (high pressure laminate), a much hardier material. HPL is made from several layers of phenolic resin-impregnated kraft paper topped with a scratch resistant melamine paper surface. HPL is many times thicker than a single layer of melamine, is much stronger, and provides considerably greater impact resistance. Because the material is thicker and more resistant to dimensional change than melamine, an MDF router table top surfaced on both sides with HPL is also more likely to remain flat throughout its service life.
Still other router tables are made from solid phenolic resin. Naturally rigid and tough, solid phenolic sheet material is an excellent choice for a router table surface. Phenolic resin router table tops are absolutely impervious to moisture, offer extremely high impact resistance and are virtually guaranteed to retain their original dimensions and flatness throughout their service-life. While solid phenolic router table tops will not provide the vibration absorbing heft of a cast iron table, their basic durability, lightness, rigidity and dimensional stability make them worthy of consideration, even for shops where they will receive heavy use.
Most router operations rely on a mechanical means for guiding the workpiece through the cut. On a router table or in handheld operations, that often means using the bit’s pilot bearing. On a router table, it just as often means guiding the work along the router table fence. The quality of the fence included in a router table package is extremely important.
There’s quite a range in the quality and sophistication of router table fences. The simplest “model” consists of nothing more than a straight piece of lumber clamped to the surface of the table. At the other end of the spectrum are precision after-market fence systems with incremental positioning mechanisms and other advanced features. In between, there are a few very good basic fences, all of which share the same important qualities: They're straight and rigid, easy to position, stay in position reliably, and offer ample positioning range.
Along with the general quality of the fence, there are two basic types of fence to consider: the “split” fence and the one-piece variety. A split fence has two independently adjustable halves. The in-feed side of the fence can be positioned at an offset from the out-feed side of the fence. The purpose of having two independently moving sides of the fence is to offset the in-feed and out-feed sides of the fence to account for material removed from the entire width of the stock during a cut.
The split fence arrangement can come in handy, but it has a drawback: In nearly every router table operation, whether or not the in-feed and out-feed side of the fence are positioned at an offset, it’s is extremely important to have both sides in nearly perfect parallel alignment. With all but the most sophisticated split fence systems, getting the two halves in acceptable alignment can be a considerable challenge.
With a one piece fence, the alignment problem doesn't exist. The fence is one solid, straight piece that covers both the in-feed and out-feed sides of the table. A one piece fence outfitted with a split "sub-fence", (or "fence facing") will still allow you to offset the in-feed and out-feed sides of the fence. By shimming the sub fence on the out-feed side of the table, you are able to account for pre-milling/post-milling stock width differences without worrying about alignment problems.
Above, we touched on the basic qualifications that every router fence should meet: straightness and rigidity, ease of use, reliability and adequate range. Here, using one of our favorites as a model, well look at how theses attributes can be combined to comprise a fence that does it's job easily and effectively.
The heart of the Rockler Router table fence is a straight, rigid one-piece aluminum main fence component. This 32" anodized aluminum "L" fence maintains a reliably straight guide for the workpiece on either side of the cut. The opening between the in-feed and out-feed halves of the fence is designed to accommodate even the largest router bits, without compromising the fence's rigidity.
The main aluminum fence component mounts to the table with T-Bolts and corresponding slots in the table's surface. The large, easy to grasp hold-down knobs make positioning the fence anywhere along its range quick and give you enough torque to make sure that it stays put during the cut.
The Rockler fence also includes two 3" x 16" melamine surfaced MDF fence facings, each of which is slotted for T-bolts front and back. The slot on the back of each facing is used to attach it to the aluminum fence. Using T-slots instead of a single bolt-hole allows you to widen and narrow the gap between the two facings, which is important. To provide proper workpiece support on either side of the cut, you need to be able to bring the fence facings into close proximity of bits of various diameters. The T-slots on the front of the facings make it easy to attach and position workpiece stops, featherboards or shop-built jigs and fixtures.
Recently redesigned, the Rockler fence now has a T-slot integrated into the top of its aluminum main fence component. This new feature allows quick and easy attachment of hold-down clamps, flip stops and other handy accessories, and as an incidental bonus, further increases the fence's rigidity.
On most router tables, the router is attached to a base plate, which fits into a rabbeted opening in the table top. The quality and layout of this seemingly minor piece of equipment can actually have a considerable impact of the functioning of the table. The base plate is what actually holds the router in place in the table, and therefore it needs to be solid and substantial. While solid phenolic, if thick enough, can serve as an adequate base plate material, aluminum is arguably a better choice.
The router base plate must, of course, be compatible with your router. A better system will offer a range of plates that are pre-drilled specifically for one or two router makes and models. Because of their Swiss cheese pattern of screw holes,"one size fits all" plates drilled for several routers can be confusing to install, are inherently less strong, and offer more opportunity for dust and debris to accumulate and potentially interfere with the feeding of stock.
The base plate also needs to sit perfectly level with the surface of the router table. Nearly all tables are designed with a base plate leveling system, but there can be some difference in how different leveling schemes work. A basic leveling system is often comprised of no more than four leveling screws adjusted from the underside of the table. A better plate leveling system will have more points of contact, and the system may even be integrated into the plate's lock down mechanism.
If you're planning to use your router both in and out of the table, you'll want to consider how much work is involved in getting the router mounted. Even if you plan to leave your router in the table permanently, the initial set up shouldn't involve you in an afternoon's worth of work. Check to see whether the router table you are considering makes installation and removal of the router easy.
Unlike a table saw, a miter gauge is often considered “optional equipment” for a router table. For end grain milling, many woodworkers prefer shop-built or after-market "sleds", such as the Rockler Rail Coping Sled. Consequently, many router tables don't come equipped with a miter gauge. That’s not a tragedy. Most woodworkers who use a miter gauge with a router table opt for a after-market miter gauge over the inexpensive T-square model you'll find accompanying most of the router table packages that offer them. Many router tables do come equipped with a miter slot, however. It's a worthwhile inclusion. Some router table operations are easier to perform with a miter gauge - cutting a dado across the center of a long, narrow piece of stock, for example.
Many router tables come equipped with T-slots in various locations for the attachment of accessories. T-slots are extremely handy for positioning featherboards, length stops and other common router table attachments. The most common location for a T-slot is on front surface of the fence. Having a T-Slot in one or two other locations can prove very helpful as well. A slot across the top of the fence, for instance, will allow easy attachment of a flip stop or a couple of hold-down clamps when the need arises.
What kind of router should you buy for a router table? There aren’t any set rules – the router that will work best depends on the capacity of your table, and on the type of work you’ll be expecting it to do. Most would agree, however, that it makes the most sense to get a router that's as powerful as can be reasonably paired with your table. A 2-1/2 to 3+ horsepower model to achieve the most versatile table routing set-up.
A good-sized router provides the extra muscle needed to power large diameter bits. A router that's got a little heft and horsepower will also help smooth out slight irregularities in bit balance and keep things moving at a consistent speed. A smaller, 1-1/2-hp router can still be used, but will limit you to shorter runs and lighter cuts, such as edge forming with small profile bits or rabbets and dadoes that don’t add up to more than 3/8’’ x 3/8’’ material removal at a time.
When installed in a router table, many routers will perform the actual cutting of stock beautifully, only to become maddeningly inconvenient when it's time to raise, lower or change the bit. The simple reason is that most routers just weren't designed with the geometry of a router table in mind.. Without an additional lift mechanism, a typical fixed base router is likely to involve awkward reaching under the table surface for routine height adjustments, and can also make extremely fine adjustments to the height of the bit (a frequent requirement in router table work) next to impossible.
Recently, a few routers more thoughtfully designed for router table use have entered the market. The Porter Cable 892 is a popular example. The PC 892’s adjustment mechanism, designed for both handheld and router table use, represents a vast improvement over the typical arrangement. Dubbed one of a "new breed of router" by Roland Johnson in the February, 2007 issue of Fine Woodworking, the 892 can be adjusted from above the surface of the table and offers a micro-adjustment feature that makes fine tuning the bit height quick and accurate.
For the ultimate in router bit height adjustment ease and accuracy, however, a router lift is still the way to go. Acting as a surrogate router base, a router lift fits into the opening in the router table top and holds the router motor in place. All router lifts share one great feature: they make it possible to change bits and bit height from above the surface of the table. A good quality router lift will also make raising the and lowering the bit effortless, and extremely fine bit height adjustments easy and reliable. Voted "Best Bet" in the October '07 issue of the Woodworkers' Journal, the Bench Dog 40-150 ProLift achieves this smooth, accurate raising and lower action through overall sturdy construction, a carriage fitted with heavy-duty bronze bearings, and two rock-solid ground and polished guide shafts. For smaller routers, look to the equally well constructed Rockler Router Lift FX. Both will let you perform dead-on accurate bit height adjustments, as well as bit installation and removal, without ever having to strain to get to the underside of your table.
If you're buying your first router table, singling out just one from all of the options available may seem like a daunting task, but it's worth taking time to consider your options carefully. Above, we've covered the most important factors. (Of course, if you buy all of the main working components of a router table separately, you'll still need something to set them on - whether you choose a ready-made stand or build one yourself. And there are a few accessories - featherboards and a safety switch among them - that are worth throwing into the mix from the start.)
As far as the main components are concerned, buying a pre-determined router table package constitutes the best deal. Rockler offers a variety of router table packages, in a range designed to cover the needs of a just about every woodworker. Rockler's affordable Router Table Package #1 (which lets you save money by supplying your own stand) comes with a solid, reliable HPL surfaced MDF table, the Rockler 32" Fence and a router plate drilled for you brand of router. It's a great setup for a hobbyist who needs to keep the cost within reach, but doesn't want to sacrifice accuracy and convenience in the process. On the other end of the spectrum, the # 3 Bench Dog Package comes with just about everything you could ever want in a table, including a cast iron top and handsome Baltic birch cabinet base. This Cadillac of router tables would be perfectly at home in a professional furniture making shop, or anywhere that the most durable, accurate machinery is highly valued.
Rockler also offers the opportunity to custom design your own router table. With our unique selection of compatible Rockler and Bench Dog tables, bases, fences, lifts and plates, you now have unprecedented flexibility in designing your own table. If you have very specific ideas about the router table qualities, features and conveniences that matter most, visit our "Build Your Own Router Table" page and see how easy it is to cook up a system that fits the bill perfectly. Whichever way you decide to go - whether you "build it yourself" or choose a money-saving package - you'll find a selection of router tables and router table components for every woodworking style and budget at Rockler.