If you’ve got visions of spiffy new routers dancing in your head this holiday season, you’re going to need a good shopping guide to help pluck the perfect sugarplum. These days, there are more routers on the market than even Santa can keep up with — 88 different machines or packaging options and counting! That’s why we’ve put together this Tool Preview article. It’s NOT a head-to-head tool test; instead, we’re dedicating this space for our first-ever, comprehensive router shopping guide. It includes every major-brand router currently on the market, with the critical stats you’ll need to make that buying decision a lot easier. We’ve grouped them into four primary categories: trim routers, mid-sized routers, combination fixed/plunge base kits and full-size routers.
Matching a Router to Your Needs
If this will be your very first router or you’re just getting started in the hobby, choosing the “best” machine can be bewildering, but it doesn’t have to be. Before you get lost in the sea of router sizes, prices and features, step back and consider what you want your new router to do. In other words, focus on function, and try to be realistic about your skills and needs.
If a router will basically be a means for you to soften sharp edges or cut an occasional small profile, a trim router may be all the machine you need. Today’s trim routers are compact, nicely appointed and affordable. They’re small enough to stand on the edge of a board for trimming off edge banding or laminate, yet powerful enough to handle most smaller profiling bits. You can grip a trim router easily in one hand, and the compact size won’t feel intimidating to control. Trim routers are also ideal for cutting hinge mortises, small dadoes and even fine joinery, so it will continue to be a useful tool as your skills grow. For many jobs, I actually prefer a trim router over larger machines. They’re tiny but remarkably potent.
Of course, a mid-sized router will cover more bases than a trim router will. Here, we’re talking about a 1.75- to 2.25-hp machine that requires two-handed operation with either a fixed-or-plunge-style base. If you want just one router to do most every kind of routing task, including moderate to large profiling cuts, dovetailing and mortising, definitely set your sights on a mid-sized machine. For all-around woodworking, a mid-sized router is the workhorse of both serious hobbyists and professional shops.
Within this middle category of routers, you have two base style options to choose from: fixed and plunge. A fixed-based router can be set to a full range of cutting depths, and the handles are positioned near the bottom of the base, so it has a pleasantly low center of gravity when feeding the tool along. However, a fixed base won’t allow you to plunge the bit into the wood. You’ll need to turn off the router and reset the motor in the base to change the cutting depth. Fixed-base routers can be used for general profiling or other cutting operations, provided you can feed the bit into the edge of the wood. They’re also the usual choice for router table applications.
Plunge bases are different animals. Here, the motor is mounted between two spring-loaded posts on the base. You can vary your cutting depth instantly and without turning the tool off by simply unlocking a lever or knob and raising or lowering the motor housing.
Plunge routers are equipped with a depth stop system so you can step off a series of cuts to create a deep mortise or cutout. The depth stop can also help you reset the tool to the same cutting depth without measuring — it’s ideal for repetitive cutting situations.
For all practical purposes, a plunge router can do everything a fixed-base router can do, but the handles and motor are mounted higher up on the base to facilitate the plunging motion. The higher center of gravity can feel a bit unstable, especially when you’re milling small or narrow stock. I tend to use my plunge router for mortising or hogging out waste on an inside cutout, but I reach for a fixed-base machine for nearly everything else.
Do You Need a Full-size Router?
When it comes to routing, bigger isn’t always better, especially if you plan to use your router more as a handheld tool than under a table. Although useful, unless you plan to use really large profiling bits or raise panels for cabinet doors, a full-sized router is more machine than you’ll need for ordinary profiling and joint-making. That extra weight, size and power can even work against you on smaller or delicate work. Still, if your budget will allow it, a 3- or 3.25-hp router will give your router table the gumption only exceeded by a shaper. It’s an investment that can easily wait for a while until you get serious about the heavy-duty jobs. With that said, once you step up to a big router, there are many good fixed-base or plunge models to choose from.
Combo Kits … Best of Both Worlds
Twenty years ago or so, routers were only made with dedicated bases. Fixed-base or plunge-base … the twains just never met. Not anymore. If you can’t decide between buying one or the other, a combination kit may be the perfect solution. Here, you get a motor pack that mounts in either a fixed or plunge base — both are included. The bases are fully featured and capable of doing the same precise work as a dedicated fixed or plunge router. The added advantage of a combo kit is that you can mount one base in a router table and use the other for handheld routing. Then, just swap out the motor to power whichever base you happen to need. A combo kit is an excellent way to maximize your initial investment, and it costs less than buying two separate routers, with no appreciable compromise in quality. It’s the routing equivalent of a marriage made in heaven, so it’s easy to understand why both the number and variety of combo kits continues to grow.
Compared with today’s laptops, cell phones or hybrid cars, a router seems like a pretty simple machine: it’s basically a motor with two handles that spins a really sharp bit. Yet, that simplicity is what makes it so impressively versatile. A router can create elaborate profiles, cut a workpiece in two, duplicate shapes, soften edges, drill holes, trim veneer or laminate, make a wide variety of joints, carve letters … and much more. And the right features on your router can help you squeeze every bit of value and versatility out of it. Here are the best bells and whistles to look for in your next router:
Variable speed: Most mid- to full-size routers are equipped with variable speed control, and it really does help if you use the same router for all your bit sizes. Small bits cut most cleanly at mid to high speeds; large bits need to be dialed down to slower speeds to be used safely. With variable speed, just twist the dial one way or the other and you’re covered, no matter what bit you need to use.
Electronic feedback circuitry: which goes by several different trade names, essentially means the router’s circuitry monitors the load placed on the motor and adjusts the torque output to match. So, during a heavy cut, the motor won’t labor or stall. Power output feels the same. Here’s a feature you won’t truly appreciate unless you’ve used an older router without this sophisticated circuitry. With EFC, you can really focus your attention on the technique and how your cut is progressing and let the router keep pace with you.
Soft start: Without soft start, a router will blast up to full speed the second you turn it on. The noise can be startling, and that surge of power might even make the router jerk in your hands, especially with a big bit in the chuck. It’s not a pleasant way to ease into a tricky cut or get over your trepidations about routing in general. With soft start, you’ll experience a moment of pause after powering it up, and then the router gently accelerates to the preset speed. Soft start comes standard with most new routers that have electronic feedback circuitry. It’s a subtle but pleasant feature to have on a handheld router.
Spindle lock: Many routers require two wrenches for making bit changes. One wrench holds the motor shaft, and the other wrench loosens or tightens the collet. With spindle lock, you push a spring-loaded pin or engage a locking collar to hold the motor shaft in place, so the only wrench you need is the one for the collet. This is a particularly handy detail on dedicated plunge routers where you can’t remove the motor to get better access to the bit. It’s not a do-or-die feature, but it does take a little hassle and knuckle-busting out of the bit changing equation.
Above the table adjustment: If you are like most woodworkers, sooner or later one of your routers will spend its days hanging under a router table. Two relatively new features can make table routing more precise and convenient. First, buy a router that allows you to adjust cutting height from above the table with a handle, crank or knob. It sure beats stooping over to tweak the depth setting from underneath. Second, look for a router designed to extend the collet above the table so you can change bits without lifting out the machine. Machines with ATA will generally include both of these great enhancements.