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Must Have Router Bits

The Top Ten Bits for Any Job in Your Workshop

It’s a router bit jungle out there. The various profiles alone would account for several score, but considering that each router bit you’ll find comes in a range of diameters, lengths, angles and other variations, the number of available bits increases exponentially — there are literally hundreds.

The Top Bits for Any Job in Your Workshop

It’s a router bit jungle out there. The various profiles alone would account for several score, but considering that each router bit you’ll find comes in a range of diameters, lengths, angles and other variations, the number of available bits increases exponentially — there are literally hundreds.

If your routing needs are decorative, you’ll find numerous bits that create attractive edge treatments, moldings, panels, fluting and millwork. Likewise, if you look at your router as an essential joinery tool, you’ll find bits for dovetails, dadoes, rabbets, locking miters, finger joints and more. And if you have some other way to use this tool, consistently cited as the most versatile in the shop, you’ll undoubtedly find a router bit specifically for that purpose, too.

A router’s not really a tool at all, just a spinning motor. It doesn’t become a tool until you chuck a bit into it. But once you do add that bit, it defines the kind of tool that router becomes. How you define it is up to you.

With that in mind, you could stock up on every bit there is. Or, you could buy 10 of the most useful bits and you’ll be covered for 99 percent of what you’ll need in the workshop. But which bits make up the perfect top 10? Let's take a look below.

Stile and Rail Bit Sets for Frame-and-Panel Joinery

Stile and rail bits — sometimes referred to as “cope and stick” bits — most commonly come as a set of two bits that facilitate the creation of truly accurate frame-and-panel joinery. Because cut profiles on stiles and rails must match perfectly, it’s not surprising that the bits are mirror images of one another. Some “sets” are really single bits that stack one arrangement of cutting edges above the other, making for a fairly tall bit.

In use, you would first make all of your stiles (or rails). Then remove the bit and install its mate in the table, using one of the finished workpieces as a guide to get the height set correctly for machining the mating rails (or stiles). Using a single-bit stile-and-rail cutter is the same process, but there’s no need to remove the bit. When finished with your first set of parts, raise or lower the bit as appropriate so the new cutters come into contact with the workpieces, then cut the matching profiles.

Getting these bits set up accurately can be a trial-and-error process, so be sure to make some expendable practice workpieces to get the setup just right before routing your real workpieces. Once you have the bit set to your liking, cut off and save a short segment of that practice workpiece; it’ll make setting up and repeating the cut that much faster in the future.

Stile-and-rail bits must always be used in a router table. These heavy bits have a lot of metal and a lot of cutting surfaces and angles, making them difficult to control in handheld routing. Restricting their use to the router table is not only much safer, but the rigidity of the table-and-fence setup also makes for better control and more accurate routing.

Chamfer Bits for Straight Edge Countertop Cuts

Chamfer bits make a single kind of cut — a straight angled edge — but, depending on the bit’s cutter angle, you can make it do a number of tasks. A 45-degree chamfer bit can create perfect miters for boxes. Other angles can be used for coopering (a 11.25-degree bit makes the correct edge angle for a 16-segment polygon). Like a roundover, a chamfered edge can ease sharp corners. Laminate installers often use a chamfer on countertop edges.

Available cutter angles depend on the manufacturer, but you should be able to easily find 11.25, 15, 22.5, 25, 30 and 45 degrees. You’ll probably use a 45-degree chamfer more than any other. Since the size of a chamfer is controlled by how far the bit is extended from the router, it’s not surprising that there are somewhat fewer sizes of chamfer bits available than other styles.

Dovetail Bits, the Best Bet for Machining Joinery

For machining dovetails, there’s really only one choice, but it’s a perfect one. Dovetail bits make dead-on angled slots in a single pass, and they can be used with a number of jigs and templates. (For template use and for many commercial jigs, you’ll want a dovetail bit with a shank-mounted guide bearing.) These bits excel at making traditional dovetails, of course, but used in a router table with a fence, they’re also your best choice to create sliding dovetails useful for carcass joinery. These sliding dovetail joints are like dadoes on steroids: They have the strength of a regular dado, plus the locking power of a dovetail. Unlike traditional jig-made dovetail joints that are made with a combination of dovetail and straight bits, sliding dovetails use the same bit for both the angled groove and the tongue — a single pass is all you need for the groove; one pass on each side makes the tongue.

Dovetail bits are available in a variety of angles, from 7 to 18 degrees, with 14 degrees being the most commonly used. For sizing your dovetails, you’ll find bits in a range from about 1/4" to 1" in diameter.

All router bits should be kept sharp, but this is especially the case for dovetail bits — a dull bit makes for truly ugly dovetails with lots of “furry” tearout.

Roundover Bits for Making Curved Edges on Workpieces

The perfect choice for easing sharply squared edges, roundover bits are sized by radius. (Imagine that curved edge as part of a circle — the bit size corresponds with the radius of that full circle.) Sizes start at 1/16" radius that barely breaks a square edge — in fact, unless you have a lot of edges to do, you might be better off using a sanding block for that kind of roundover — on up to a 1-1⁄2" radius bit that is probably far larger than most shops would need. (Even larger roundover cutters exist, but they’re more suited to industrial applications.) You can buy a set with several bits, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably use the 1/4", 3/8" and 1/2" radius bits most often.

Roundover bits are normally used to create a smooth, even curve on a workpiece, but they also have one sharp cutting edge at the bottom of the radius that creates a 90-degree cut at the top of the roundover if the bit is fully extended. Used in this manner, a roundover bit makes a decorative thumbnail edge. A variation on the roundover bit has these 90-degree cutting edges both top and bottom, and it is often called a beading bit. The bit creates a curve bounded on each end with a 90-degree corner.

Rabbeting Bits Have Bearings for Any Size Joinery

Yet another adaptation of a straight bit, a rabbeting bit sports the same cutting edges but places them on a shorter, wider body. The top-mounted bearing rides the workpiece, while the cutting edges create the rabbet. The diameter of the bit combined with the depth of cut determines the size of the rabbet.

Rabbeting bits can be purchased in a variety of sizes depending on your joinery needs, but there is a one-size-fits-all version that uses a single bit with interchangeable bearings. Although the bit diameter doesn’t change, the different size bearings alter how much of the cutter length is exposed to the edge of the workpiece. Typically, these adjustable rabbeting bits come in a set with bearings that will create rabbets from 1/8" in width using the largest bearing, to 1/2" wide with the smallest. The number of bearings included varies with manufacturer, and some sets even include a bearing that exactly matches the overall diameter of the cutting edges, which can effectively turn the rabbeting bit into, you guessed it, a flush-trim bit.

Straight Router Bits Cut Joinery and Rabbets

If you could only have one bit, one that would still make your router the most versatile tool you own, it would be the jack-of-all-trades straight bit. Used with a fence on your router table, a beefy straight bit can make rabbets and tenons, while a narrow-diameter straight bit cuts spline slots, grooves and inlays like a champ. Paired with the right jig, it’ll turn out perfect box joints. Need dadoes? A straight bit can make ’em fast on a router table or via a handheld router used with a guide. Routing handheld with the appropriate guide or jig, a straight bit can cut hinge, lock and joinery mortises, and can even level a tabletop. With a suitable fence arrangement, a straight bit turns your router table into an edge jointer. And that’s just getting started — as you just read, if you add a bearing to a straight bit, it becomes a whole different kind of cutter.

Because they can do so much, straight bits come in probably the largest range of sizes — both diameter and length — of any standard router bit, meaning that you can more easily size the bit to the job. Straight bits are often sold in sets offering different diameters and lengths. Specialized straight bits are also available, such as slightly undersized bits for creating perfectly snug dadoes to house plywood that often arrives undersized of its nominal thickness.

Flush-trim and Pattern Cut Handheld Router Bits

Would you like to be able to make identical curves or shaped details on more than one piece of stock? Then you need a flush-trim or a pattern bit. With the bearing at the top (the end opposite the bit’s shank), it’s called a flush-trim bit and, as the name implies, trims one surface flush with another. The most obvious use is trimming applied laminates level with the edge of a countertop — that one function makes a flush-trim bit the most common bit used with laminate trimmers — but it can really make just about any two surfaces flush. The bit does this with cutting edges that are exactly even with the guide bearing. As the bearing rides one surface, those cutting edges level the adjacent surface with the first.

Move that bearing to the bit’s shank, and it becomes a pattern bit. It functions in the same way with cutting edges that are even with the bearing’s rim, but in this case the bearing generally follows a removable template affixed to the top of a workpiece rather than a permanent surface. By rough-cutting the workpiece slightly larger than the template, the bit will turn out multiple finished pieces, each matching the template exactly. All you need to do is temporarily attach the template, use it to guide the pattern bit, then remove the template and attach it to the next workpiece.

While they can be used in table-mounted applications, flush-trim and pattern bits are most typically used in a handheld router.

Cove Router Bits for Cutting Concave Edgings and Moldings

Cove bits are the mirror image of roundovers, creating a concave profile. Useful and attractive in their own right for decorative edges on tables, they are often used in combination with other bits to create intricate moldings (nearly every molding I’ve seen incorporates at least one cove). Paired with a matching roundover, you can create rule joints for drop-leaf tables.

Like roundovers, cove bits are sized by their radius and are often sold in sets. As with most sets, you’ll likely find yourself not using the bits at each end of the size range; unless you regularly make a lot of molding or have other needs for concave routing, you’re probably better off getting multiples of the specific sizes you need. For creating coves on the edge of 3/4" stock, a 3/8" or 1/2" bit will prove the most useful.

Because they’re round (looking at a cove bit edge-on, it’s really a hemisphere mounted to the shank), there’s a lot of metal there, making for a heavy bit. Larger radius cove bits should always be used in a router table.

Ogee Bits for Cutting S-Curves in Edge Profiles and Moldings

When it comes to edge profiles, few are more attractive than the ogee. Ogee bits come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, but all are based on some form of the basic “S” shape. This S-curve can be shallow or deep, narrow or extremely wide. A plain ogee bit is a simple S-curve, but it still lends an elegant profile to workpieces. A Roman ogee bit creates a profile that has a steeper curve to the S-shape, and adds a 90-degree cutting edge at the bottom of the curve that creates a bead at one end of the profile. The shape of the profile can get quite intricate, with any combination of notches and grooves as part of the curve.

As with cove bits, ogees are often combined with other bit profiles when creating molding. Ogee bits with extremely wide diameters are often used to create profiles on tables and, not surprisingly, are sometimes called table edge bits. For safety, these large-diameter bits should always be used in a router table setup, and preferably with a variable-speed router so the rotational speed can be lowered a bit. The cutting edges of wide bits travel very, very fast; lowering the speed increases safety and reduces burning — multiple passes are recommended.

Specialty, Round Nose and Raised Panel Bits

Round-nose bits (also called core-box bits)

Because they cut rounded grooves, they’re ideal for sign making, fluting, decorative grooves, finger-pulls, moldings, millwork and more. Typically used with plunge routers, but in a router table with fence or handheld router with an edge guide, they’ll also cut coves.

Raised-panel bits

Create the profiled edges on door and other panels. Single-cutter bits shape only one face, but two cutter bits form the front and back of a panel at the same time. These bits are among the most massive and must always be used in a table setup. They also take off lots of stock, so multiple passes are necessary.

Specialty molding bits

These are use-them-once-in-a blue-moon cutters. They’ll never see daily duty in your shop, but for a special project requiring an intricate edge, they’re well worth their price. The one shown at far right below makes a beautiful table edge.

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