A router is about as simple as a tool gets — a motor that spins a cutting bit — but it is indispensable in a power tool workshop. Its simplicity opens a world of options. If you don’t own a router, I highly recommend buying one. Or two. In this post I’ll describe the different types of routers and what you need to consider when buying them.
My 2.25 HP Triton router
What you can do with a router
Routers excel at cutting grooves and offer a stable base, the ability to adjust the bit (depth of cut) up or down and the ability to install bits of different sizes and shapes. This combination allows almost limitless potential for removing material in a controlled way.
A router is great for cutting the tails of a dovetail joint, tongue-and-groove joints, mortises and tenons. There are many more uses than I could possibly list here, so look around for articles in magazines and books about cutting joinery with routers.
There are two major types of routers, each with upsides and downsides. Here's a rundown:
The Triton has great features like comfortable handles, speed adjustment and easy access to the power switch.
Large routers come with 1.75 to 3.25 HP motors. This may not sound like a lot, but they are incredibly powerful machines. Large routers are great for removing lots of material and lend themselves to use with a router table, turning a router into a shaper.
The upside of a large router is that it is powerful enough to remove lots of material with accuracy and efficiency without bogging down. The downside is that it can be unwieldy because of its size and weight.
If you are rounding the edge of a small piece of wood, a large router is overkill. One other benefit is that large routers accept bits with shanks that are ½” in diameter. They often come with replaceable collets that also allow you to use bits with ¼” diameter shanks.
Turn the router upside down and mount it in a router table to turn it into a shaper.
Triton router mounted under the table
I'm ready to cut parts for some Adirondack chairs using this pattern bit on my router table.
Small routers are also known as trim or laminate routers. They got that name because of their job of cutting edge banding flush to pieces of plywood in constructing cabinets. They come with motors in the 1 to 1.25 HP range.
The upside of a small router is that it is light enough to be easy to use, especially for detail work like chamfering an edge. The downside is that it lacks the power to remove lots of material. They also accept bits with smaller shafts, usually ¼” in diameter. These bits can break if too much is demanded of them.
The Dewalt 611 router kit comes with a 1.25 HP router and a detachable plunge base; photo via Willie Sandry.
Many routers, both large and small, now come with a plunge base either as an attachment or built in. A plunge base allows you to cut a groove that starts and/or stops inside the edges of a board. For example, if you want to cut a mortise right in the center of a board, you can position the router at the beginning of the cut, plunge the bit the desired depth into the board, move it the desired distance, then raise the bit. This will cut the mortise without cutting the surrounding material. A plunge base will help anytime you want some kind of interrupted cut.
Dewalt 611 1.25 HP router and 618 2.25 HP router side by side; photo via Willie Sandry.
One router or two?
Ideally you would own two routers: a large router and a small router. If you can only afford one, pick the one that will do the most of what you need. I know people who own 20 routers, each with a certain setting they don’t ever want to change. That’s excessive, to say the least. But having multiple routers can be quite handy. It’s great having a large router that you can dedicate to a router table. That’s how I use my router probably ⅔ of the time. But it would also be handy to have a small router for light work like rounding an edge on a cutting board. I will be getting a small router soon to help cut butterfly dovetail joints.
Routers are incredibly versatile tools. If you are just starting to assemble your tool collection, I recommend starting with a large router because it does so many things well. Add a small router when the need for detail work arises. Be sure to learn solid router tips and techniques for using one in different grain directions, because that is where they become tricky to use. With safety in mind, have fun exploring the endless possibilities a router can offer your woodworking.