Home > Routers > Routers Buying Guide:
Groovin' with Routers
by David Wall
The right tool for building furniture and cabinetry
Routers are all about grooves. You can make straight, square grooves with a circular saw or a miter saw, but doing so takes a long time and it's hard to get the ends of the cut to look neat. You're out of luck entirely if you need a curved slot (say, for a roll-top desk cover) or one with a nonsquare profile (such as those used for decorative moldings). If you're going to build furniture or cabinetry, you have to be able to make grooves and create profiled edges. In other words, you need a good router.
The Two Types: Plunge and Fixed-Base
There are two basic varieties of routers: plunge and fixed-base. Plunge routers allow you to make cutting-depth adjustments on the fly, without having to turn off the motor. Because you can move the router into position and then lower the bit accurately, they're great for blind dadoes and other slots that don't terminate at the edge of the workpiece. They also excel at cutting mortises and following patterns. Some folks don't like plunge routers because they tend to have higher centers of gravity than fixed-base routers of similar power, and are therefore more awkward to handle. However, this isn't a problem if you plan to mount your router in a router table, which you can buy for relatively little money or make in an afternoon.
Fixed-base routers are best used for jobs that don't require midcut adjustments to the depth of the cut. They're great for dado work, cutting rabbets, and putting decorative facings on edges, and D-handled versions can be turned on and off with a trigger switch so you don't have to take your hand off the router. Fixed-base routers also tend to be smaller, lighter, and less expensive than plunge routers. Actually, you can lock a plunge router at a certain depth and use it just like a fixed-base router. But unless you have a specific need for the adjustable-depth feature of a plunge router, you'll probably be very happy with a fixed-base router.
Details and Accessories
Handles: You'll have to choose between D-handles and knobs. Both handle styles have their advocates, and preferences seem to have as much to do with familiarity as anything else. However, D-handles do put a trigger switch right under your index finger. That's particularly valuable when you're dealing with blind dadoes.
- Collets: To simplify bit changing, we recommend a self-ejecting collet, combined with a spindle lock. The spindle lock loosens the collet with a single wrench; the collet then ejects the bit. Look for a collet that will take 1/2-inch bits, and expect your router to come with a straight-cut bit so you can get started right away. You might want to supplement your basic bit with one or two roundover bits (also called bullnose bits) and perhaps a cove or ogee bit for fancier work. But pay attention with collets: some makers sell routers with metric collets only (typically 9 mm). There's nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that you'll be restricted to metric bits.
- Power: Power ratings for models that can run on standard domestic electricity range from less than 1 to 3-and-1/2 horsepower. One school of thought says you should look for as much power as you can afford, all else being equal. Whether you're attempting to muscle through knots or make deep cuts in hardwood, more power will allow your bits to eat through workpieces easily. But almost invariably, more power means a heavier tool, so the trick is to balance your router needs with a weight that's comfortable.
- Accessories: In addition to a variety of bits and a router table, you'll want accessories including some kind of edge guide or fence (for cutting slots for shelves and facings), vacuum fittings (to keep dust down), safety goggles (routers love to spray chips at high speeds), and ear plugs.
An Alternative Tool
If you're on a budget, try looking into a laminate cutter as a router alternative. While they're not nearly as versatile as full-size routers, an inexpensive lam cutter can do wonders for the appearance of stock lumber. If you round over the edges of a shelf or tabletop--which takes hardly any time at all--you'll be impressed by the dramatic improvement in the workpiece's looks. Additionally, you can use a laminate cutter for fine inlay work and even trimming veneers.
David Wall is the author of several books on Java and the Internet.