Wood Routers 101: How to Choose the Best Wood Router for Your Needs

There is a wide variety of electric routers available to woodworkers. If you’re new to using a router, it can be difficult to decide which machine is most appropriate for your woodworking needs. We’ll step you through what a router is, the different types you’ll find, and where each type is best suited. Finally, we’ll look at various products, discuss their pros and cons, and suggest the best solution for your needs.

What Is A Router?

The word rout means to hollow, scoop, or gouge out; therefore, a router is a tool used to cut or hollow out a precise shape in wood or plastic material. Years ago, the only router you could buy was a hand-held device similar to a plane but with a specially shaped adjustable cutting bit. 

You can still buy manual routers, and fine woodworkers often use them. However, the most common router you’ll find today uses an electric or pneumatic motor to turn a shaped cutter head at high speeds. The following picture is typical of a router design.

Electric Wood Router
Electric Wood Router. Photo: 123rf.com

Types Of Electric Router

There are two main types of routers: fixed-base routers and plunge-style routers. Despite the name, fixed base routers are adjustable. However, once the depth is set, the cut depth remains consistent. Plunge-style routers have a spring-loaded base, allowing you to raise or lower the rotating cutter while in use.

You’d use a fixed-base router when working on, or beginning your cut on, the edge of a piece of timber, such as cutting moldings for architraves or skirting boards. Plunge routers allow you to begin and end a cut in the middle of a piece of wood, away from an edge. Here’s a good video to understand the differences between the two router types by WoodWorkers Guild of America:

YouTube player

As you’ll see in the video, you can buy combination routers that allow you to fit the motor and cutter to one of two different bases, either fixed or plunge-style. However, the plunge router is a great all-rounder if you can’t decide which option to choose.

Router Characteristics To Consider

Collet size

Be aware that router cutters or ‘bits’ come in two shank sizes, 1/2″ and 1/4″. The shank slides into a collet on the router before being tightened with a nut to secure it. Smaller routers may only use 1/4″ shanked bits, while the larger offer the option of using both, providing different size collets or an adaptor sleeve.

The 1/4″ bits are usually less expensive than the 1/2″ bits. However, the 1/2″ cutters are less prone to slippage and chatter due to their increased mass, greater rigidity, and the larger gripping area for the collet. If you have a choice, in most cases, it pays to use a 1/2″ shanked bit.

Horsepower

Routers can be segregated by motor size. 

Palm routers have motors rated at 1-1/4 horsepower or less and are ideal for small routing jobs such as laminate trimming, small slots and dovetails, hinge mortising, and forming an edge.

Medium-sized routers have motor powers that range between 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 horsepower. These are the most common routers used by the home woodworker, accepting 1/4″ and 1/2″ shanks and capable of doing heavier cutting such as large dovetails or circles. Most of the router bit sets in hardware stores cater to this type of router.

Large routers are designed for commercial operation or heavy work, having motor sizes exceeding three horsepower. They are large, powerful, and great for heavy production use. However, they are usually excessive for most household use, being expensive, heavy, and cumbersome.

Handle configuration

It’s no surprise that palm routers don’t have a handle but are either shaped to fit into your palm, or their bodies are a small diameter allowing a comfortable grip. Their lightweight and low power make them easy to use and maneuver. 

Most medium-sized routers use knobs or ears to enable a two-handed grip for optimum control while the router is in use. Larger routers often have a D-shaped handle on one side with an auxiliary handle on the other or two D-shaped handles. The D-handle allows comfortable ergonomics during extended use. 

Palm Router Medium-Sized Router Large Router
DEWALT Router, Fixed Base, Variable Speed
Palm Router by DeWalt. Photo: Amazon
DEWALT Router, Fixed Base
Medium Size Router by DeWalt. Photo: Amazon
DEWALT Router, Variable Speed, D-Handle
Large Router by DeWalt. Photo: Amazon

Variable motor speed

Modern routers have variable speed motors, allowing you to choose the right revolutions per minute to suit your cutter diameter. Set it too fast or slow, and the cut quality will suffer, and you may end up burning the wood. Additionally, if you are using a 1/4″ shank bit, running it too fast for its cutter size can cause chatter.

The larger the cutter head diameter, the slower you should run the router. As a rough rule of thumb, use 24,000 rpm for everything up to a 1″ diameter cutter. Then start reducing the speed by 2,000 rpm for every 1/2″ increase in cutter diameter. By the time you get to a 3-1/2″ cutter, you’ll be down around 12,000 RPM.

If you appear to be burning the wood or not getting the finish you need, try reducing the speed in 1,000 rpm increments until everything smooths out.

Dust collection

When buying a router, consider whether there is a fitting to enable dust collection. Routers make considerable dust, and you should always use a mask when routing. While a lack of dust collection isn’t a deal-breaker, the option of connecting the router to a dust extractor or a vacuum will greatly improve your working environment.

Product Reviews

Surprisingly, Makita has scooped the top spot in all three categories. Personally, I’m a Bosch fan but their palm router offering, while nice, is expensive and then you need to buy all the accessories. I loved the DeWalt offering in the medium-sized router category, but with all the quality issues reported by owners, I’m a bit wary of playing the lottery by buying one. 

In the large-sized router category, it was no competition. The Makita product stood head and shoulders above the others in my opinion. The only slight drawback is the lack of variable speed. However, I’m a great believer that the more things a tool does, the less well it does each. The big Makita is just a grunty, simple router, and it comes at a great price.

Palm Routers

Makita RT0701C 1-1/4 HP Compact Router Kit

Makita RT0701CX7 1-1/4 HP* Compact Router Kit
Photo: Amazon

Makita has developed a lightweight but powerful little router in the RT0701C, and they’ve packaged it into three different kits. You can get the fixed base router only, an additional plunge base fitting, or finally, three different bases and many attachments. The variable speed range is 10,000 to 30,000 rpm, and Makita uses a rack and pinion system to adjust the height.

Pros
  1. Well priced
  2. Very powerful motor with soft start
  3. Aluminum housing construction
  4. Rack and pinion height adjustment
  5. Has a wide variety of bases for flexible use
Cons
  1. Some owners report missing components in kits
  2. Other owners report a sloppy rack and pinion adjustment
  3. Unable to make fine adjustments on the edge guide
  4. Thumbscrew adjusters are all plastic

Bosch GKF125CEN Colt 1.25 HP (Max) Variable-Speed Palm Router 

Bosch GKF125CEN Colt 1.25 HP (Max) Variable-Speed Palm Router Tool
Photo: Amazon

A well-respected manufacturer with a great little router. The speed range is 16,000 to 35,000 rpm, so ideal for fine work. Yet, the base is also made to accept large cutters up to 1-5/16″. The motor offers a soft-start function and constant speed circuitry to maintain speed under load. Although one can be purchased, the router doesn’t come with a plunge base.

Pros
  1. Constant speed circuitry on motor
  2. A powerful motor with a soft starter
  3. Easy and reliable height adjustment
Cons
  1. Does not come with an edge guide. You can purchase it separately.
  2. Does not come with a plunge base. You can purchase it separately.
  3. Some owners report damaged units on arrival

Metabo HPT 18V MultiVolt Cordless Trim Router | Tool Only – No Battery 

Metabo HPT UC18YSL3B1M 36V/18V MultiVolt Battery & Charger Kit w/ 18V Trim Router (Tool Only)
Photo: Amazon

This router forms part of Metabo’s 36-volt/18-volt cordless system, although the unit reviewed is the router only. Buying the battery and charger adds a further $130 to the price. The router’s speed range is 10,000 to 30,000 RPM, and the motor comes equipped with a safety brake to stop the bit immediately after the router is switched off.

Pros
  1. Cordless and can be used anywhere
  2. Lightweight
  3. Accepts 1/4″ and 3/8″ collets
  4. Brushless motor for efficiency and long-life
  5. It comes with accessories, including a dust evacuator
Cons

Expensive if you don’t already use the Metabo battery system

Medium Sized Routers

Makita RF1101KIT2 2-1/4 HP* Router Kit, with Plunge Base

Makita RF1101KIT2 2-1/4 HP* Router Kit, with Plunge Base
Photo: Amazon

Makita has put together a nice kit here. A fixed base router with a plunge base, collet spanners, and a sub-base, all packed into a great plastic carry/storage case. The router speed range is 8,000 rpm to 24,000 rpm, and the motor is all ball-bearing construction. The motor brushes are externally accessible for quick owner replacement.

Pros
  1. High quality and powerful router
  2. Great hard storage case
  3. Ball-bearing and aluminum motor construction
  4. Quiet operation
Cons

No dust collection port

DEWALT DW618 2-1/4 HP Electronic Variable-Speed Fixed-Base Router with DW6182 Plunge Base

DEWALT DW618 2-1/4 HP Electronic Variable-Speed Fixed-Base Router with DW6182 Plunge Base
Photo: Amazon

DeWalt has a great reputation in tool quality, and on the face of it, this router appears well made. A lot less plastic than the competitors, with a powerful 12 amp motor offering variable speeds from 8,000 to 24,000 RPM. The body locking clamp is all steel. Depth adjustment is controllable to within 1/64 inch.

Pros
  1. Well-made
  2. Powerful
  3. Good fine depth adjustment capability
  4. Fast motor pack transfer between bases
Cons
  1. No edge guide or dust collection, although these can be purchased.
  2. Some owners report quality issues upon receipt
  3. No hard case for storage

Bosch 1617EVSPK Wood Router Tool Combo Kit – 2.25 Horsepower Plunge Router & Fixed-Base Router Kit

Bosch 1617EVSPK Wood Router Tool Combo Kit
Photo: Amazon

A nicely put-together router kit by Bosch, with a powerful 12 amp motor, aluminum construction, and constant response circuitry to maintain power under load. The depth adjustment range on the fixed base is one inch, with micro-fine adjustments of 1/64 inch. 

Pros
  1. Great storage case
  2. Hardwood handles are a great touch for comfort
  3. Soft start motor
  4. Powerful
Cons
  1. Owners report the motor is tight in the bases making changes difficult
  2. Dust collection and edge guides are sold separately

Large Routers

Hitachi M12VE 3-1/4 Peak High-Powered Variable Speed Plunge Router

Hitachi M12VE 3-1/4 Peak High-Powered Variable Speed Plunge Router
Photo: Amazon

Hitachi (now Metabo) has developed a compelling heavy-duty router in the MV12VE. It may not have quite the plunge depth of its competitors, but it’s a much lighter weight and not as tall. A compact package with the same 3-1/4 horsepower motor offering speeds from 8,000 rpm to 22,000 rpm.  

Pros
  1. Linear bearings to give smooth plunge action
  2. Handles are adjustable for the best ergonomics
  3. Compact size and weight
  4. Soft start motor
Cons
  1. No fine adjustment for depth control
  2. Some owners have reported problems with the collet chuck
  3. Plunge depth only 2-9/16″

Triton TRA001 3-1/4 HP Dual Mode Precision Plunge Router

Triton TRA001 3-1/4 HP Dual Mode Precision Plunge Router
Photo: Amazon

The Triton TRA001 has an eye-catching design and a competitive price. Compared to its peers, it’s a heavy beast at 14.3 pounds, but it has a plunge range of 2-3/4″ and variable speeds from 8,000 rpm to 21,000 rpm. As with many large motors, it has a soft start feature to reduce the torque when powering up. With one adjustment, you can switch this design from a plunge router to a fixed base router.

Pros
  1. Automatic spindle lock when powered off
  2. Fine depth adjustment throughout plunge range
  3. Quick access for motor brush changes
  4. Quick change from fixed to plunge capability
  5. Reasonable price
Cons
  1. Heavy
  2. Some owners reported issues with the auto collet locking system
  3. Problems reported when using as a table router

Makita RP1800 3-1/4 HP* Plunge Router

Makita RP1800 3-1/4 HP* Plunge Router
Photo: Amazon

The Makita RP1800 is a fixed-speed router, offering 22,000 rpm. Like its competitors, it offers linear bearings for smooth plunge action, with a 2-3/4″ plunge depth. Makita offers this router as a workhorse, so it doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does, it does it well. A simple, powerful, and heavy router ideal for cabinet making shops.

Pros
  1. A lock-on trigger
  2. A fine plunge adjustment
  3. Good plunge depth
  4. Smooth plunge action using linear bearings
Cons
  1. No soft start on the motor
  2. Owners report the trigger safety is a bit fiddly

Frequently Asked Questions

When you start a motor, particularly a powerful one, the torque, or rotational force at startup is considerable. This torque can make the router kick, or jump in your hands. It also puts stress on the motor windings as it tries to accelerate the armature to rotational speed. A soft starter ramps up the power to allow a more controlled start, extending motor life and preventing that abrupt twisting force you feel upon startup.

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There are two common sizes of cutter shank, ¼” and ½”. Smaller routers will only use the ¼” shank cutters. Larger routers will have collets to allow both sizes to be used. Always try to use a ½” shank if you have a choice as it provides a more rigid cut with less chatter.

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Fixed base routers are used where the cut will start from, or stay on, the edge of a piece of wood. They can be set to a predetermined depth and are used to trim edges, cut moldings, recesses, or hinge mortises.

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Plunge routers are great when you wish to cut a recess or groove in the middle of a piece of wood without starting from an edge. You preset the depth you wish to cut to, then start the router and lower it into the wood before moving it to cut the desired shape. 

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There is an optimum speed the tip of a cutter should pass through the wood. Too fast, and you will burn the wood and get a low-quality cut. Too slow, and you stress the motor and similarly get a low-quality cut. The larger the diameter of a cutter, the slower it must be rotated to maintain the correct tip cutting speed.

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William Stewart

The proud owner and lead writer of WoodImprove.com. Started writing in 2018 and sharing his love and passion for wood treatments and crafts.

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