The router is an extremely versatile workshop tool, capable of performing any number of woodworking and home repair tasks. It consists of three basic components: motor, base and collet, each arranged in any of a number of combinations. The motor is held vertically in the base, with the bit facing straight down and held in place by the collet.
At the heart of the router is a tough, high-speed, 110-volt motor (although there are also some cordless models now coming on the market). The router gets its work done via the very high rotational speed of its bits, and the typical router motor spins those bits at around 25,000 RPM. Most routers have only one fixed speed, but some higher-end models feature variable speeds ranging from 10,000 to 27,000 RPM. A fixed speed router is fine for almost all of your routing tasks, although the variable speed models give you a little more flexibility in adjusting bit speed to the type of wood you’re working with.
Routers are rated by horsepower, typically ranging from 1/2 to 3 1/2. Lower horsepower models are lighter and less expensive, but lack durability, accuracy, and the power for tough jobs in harder woods. The higher horsepower tools can handle just about anything you throw at it, but at a cost in both weight and dollars. For most home and shop tasks, a router in the 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 horsepower range should be fine.
The router base holds the motor tightly in place so you can work with it, and the style, accuracy and versatility of the base is a big part of the quality and price of any router. The most common style is the fixed base, which has a circular bottom plate, two side handles, some mechanism for raising, lowering and locking the height of the motor – and therefore the cutting depth of the bit – and a place for the attachment of accessories such as edge guides.
A variation of the fixed base is the D-handle base, which places a large, D-shaped handle at one side. D-handles also incorporate a trigger that allows you to start and stop the motor without moving your hand off the base, instead of using the on-off switch located on the motor itself. The choice between a fixed base and a D-handle is really one of comfort and control, and you should hold both of them before making a decision.
The third type of base is called a plunge base. It looks somewhat similar to a fixed base, but has a rod and stop mechanism that allows you to plunge the bit straight down into the wood and stop its depth at a preset point. Plunge bases are very handy – and safer – for performing operations such as mortising, where you want to start and stop the bit inside the workpiece without cutting all the way to edge.
Bases and motors from the same manufacturer are typically interchangeable, so you can purchase a motor and a fixed base and then add another style of base later, without having to purchase another motor as well. Some manufacturers such as Porter-Cable offer nice combination kits that include a motor, fixed base and plunge base, all in one case.
The collet is the locking mechanism that holds the bit in place. Collets come in two sizes, 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch, which correspond to the diameter of the shanks on the cutting bits. The 1/4-inch size is more common of the two, but most of the mid- to upper-end routers come with both size collets and allow for fast and easy switching between the two.
ACCESSORIES AND CUTTERS
There are few tools on the market that have a wider selection of accessories and cutting bits then the router. There are hundreds of bits to choose from, allowing you to cut dados and rabbets, slots and mortises, decorative edges, glue joints, signs and letters, and much, much more. Bits are available in both high-speed steel (HSS) and longer-lasting but more expensive carbide tips, and with 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch diameter shanks. Besides the bits, there are accessories that include edge guides, circle-cutters, guides for dovetails and other joints and all kinds of guide templates.
Another very handy accessory is the router table, which allows the router to be mounted upside-down below the table with only the bit sticking up through the table top. Router tables incorporate a fence and a miter gauge, and allow you even more versatility and accuracy in your cutting operations, especially when working with smaller parts. Router tables can be purchased in any of several styles, or there are lots of plans out there if you want to construct your own.
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