For many carpenters, woodworkers and home improvement enthusiasts, a router is one of the essential tools in their collection. Routers are extremely versatile, and once you have one, you’ll no doubt find any number of uses for it.
A router is actually a fairly simple tool, comprising only a few basic elements. The heart of the router is a compact, high-speed electric motor, capable of rotating a shaft at speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) or more. At one end of the shaft is a collet into which different bits are secured, which is what gives the router is great versatility. The motor is held into a base with handles attached, giving the router stability, height adjustment for the bit, and a way for you to guide the tool when in use.
Routers can be used in one of two ways. By holding the handles with the bit facing down, you can move the router over the surface or along the edge of the wood to shape the edge of a board, or cut slots or patterns into the board’s face.
The other option is to mount the router in a table, so that the bit is facing up through the table’s surface. In this application, the wood is moved into the router, rather than the other way around. Table-mounted routing makes it easier to shape edges, especially on smaller pieces, and gives more control and repeatability for certain operations.
Once you have the router, you will find hundreds of bits that can be used with it. They range from simple straight bits for cutting a groove or routing a sign, to large and complex shapes for making moldings and cabinet doors. Bits are available in both high-speed steel (HSS), which are less expensive, and carbide-tipped, which hold their edges considerably longer between sharpenings.
Bits are also available in two basic shaft diameters — 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch. The 1/4-inch bits are typically less expensive, while the 1/2-inch bits are sturdier, especially when using large profiles. Some of the lower-end routers are available only with a 1/4-inch collet, meaning it will accept only bits with a 1/4-inch shaft. Better routers have interchangeable collets and are capable of accepting both sizes.
There are three basic types of router bases available. The most common is the fixed base, which has two matching curved or rounded handles that are mounted opposite one another near the base’s bottom, giving you solid, two-handed control when holding the router. A fixed base can also be mounted upside down into a table, to allow table-mounted routing.
Another common base is called a plunge base. It looks somewhat similar to a fixed base, except that the motor can move up and down vertically on a pair of shafts. When performing routing operations where the bit will start and/or stop in the middle of the wood without going all the way to edge — routing a mortise or a slot, for example — a plunge base makes the operation much easier, safer and more accurate.
The third type of base is the D-handle, which is similar to a fixed base but has one small handle and a second, larger, D-shaped handle opposite it. For many people, the D-handle configuration feels more stable, and it also has the advantage of having a trigger built into the handle to make it more convenient to start and stop the router.
Wander through any tool department and you’ll quickly see that routers range from inexpensive to pretty costly, depending on the brand, features and overall quality. As with just about any tool out there, you get what you pay for, and you’re definitely better off investing the money in a top-quality router that will be more accurate, safer to operate, and far outlast the bargain brands.
One way to lower the cost of a high-end router is to shop for a combination kit, which combines two or three different bases with one interchangeable motor. When shopping for a professional-quality kit that will meet all your routing needs, the DeWalt DW618B3 is a perfect example of what to look for. The kit begins with a very powerful and durable 2 1/4-horsepower, 12-amp motor with electronic variable speeds ranging from 8,000 to 24,000 RPM. Routers this powerful have a lot of torque that can twist the tool somewhat in your hands as it starts. DeWalt solves this problem with a "soft start" feature that winds the motor up to full speed slowly, giving you a lot more comfort and control when you fire it up.
The motor is combined with all three of the available bases — fixed, plunge and D-handle. Motor change-out between the bases is pretty straightforward, especially between the fixed and D-handles, and the motor locks in easily and firmly. The motor and each of the bases are precisely machined and have smooth and precise depth adjustments. The vertical plunge mechanism on the plunge base moves smoothly through its full range of motion, and locks firmly in place for accurate depth settings. The rubber overmolded handles are very comfortable to grip, and there’s even a spindle lock to make changing the bits an easy, one-wrench operation.
The DeWalt DW618B3 kit gives you everything you need, including the motor pack, three bases, vacuum adaptor, 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch collets, sub-base concentricity gauge (a handy tool for precisely aligning the base to the bit), a large-hole sub-base for use with larger bits, and a fitted, hard-shell case to keep it all organized.
The DeWalt kit is around $260. There’s also a smaller kit — DW618PK — that doesn’t have the D-handle base for around $205.
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