If you are reading this then odds are that you love wood. Not necessarily trees or 2×4 beams but that wonderful material from which dreams and everyday items are made. By removing just the right amount of sawdust from just the right areas, adding glue, time, and a little detail work heirlooms are created that can last as long or longer then the trees from which the wood originally came – and one of the primary ways in which we create these gems for the future is through our wood routers. Deciding which power tool is right for you and your wood working tool shop is no easy task. However, with two types of routers to choose between and numerous features and accessories available, even the most opinionated of woodworkers needs a little help to decide on what wood working tool to add to their arsenal.
First you need to decide on whether you want to go with a fixed base or a plunge style router. The pros and cons of each have been discussed ad nauseam and whether or not you plan on mounting it on a router table that may affect that choice. Plunge routers with their ability to do plunge cuts and the capabilities that enable are a bit more difficult for beginners to learn with, but are more capable – especially in hand held scenarios. The spring-mounted engine case that enables the router to "plunge" down into the stock also tends to make the router top-heavy which may cause a problem for some users. Fixed base routers do not have these abilities or problems, and are easier to learn with. But doing "plunge" type work with a fixed router is difficult if not impossible. So knowing the type of work you currently do (and are likely to do in the future) is important if you need to narrow your tool selection to just one tool.
Most routers can work on soft metals like aluminum as well as wood. But if you intend to do metal work, a higher horsepower model (possibly with adjustable RPMs) should be considered. Trim routers start with less then 1/2 hp and most mid-sized routers range from 1.2 to 2 hp. Modern trends are tending towards higher-power units with horse power ratings ranging from 2 to 3 hp. Having additional power provides more capacity and longer life, but of course adds to the weight and cost of the tool. My recommendation if you wish or think you will use a router table is to go with a high power heavy fixed base router like the Milwaukee 5625 – a fixed base router commonly recommended for such usage. Although this model lacks dust control it features a soft-start motor (to avoid jerking from the torque as it starts up) and multiple stage depth adjustment. When table mounted, easy adjustment from the top of a table using the supplied T wrench is available, and the unit raises enough to allow access to the collet for easy bit changes, also. Like all fixed base routers though the motor can fall out if a router lift is not used when you loosen the lock downs to adjust the height.
Reviews in journals such as Woodworker's or Wood magazine do point out that plunge routers with built-in dust control and reduced vibration have advantages. Yet, do to the ease of mounting and longevity, the 5625 is still the recommended choice since it is more convenient in table mounting situations. Plunge routers such as the Bosch 1619EVS may also have a deficit maximum depth, for instance 2.75 "as compared to 1.75". Plunge depth can be a consideration. Other routers reviewed as excellent for table-mount use include the Porter-Cable 7518 which lacks dust control and has issues with the control locations but is still a great unit.
To help identify the features available and how they compare one to another you should probably check the comparative reviews from various publications such as Workbench Magazine, Taunton's Tool guide, Woodworker's Journal and Wood Magazine.
Another important feature not often thought about is quality and customer service. With a tool like a router that you will most likely keep for the rest of your woodworking life, having a company that stands behind its tools and is willing to help you answer questions about features and options is more then just important: it's critical. Many users have complained about various customer service centers even from the major players, but several have stuck out in recent reviews. Perhaps more important even then the service is the need for it – some units such as the Bosch 1617EVSPK have recurring complaints about the switch brakes, probably indicating a persistent problem but no brand is immune. Users seem to have the most complaints about Bosch and Porter-Cable but it may be that these models sell in greater quantities and not that there are inherent problems with specific models.
Warranties are a great way to provide peace of mind. They vary according to manufacturers, with only a single year offered from Bosch, Porter-Cable and Triton with two for Skil and three for DeWalt and Festool. Leading the way at five years is Hitachi and Milwaukee – but of course these brands are also typically more expensive. A good warranty should be a consideration but not the only criteria. After all if you can afford two routers for the price of one with twice the warranty does it really make sense the warranty?
Plunge routers can handle all the same tasks as a fixed-base router as well as letting you plunge the bit down into wood on spring-loaded columns. Despite being slowly harder to learn to control freehand the plunge capabilities, plunge routers stand as a popular recommendation – especially when you are not going to table-mount the unit. Of the available plunge routers the Bosch 1619EVS is most commonly recommended. You can find a more affordable choice in the Hitachi M12V. The Hitachi does not have self releasing collets or a dust port but does not carry a five year warranty as compared to just one for the Bosch. Both choices have 3.25 hp motors and soft start and variable speed electronic controls.
Other features to consider when choosing your router are the ease of height adjustments and bit changing, the handle style (D-handles are most commonly recognized as being best) the plunge smoothness on plunge routers, vibration and available dust control. A few key points that you need to bear in mind when deciding which router is best for you include:
- Get the power you need : High speed and low torque routers will provide the smoothest cuts, but may not hold up under heavy usage or lots of work in hard woods or soft metals. Routers with hp ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 which are typically considered "mid-range" routers can handle deep cuts in hardwoods for short and normal usage but will strain and wear out if used a lot.
- Get a handle on it : If the controls are not easy to use they are not safe. Placing the control switch inside a D-handle would be best, and including a safety switch that will keep you from accidentally turning on the unit is a plus. Having a lockable "on" capability is also vital to prevent finger strain and to allow for easy table mounting.
- Consider future use, router table capabilities, etc. : Placing controls, allowing for external power switches and allowing height adjustment from the top of the table are features you need if you are going to mount the router to a table.
- Look for Two-stage depth adjustment : Having the ability to quickly move over large distances and then make micro adjustments greatly aids functionality. Be sure any gauge system works well and is easy to use.
- Bit access hole size on the base : Look for a four inch or larger opening if possible, with a three inch minimum.
- Collet features : Try to find collets that are made of tempered steel and that have longer depth and plenty of slits to grip the bit and keep it centered.
- Guide bushings : A guide bushing is a sleeve that locks on the base for cutting pattern or for using jigs. If you find a router that uses an industry standard such as the Porter-cable bushings or at least have an adapter this is a plus.
Regardless of which router you choose if you make sure it will meet your needs and it fits your budget you will be happy with your choice. Just take your time and read existing reviews and discussions on the models you are considering prior to purchasing and you and your projects will be happy for years to come.