Woodworker’s Guide to Wood Routers

Updated: May 19, 2023

Considering adding a router to your wood shop? A professional woodworker shares his knowledge in this router guide for routerless woodworkers.

Let’s establish one thing right off the bat: A router is not an essential piece of equipment in the wood shop. It’s possible to build a piece of furniture without one. However, the versatility of a wood router is hard to match, and once you learn to use a router, it’ll become one of your go-to tools. It’s great for everything from joinery to edge shaping to custom wood inlay. If you own a router, you’ll use it often. So let’s dive into the details of routers and what type might be best for you.

What Is a Wood Router?

In its simplest form, a wood router consists of a motor, housing and a wood-cutting bit. That’s really it. The size of the motor will vary from 1/2- to 3-hp or more, and the style of housing will vary (fixed vs. plunge base). But ultimately, it’s nothing more than a motor with a sharp spinny thing poking out the bottom.

By the way: In this case, bigger is not always better. A large, unwieldy router with a huge motor may make your life more difficult, especially if you do smaller, more delicate work. More on that later.

What Is a Wood Router Used For?

Here we’ll discuss some of the applications the router can be used for, and a few of the accoutrements that often come with one.

Applications

  • Edge profiling or shaping: The most common application in the home shop. A nice roundover or a clean chamfer (a small bevel) can be made in minutes with an appropriate router bit.

  • Joinery: This is where the router really earns its jack-of-all-trades badge. With the appropriate fence or shop-made jig, a router can reliably cut any number of joints with relative ease, including dadoes, rabbets and mortise-and-tenons.

  • Flush trimming: This is when you cut one piece of material flush to another with a flush-trim bit, i.e. a router bit with a bearing at the top or bottom. I mainly do this in jig making or veneering, although it’s commonly used to flush-trim laminate on countertops as well.

  • Hinge mortising: This can be a labor of love with hand tools. But a good trim router can make fast work of a hinge mortise and let you hang a door in minutes.

  • Inlays: Like hinge mortises, these can be roughed out quickly with a router to create an impressive showcase for your woodworking skills.

Accessories and their uses

  • A fence guide: This allows the router to ride parallel to one edge of the work surface. Create rabbets or dadoes with this.

  • Templates or jigs: These show off the router’s full range of versatility, from letter carving to angled joinery. If you have the patience to create solid, accurate jigs, there’s nothing you can’t do.

  • Collars: These are little brass circles that fit on the underside of the router base. They allow a router bit without a bearing to follow a template or jig. They’re often used in mortising jigs.

Types of Routers

There are many styles and sizes of routers. Here are the three basic types:

Fixed base

The most common type. It generally features a motor between 1-1/2- to 3-1/4-hp. Its depth of cut, once locked, cannot be moved, hence the name. It excels at work where the depth of cut remains constant, such as edge profiling.

Plunge base

A plunge-base router uses the same motor as a fixed base; they can often be bought as a bundle with two bases and one motor. These are for applications where the depth of cut needs to change often, such as mortise routing. With a 1-in.-deep mortise, you may need to take four to six passes to reach full depth, so a plunge router can save you lots of time over a fixed-base.

Trim router

It’s a fixed-base router with a small motor. Often between 1/2- and 1-hp, a trim router is good for flush trimming laminate or veneer. However, I often find myself reaching for it for small joinery applications, due to its convenient size and maneuverability. Don’t discount the trim router!

How to Choose a Router

With so many options and prices, how do you choose the right router for you? Here are three important considerations:

Consider your projects

Are you making a dining table or a tea box? The scale of your current and future projects should determine what router to purchase.

If you do large, heavy work, you might need a good 2-1/2- to 3-hp router to handle those 3-in. mortises in white oak. If it’s small-scale work, there’s no need to overdo it. A trim router is plenty robust for smaller joinery applications and much easier to handle safely.

Consider your space

Forget all the glorious future projects floating around your head for a moment and look around your workspace. Ask yourself honestly: How much space do I have? What’s the biggest object I can realistically make in this space and still have room to work?

If your space is tiny, say a one car garage (around 260 square feet) or less, you probably won’t be building large entryway doors, so there’s no need to drop $350 on a huge router. Buy a smaller router and spend that extra cash on lumber instead.

Consider your work style

Perhaps the most important question is: What brings me joy? If you enjoy small projects, buy a trim router. If you prefer making big things, like dining tables, buy a plunge router. And if you like the quiet mindfulness that hand-tool work brings, forgo the electricity altogether and buy a router plane.

Don’t let a salesperson or well-meaning friend pressure you into buying a tool you don’t need just because someone said it’s versatile. Know yourself and enjoy your work. That’s the whole point, after all.

Five Pro Tips for Router Rookies

Routers can be intimidating at first. They’re loud and powerful with sharp pointy bits. If you’re new to routers, follow my five tips:

Don’t be distracted

Don’t be distracted — listen to the router. It offers audible feedback. If something doesn’t sound or feel right, stop immediately. Assess what’s going on.

Is the collet, i.e. the nut that holds the bit, loose? Is the bit dull? Is the depth of cut too much? If the router is whining, something is wrong. Adjust and try again. Always listen when the router tells you something!

Pay attention to feed direction

The router bit will always spin clockwise. Depending on what direction you feed the router into the wood, you can push against the cut (ideal) or with the cut, which can cause the router to climb cut and run away from you.

Always make sure you’re feeding the router counterclockwise around the workpiece, at least to start. More experience will allow for more advanced techniques in the future.

Take it 1/8-inch at a time

To start, never take off more than 1/8-inch at a time. As you grow more comfortable with the router, you can push that up to 1/4-inch. In the beginning, it’s important to get a feel for the router and work safely within the boundaries of its capacity.

Start slow

Go nice and slow through the cut. Yes, you will likely get router burn. Yes, it will be a pain to clean up. But as you grow more confident, you can move just fast enough to avoid router burn without damaging the workpiece or risking injury.

Keep your router bits sharp

There is nothing as frustrating or dangerous as a dull tool. It will mar your work, cause tear-out, and may risk catastrophe if you push the tool to its limits.

If you see the bit is black or blue, or it’s giving you fits, it’s time to sharpen the bit or purchase a new one. There are plenty of router bit sharpening services around the country. A quick internet search will help you find one.