Router Woodworking


1) One at a time (router bits) or a whole set?

There is no right or wrong answer here. Some points: They're cheaper/unit, nice to have for experimentation, expense can be shared by woodworking pals, usually supplied with free box or holder.

As a rule, a manufacturer does not make a perfect inventory; some cutters are imported, traded, recut from the existing line etc. A set will let you sample a lot of inventory, scrutinize a company's general quality and identify multiple sources. Lifetime woodworkers probably should buy a set. Uncertain about your future in routerdom? Buy as needed; skip the set. More on cutters at the Router Bits page.

2) Routerlifts, any merit?

Yes, but at a disproportionate expense, often priced higher than the router they lift up & down. No need to stoop again to change cutters or depth; shaper convenience to be sure. Continuously adjustable, substantial up/down travel (far more than any router), sometimes with near zero backlash.

Installation not necessarily trivial. Bench dog in photo, a major undertaking; window installation easier. The castings and hardware are heavy; expect to stress your table top for the extra weight. Newer routers are being designed with lift features, PC 890 for example. In my view, most router tables and fences are such that the sophistication of the lift is an anachronism. More on this at the Cutter Depth page.

3) Can I do it with just one router?

Most hand router work can be done with one router. The DeWalt 621 will give you the best chance. Router table use of the 621 could be problematic; the tool was designed for hand use. Sustained heavy commercial work will stress this and most 2HP routers. Lifetime woodworkers should consider 2 or 3 routers. Folks who need a router but don't rout much, those on a budget, and those with an uncertain future in woodworking would do well with the 621. Too much 621 hype here? There are another 50+ routers to choose from. Ergonomics, plunge or fixed, power etc. vary from tool to tool; there's got to be one for you.

4) Is the router all it's cracked up to be?

Not for everyone. It has a hell of a lot of application but not without some adversity. They require a lot of attention, jigs, fixtures, cutters, work stations and so on. You can get to the point where you can predict the outcome and you can do it with great precision but not without experience and attention. If you don't like a lot of noise, flying chip waste, tracking a lot of hardware and attention to detail you won't like the router.

On the other hand, if the utmost in accuracy and target, application and access to the work are paramount, the router will fit in. Working to .001" is about the limit, however.

5) What speed for which cutter?

Obviously we are talking about variable speed routers. Speeds vary from 8000 to a max of about 30,000 RPM for trimmers. Air routers run up to 45,000 RPM. The best speed for a cutter depends on its diameter and length, the balance of the bit, the integrity (newness, bearings, rotational equilibrium, collet etc.) and size of the router, and the waste (how much routed/pass). Small cutters (~1-1/2" in length or diameter) can run up to 25K if they don't vibrate. If they do, they should run at a speed below which the vibration occurs or not at all. Bigger cutters should be tested for their best speed starting at the minimum speed and on scrap. Begin the cut at the desired fence or cutter projection positions. The best speed for efficiency and safety will have to be determined experimentally. Experience is your best ally; the answer is not trivial. Don't expect to run before you walk. Routing with big cutters and no experience is risky business; approach it cautiously and stepwise. I have been called to address the consequences of this mismatch (as an expert witness!)

6) Advantages to edge guide routing?

The biggest advantage to this observer is that you might be able to put off making or buying a router table. Many, if not most, small cutter table operations can be done with an edge guided router. Not as well, due to handling and control problems, but possible nonetheless. Edge guides adjust continuously, some quite precisely, just like the router table fence. A 3/8 straight bit, for example, with an edge guide, can take a 31/64" swipe of the work.

Bearing guided cutters can emboss a work edge, not the fence on the edge guide. The forces are distributed evenly and cancel out some of the edge defects, so edge guided cuts can be crisper. More on the edge guide.

7) Can I expect more cutter use from one brand or another?

Yes, but. Cutter life depends on a lot of things, but your respect for the material and the cutter are critical. Taking too much stock can instantly ruin a cutter or drastically shorten its life. MDF will take the edge off a cutter in 50 feet, but light cuts in cherry with the same cutter may run for 300. In general, cutter wear is evident in a few hundred feet of normal use. The wear may or may not be important to you. A change in cutter depth may express the wear line and spoil nothing more than the cosmetics of the profile. A wear line step in a dovetail bit, on the other hand, may prevent assembly!

So it is possible that a Chinese bit may out run an Italian stallion. 2 cutters of the same ilk from 2 different sources, used in the same controlled way, by the same operator, may indeed differ in cutting life. Is this something to go crazy over? Not in today's market. Router bits are priced so competitively, the few dollars saved here or there will never justify the time spent and scrutiny to carefully quantify the differences. Bottom line: Buy what and when you need it from the source that most closely matches your specifications.

8) Sears router, crap or?

Department store routers: Generally quality matches price. There were exceptions, but now I know of no commercial grade dept. store routers. Expect a modicum of service for rare to occasional use. Most are restricted to 1/4 shanks, depth setting is a guess, cutters often stick in the collets or change position spontaneously.

Can't spend the money on an industrial tool? Buy with intent to sell. Get a DW or PC, use, test, and sell. You'll have a hell of a time trying to ruin one of these and you can easily get 1/2 your money back if you sell or trade it. Better to have a good experience routing than a frustrating or perhaps a risky one.

Caveat: Sears (specifically) does have routers at many price breaks and for the commercial user. The on-sale 40-100$ routers are not for the serious woodworker. These guys (Sears) are masters at instituting new features and appealing advertising matched by unbeatable prices. Some of these features are genuinely clever and ahead of their time. DeWalt's new tool uses a plastic spiral ring-lift for their motors, for example, a mechanism Sears has used for more than 20 years. Don't rule out their tools on my say. Do some homework before you purchase. Maybe test a friend's PC or Milwaukee for something to compare to.

9) My plunger head does not rise to the top of the column (or stop), any consequence to this?

Indeed, a hazard. If the cutter, on the up stroke, does not clear the templet or work you may unwittingly ruin both.

The surprise may startle you enough that you over react and have an accident. Test this on new and used tools. They do get slovenly with heavy use. See "The Router Book" for more on safety; there are a lot of subtleties in routing that are missed in the owner's manuals.

10) Lock miter bits, look easy enough, your take?

Without a doubt, the most difficult cutter to use in all of routerdom. For openers you need plenty of power, good fixturing, finesse of fence and depth of cut control, (this is usually a table router process). You also will need a high fence that won't deflect and a table surface that permits smooth uninterrupted work travel.

Your work has to be flat and well prepared; measures have to be taken to prevent the edge from exit tearout, a backup stick of some sort. The cut should be taken in stages so adjustability and return to final cut settings should be practicable and ordinary.

Expect adversity if your panels are cabinet size and you're trying to wrest them on a router table. I would not use the cutter without being well experienced and knowing about router safety. The cutter height and fence positions are critical. Still determined?

Start the adventure with something like 5/8-7/8 oak, small pieces that you can handle. Scale up as your control and fit improve; don't try this with expensive stock and with no experience.

In my view, this cutter should have been left in the shaper cutter inventory from which it was prostituted.

11) Jointer won't work?

The simplest of (and most critical) shop machines yet very technique sensitive.

If the machine is not set up right, almost no hand tricks are available to compensate. The worst part of this is: If you can't interrogate the jointer's geometry you have no way of knowing whether the problem is you or the tool.

These are the critical setup adjustments:

  1. Tables flat and parallel to each other; if they tilt east/west, north/south or both, you can't joint. You need a long (minimum 3') ground straight edge to find this out.
  2. Knives all at the same height and parallel to the out feed table. Very little tolerance for this, in my view, maybe +or-.0015". Knives too high: Expect the work to rock or snipe. Too low: And you can't joint, the work will ram into the outfeed table.
  3. Fence: The least important element but important nonetheless. Fence must be straight and square to the table. Machinist's ground square & straight edge required to prove.


Knives wearout fast so what may be Kosher today can be out of spec tomorrow. As soon as practical apply force down on the work beyond the knives on the outfeed table, simultaneously pushing the work against the fence.

Practice with short (no less than 12") stock building up to the jointer's capacity.

Use push sticks for safety, this tool forgives not.

12) What about solid (spiral ground) carbide bits, the silver bullit?

Not in my view.

The spiral cutter (solid carbide) has its place and since it does slice continuously (not an unbroken cut like 2 straight flutes) it can produce an impeccable finish; it may still tearout, however. They do bore well too and plunge better than any flute design. They are harder than brazed-on carbide tools, last a lot longer, cost more, and are difficult to sharpen. They have associated vectors (force with direction) that make them unsafe except in production situations where the work is well fixtured and feed rates constant.

The down spiral will produce a top clean corner (in a mortice e.g.) and fire the chip into your socks on outside cuts. Its force vector wants to pick up the router and has scared this furniture/maker silly, but only once.

The up spiral will fray x-grain , perform well down grain, and pull its chip from the excavation. The force vector in the up spiral wants to pick up the stock but at the same time pulls the cutter from the collet, the most likely of the 2 cutters to change depth of cut. Expect analogous and perhaps unexpected performance in the router table. Keep east/west cutting depths to a minimum for safety.

Few diameters are available in solid carbide. All tools (for 1/2 shank routers) have been ground into their shanks and none have cutting diameters >.500". Skinny and long cutters whip and deflect whether solid carbide or steel. Expect some chatter as the cutting depths increase. 2+hp routers flywheel the cutter better than small routers and will help smooth out the ride and reduce chatter. Larger straight (>5/8 CD) brazed on carbide cutters are preferred by this furniture maker, especially for safety and outside cuts. There is a lot more to the story, but in my view, their risk and expense is not worth their performance benefits, except in a production environment. More on this in Taunton's new book, "Working with Routers".

13) Is blind table routing safe?

Blind routing on the router table (where the cutter has no access to the excavation except x a plunge) is risky business indpendent of the depth of cut. If the pathway required is > than the cutter diameter you're at double the risk.

Blind table routing requires the work & fence to be flat, straight & square. If there is any deviation whether on purpose or x accident, the cutter sees new wood and the work self feeds. If the cutter is deep enough into the stock it can break, break the work and stun you.

Moreover, a spiral cutter (if used) has a couple of vectors that can pull or push (whether up or down spiral) the work off the cutter or pull itself from the collet under duress. Work handling confounds the issue since you have to change depth and feed the work safely, a four handed proposition, why the hell do something so risky?

You might loose some stuff here. So in my view, blind routing on the router table is a serious safety risk.

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Copyright © 2009 Pat Warner
Last modified: Tue Apr 14 10:52:49 PDT 2015