What Router Should I Buy?

I posted an answer like this a couple of times on Badger Pond, and I think it's worth reprising here.

I'd like to alert you to some thinking that may divert you unnecessarily from the path that is right and true in routerdom.

One router will do it all. Just on the face of it you know that this can't possibly be true. Gird your loins and just resign yourself to the fact that you will ultimately own several routers. You will have a 1-2 hp plunger for hand held plunge use, a 1-2 hp fixed base for general use, and you'll have a Big Boy for the table. Call these the Big Three. And don't think that's all, but that'll be a lot.

2 hp routers are all the rage. HP creep has hit the world of routers now just like it has in shop vacs and compressors. Look at the current draw. Obviously, a 10 amp, 1 hp router is not underpowered compared to a 10 amp 2 hp router. Don't chase numbers.

I need a plunger. Plunge routers are nice. They have some advantages that can't be duplicated in fixed base routers. But probably 95% of the routing that you want to do now, and maybe 80% of the routing you will ever do can be done without a plunger. Don't make it your first router. Keep in mind that, by nature, plunge routers have a higher center of gravity. You may be much more comfortable with a fixed base router for much of your routing on that issue alone.

The more hp the better. Take a look at your routing operations. Most people start out in routing doing edge work with bits like coves, roundover, ogees, etc., some dovetail routing, and ploughing of rabbets, gains, and dadoes. While an argument could be made that more is better, the fact is that all of those operations can be done more than satisfactorily with a 1-2 hp hand held router. When you start slinging around a 3 hp router on a roundover task, you will quickly appreciate the idea of a smaller router. More and more woodworkers are going lower instead of higher in the horsepower of their router acquisitions after the basic Big Three.

Old=bad/new=good. Router models that have been around for a long time have done so for a reason; they are reliable, functional, and economical. By the same token, some modern, innovative, high-tech routers that were introduced a couple of years ago are nowhere to be seen now. However, shopping the usual trusted brands should be safe. Stay away from any of the homeowner models. Also avoid any router with the ARHA feature (automatic random height adjuster); they're almost exclusively found at a major retailer that used to have houses in its catalog.

I need variable speed. Frankly, in any router situation you can imagine, you only need two speeds (my friend Dave Arbuckle argues convincingly three); all out for most bits, and something around 8K RPM for the big bits (Dave's argument for a third speed is for in between bits like multi profile). Since you shouldn't turn the big bits (panel raisers, primarily) in a 1-2 hp machine, it stands to reason there's no necessity for variable speed in one (the Arbuckle exception noted).

I want to build/buy a router table. Absolutely. Especially build. Don't expect to build the router table to end all router tables. Especially the first time. Also, feel free to throw your 1-2 hp router in it. Until you want to swing a big panel raising bit, it should be all the router you need in a table. And, you can put a vertical panel raising bit in it and still raise panels.

A combo kit will suit all of my needs. Combo kits are good starters; they are not the end all of router possession. They generally represent a pretty good value as long as you understand their interim nature. You will be buying more routers or router motors. What is said about the P-C motor being clunky getting in and out of its plunge base is true. However, it's still not a bad kit. If the Bosch is more convenient, it's worth a look. Remember and repeat: a combo kit is not the end; it's the beginning.

I like that soft start idea. If you follow my advice about 1-2 hp routers for most of your work, you can dispense with soft start being a buying decision. Although it's a nice feature and definitely necessary in a 3 hp handheld router, it just really isn't necessary in the smaller routers.

D-handle or plunge? This is an apples and oranges question. There is a good reason to have both. As a starter router, however, I would be more inclined to go with a fixed, as opposed to plunge. D-handle or two handle is another question. I really like using my D-handle, but I don't know that I'm prepared to give up my two handle altogether.

How about in the table? There are plenty of good arguments for either in the table. On the one hand, the fixed base allows for a little easier adjustment. At the same time, that adjustment can skew the bit off axis. On the other hand, while the plunger keeps the bit precisely on axis, for best results the springs should be removed, and height adjustment might be more complex.

The router I'm looking at doesn't have a very big hole in the base. So what? Generally the only place where hole size vs bit size doesn't match is with the big panel raising bits. Since the best way to change depth-of-cut with a panel raiser is by moving the fence (the only way if there's a back cutter on the bit), the hole size never comes into play. It's not a buying decision item.

Stick with one brand or mix and match? It doesn't matter. As I mentioned before, all of the major trusted brands make good routers. I have a green one, a dark blue one, and two or three gray ones. I like them all for different things.

How about a trigger switch? There are a couple of ways to look at this. Most D-handle routers have one. It's decidedly convenient and easy to engineer in a D-handle. Most plungers have one. It's even more convenient and easy to engineer in a plunger. Fixed base? It's less frequently seen in them, so maybe it's not that big a deal. I wouldn't consider it a buying decision item. Frankly, if it were that important, it would have been designed into the P-C 690 years ago. It wasn't. Also keep in mind that a certain major retailer puts things like trigger switches and lights in all their routers. Gee-gaw'ism as far as I'm concerned. Not an important feature.

I'm confused. Sorry. Unfortunately, until you have the Big Three, you probably still will be. There'll always be something you'll want to do that will make you say, "if only I had that..." Don't worry, you'll work around it and it'll go away. Think how long you did without a planer/jointer/bandsaw...pick one.

I hope this helps. By the way, I have some significant prejudices about routers and router tables. They are reflected in the article about router tables. I have tried to be objective and neutral in this discussion. However, no one's perfect.

Last updated: 27 January 2009

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