At least twice a week there is a post on one or more of the woodworking fora by someone inquiring as to what router to buy for a router table and/or what sort of router table to buy/build. Well, never being short of opinions, I offer my broad-based, all-purpose, discussion-ending, hard-headed observations here. Also, I now have a discussion of router selection in general geared toward the first router buy.
I remember an article in an early issue of Fine Woodworking from sometime in the 70s discussed a router table with a single piece of wood pivoted at one end, and then clamped at the other that served as a fence. The beauty was that it didn't need to be parallel, square, or anything except straight. However, I never did anything about it for 15 years or so.
I got my interest in router tables whetted again when I got my first Woodhaven catalog in the middle 80s. There were lots of good ideas there, and the proprieter (Brad Witt) was really enthusiastic about routers and router tables. Check out his webpage at woodhaven.com by the way. It's really nicely done. I noticed that he discussed some pros and cons of miter slots in tables, but he leans toward them, and that means parallel fences for the most part, as well as special track material, runners, etc.
I happened on to The Router Workshop on PBS a few years ago, and became very enchanted with Bob Rosendahl and his son Rick and their methodology and enthusiasm for router table operations. In particular the program on raised panels was the catalyst for me to begin work on my table.
In my early, large plunge router quest, I had travelled to a local tool store with a large selection and tried the plunge and trigger mechanism on each one. This was before thinking table, by the way. I tried Porter-Cables, Freuds, Bosches, Hitachis, Black & Deckers, etc. Virtually the whole gamut; they had a nice selection. There really wasn't any contest, as far as I was concerned. The Bosch 1615 EVS had the most comfortable, natural arrangement of plunge lock release and trigger of all of them, and I bought one.
When the table bug bit, and with large plunge router in hand, the Rosendahl inspiration at heart, and visions of panels in my head, I started thinking out the router table design. So when I saw the Rosendahls using a table with no miter slot and a fence clamped with "C" clamps, I knew I was closing in on the prey.
I ordered their catalog but was nonplussed at the prices for their tables and accessories. However, there was plenty of information there, such as dimensions, and plenty of appropriate materials in the shop for me to adapt to a workable table design.
What I've learned from the process is that there isn't any one design that's going to satisfy everyone. However, the router is not a saw, nor is it a shaper or a jointer. Therefore, I am really puzzled by people that want to try and design a table for it with features found on that other equipment. Now I haven't built hundreds of frames or drawers, nor have I run thousands of feet of molding, but my relatively brief experience with my table convinces me that the Rosendahls are on to something that a lot of people interested in table routing could put to good use.
Let's cover some specifics:
Table Height Table height is sort of an individual thing. Mine is pretty much at elbow height. Some might like it a little higher, some a little lower.
Table size I wish I could tell you some of the dimensions of my table (like height, above), but it's in storage in North Carolina. I think it's about 24" x 33".
Router location There are lots of options: middle of the table, left/center, right/center. Some of it will rest on the slot or not decision you make. For me, the left/center made the most sense, if for no other reason than it works for the Rosendahls.
Type of fence This was easy for me, as I was predisposed to a flexible, movable fence from the beginning, ala Rosendahl's.
To slot or not Well, the Rosendahls don't, so I didn't. One argument I've heard that makes sense is that cutting a dado in your newly constructed table top is an attack on the integrity of that structure. It also leaves the table top material vulnerable that an otherwise clad (if your table is clad) table top is not. Plus, as I said, if you do, you lose some of the flexibility of the free form fence methodology.
Type of router Part of this is a no brainer for my money; plunge router. For several reasons: power, precision, selection, to name a few. There are very few 3+ hp routers that aren't plunge routers. Not that the ones that aren't are dogs, but read on. The plunge router maintains a very precise lateral position of the bit as it is raised or lowered. The argument has been made that a router that changes height by the rotation of the motor in its housing loses some accuracy in maintaining that position. As noted before, there are a number of plunge routers from which to choose for table use.
Having settled, at least in my mind, the type issue, let me refer you back to the paragraph wherein I discussed my original plunge router purchase. I have made some use of that Bosch 1615 EVS, and I still find it has a really nice feel in the hands with regard to the plunge lock and the trigger. However, after using it in my table for some time, I am very dissatisfied with it for use in a table. It is an excellent hand-held plunge router.
Furthermore, after having used a 2 wrench system with my Porter-Cable 690 routers, I found the spindle lock on the Bosch to be a tool of the devil. It's almost a 3 handed operation. Going back to my P-Cs and watching the Rosendahls convinced me that 2 wrenches were the thing to have.
Generally when you adapt a plunge router for use in a table, the springs should be removed for ease of height adjustment. After all, being upside down, gravity is now working for you. However, even with the springs removed, the plunge rods slicked up with every conceivable permutation of WD-40, wax, and silicone spray, height adjustment with that plunge lock that works so well hand held, was awful. I would watch an episode of the Rosendahls and note how effortlessly they were able to move the router up and down to adjust the height, and do it with great precision and repeatability. I couldn't begin to match that with the Bosch.
So, I went back to the tool store and played with the router the Rosendahls use; the Hitachi M12V. Aha! The M12V's plunge lock lever isn't spring loaded like my Bosch. Instead you flip it off and on almost like a switch. Toggle on; toggle off. When you switched the plunge lock off, the router effortlessly moved up and down on its base (with the springs removed). Switch the lock back on, and it was just as secure as any other plunge router with a spring loaded lock. What a concept. I don't know if any other routers have that feature, but to me, it is indispensable in a table. As far as I'm concerned it's a buying decision go/no go factor.
Well! Then I happened (I really wasn't ready to buy the Hitachi at that point with a perfectly good Bosch in hand) to see a price for the Hitachi in one of the catalogs. $180!. A 3½ hp, plunge router, with world class features for $180! "Yes, Visa, 4417..."
When it arrived, I was dismayed that contrary to the ones the Rosendahls were using, this one had a spindle lock. A couple of e-mail exchanges later, I had the information for a second wrench I had to order, and instructions on how to remove the spindle lock and enjoy true 2 wrench bit changing (2 wrench upgrade info here). Okay, downside: the Hitachi only has a ½" collet. A ¼" adapter is included for your smaller shanked bits, but there is no separate ¼" collet like there is for the Bosch and P-C routers. Well, life is full of choices. If I had mine, there would be a real ¼" collet, but that plunge lock far outweighs the distraction.
So, I say go to the Rosendahl's webpage, order a catalog, take a look at their stuff, and particularly try to catch them on PBS. They aren't carried everywhere, so consider ordering one of their videos. If you do, I recommend the one on raised panels. It'll change your life. (Note: I was alerted that apparently DeWalt now provides the routers for The Router Workshop, so I checked the webpage, and it's true. My allegiance to the Hitachi remains solid even if Bob and Rick switched, however. I just wonder how they'll deal without that slick plunge lock the Hitachi has and the DeWalt doesn't...)
I have to say one other thing about Bob Rosendahl. I was pretty sloppy in my router work before I started watching him. Unplug the router when changing bits? Ha! That's what switches are for. His work protocol includes always unplugging the router when working with bits. I mean he never fails. And he makes a point of it. And it seems effortless. It changed the way I work with my router. I figured if he can do it, I can.
I also like his attitude about measuring ("ol' Bob don't measure much"). Instead he relies on setup bars, guaging to the work, etc. He has many years of industrial arts teaching in his background, and it shows. You'll learn something about woodworking even if you don't learn anything about routing.
Well, if you aren't sick of seeing Rosendahl splattered all over this page, let me say that the reason I adapted so many of his ideas, equipment, and procedures, is that he clearly knows what he is doing. Watch his show or catch him at a seminar. He does a really good job. So, in concert with my tool buying paradigm, do what the pro's do. Bob's a pro in my book. I'll try to follow his lead. You could do worse, too.
Last updated: 27 January 2009