How to Use a Router for Woodworking
The wood router is by far one of the most versatile power tools in the modern woodworker’s arsenal. It has arguably revolutionized the craft, as a router can be set up quickly and easily to perform a huge range of different tasks. The result is a professional, consistent finish, often in a fraction of the time it would take to use a hand tool.
With applications for cutting, shaping, grooving, and much more, a wood router machine can be an incredible time-saver. It’s by no means an essential tool for most beginners, but if you’re looking to work quickly and professionally, this is the tool for you.
It’s worth pointing out that wood routers can be extremely dangerous if they’re not used correctly. Besides that, in inexperienced hands, they can soon ruin a project in the final stages. With that in mind, in this chapter, we’ll go over all the basics, while offering some handy tips and tricks along the way.
What Is a Wood Router?
A router is a powerful rotary tool that works by spinning a sharp router bit at high speeds. It can cut into wood and other materials, and depending on the router bit that is fitted, it can create a variety of finishes and decorative edges. With the ability to cut curves as well as a perfectly straight edge, it’s one of the most versatile woodworking tools you’ll find.
A sturdy metal base plate ensures stability, while the two handles give the user full control over the tool. Meanwhile, the powerful motor is encased in plastic and is fitted with a collet that holds the bit securely.
Setting the bit depth allows you to drop the cutter below the base plate, where it is then able to cut into the wood. Many routers also come with an attachable side fence to help guide the tool.
What Can You Use a Router For?
From straight cuts to decorative moldings, a wood router tool is capable of creating countless finishes. It can work with straight and curved edges, make cuts in the middle of a workpiece, and can even create perfect joints.
Here are some of the most common wood router projects.
There are thousands of router bits that can be used to put a decorative edge on a piece of wood. These moldings are great for everything from creating your own baseboard to putting a nice finish on a door panel. Not only can the router work with straight edges, but it is also able to work with curves, putting beautiful finishes on round windows, cabinet doors, and much more.
A router fitted with a rabbet bit offers a quick, easy, and consistent way to form rabbets. Again, this can be done on curved and straight edges and is great for doors, windows, jambs, and even picture frame pieces.
Cutting Grooves and Housings
One of the router’s main tasks is to cut grooves into wood. Ideal for things like building cabinets, you can use a router to cut the housings for fixed shelving units, or the grooves for drawer runners. Grooves and housings can be cut on both the edge and the face of your workpiece.
Bevels and Chamfers
Quickly put a perfect bevel or chamfer on the edge of your workpiece with a router. A range of different angles are available depending on the router bit that you choose.
A router can make short work of a number of joints. Dado joints can be quickly formed with a straight bit set to the right depth, while a dovetail bit with a good jig will make perfect dovetails in a matter of minutes. With some routers, you can also cut mortise and tenon joints with ease.
Chopping out hinges can be done with ease if you use a router. Once you’ve set it up, you can get the exact same depth for every hinge you chop, making it a piece of cake to do multiple recesses at once.
Inscriptions and Carving
With the right type of router, you can inscribe a wooden surface and even carve decorative features into it. With a good template, you can easily create a decorative wooden house number sign for your home.
What Materials Can You Use a Router On?
The versatile router is comfortable cutting into most wood types, including hardwood and softwood. Less powerful models can struggle with dense hardwoods, but by selecting the right speed and using a sharp bit, it’s normally not an issue.
Your router can also handle manufactured boards such as MDF and plywood. Just bear in mind that the glue in these materials can dull the cutting edge of the bit. It’s also okay to use your router on laminate and even soft plastics. Just be sure to use a slow speed to prevent chipping.
Can You Use a Router for Metal and Ceramics?
No, you can’t use a hand held router on metal or ceramics. It’s simply too dangerous and will soon cause your router to overheat. CNC (computer numerical controlled) routers are the only type that can manage these materials safely. However, these machines are often very expensive and simply not needed outside of professional use.
Different Wood Router Types
Not all routers can perform all of the tasks we’ve mentioned above, so when choosing one, it’s important to know what you’ll use it for.
There are two main types of wood routers; fixed-base routers and plunge routers. Besides these broader categories, there are also several other variations available. Let’s take a look below.
Fixed Base Router vs Plunge Router
The difference between a fixed base router and a plunge router is the way the bit is lowered to its set depth. On a fixed base router, the tool can still be moved up and down, but all depth adjustments must be carried out before you start the motor running. Once it’s set, it’s locked in position.
A plunge router, on the other hand, moves freely up and down even when the maximum depth is set. As such, you can make shallower cuts as you operate the tool. The bit starts off above the plate, and the operator then pushes, or plunges, the router down from above and into the material they want to cut.
By working from above, plunge routers can be started anywhere on a piece of work, even in the middle, whereas fixed base routers can only work from the edge of a piece of wood.
Fixed Base Router Pros and Cons
Fixed base routers might lack some of the versatility of plunge routers, but they more than make up for this in terms of precision. Since you set the depth in advance, the strong locking mechanism will ensure accurate cutting time after time.
As a result, it’s the ideal tool for repetitive cuts, such as shaping molding, chamfering edges, and forming rabbets. Plus, with handles that are generally lower down and closer to the workpiece, it has a lower center of gravity and is easier to control for the most part.
They’re great for edge cutting but cannot manage cuts that start in the middle of a piece of wood. Additionally, they can only cut one depth at a time, so if you need to make several passes, it takes a little longer to do than with a plunge router.
Another disadvantage they have over a plunge router is a matter of safety. The bit starts spinning while it is below the base plate, which can be very dangerous, if you’re not careful.
Plunge Router Pros and Cons
As we’ve seen, the plunge router offers many benefits, such as being able to start from the middle of a workpiece. With the ability to adjust the depth on the fly, it’s also fantastic for carving and running several passes quickly.
It’s also much more maneuverable than a fixed base model. While a fixed base router can cut curved edges, a plunge model can cut circles, curves, and any shape you need anywhere on your board. Another advantage is that once you start the motor, the spinning bit is safely tucked above the base plate, where it can’t cause any damage.
The main disadvantage of a plunge router is that it’s more difficult to get consistent edge cuts with it compared to a fixed base. Since the bit can move up and down, there’s a chance you’ll get wavy edges or bumps if you’re not careful.
You need to be more hands-on, ensuring that you’re pushing down to the set depth the entire time. Plus, the handles tend to be higher up, which can make it harder to control.
Other Types of Routers
There are several other types of routers on the market to consider. These differ mostly in size and power and can often either be plunge or fixed-type routers. Here are the main models to look out for:
- Combo router: Ideal if you can’t choose between a fixed base or a plunge type router, this model has interchangeable bases so you can switch between the two depending on the task at hand. They’re pretty expensive but generally cheaper than buying two separate models.
- Palm router: A small, yet still fairly powerful router, it’s also known as a compact or trim router. They’re lightweight and easier to control than a standard router and are fantastic for jobs such as mortising door hinges or edging smaller pieces of wood.
- Cordless router: While not as powerful as corded models, they’re lightweight and easy to use anywhere. They’re more suited to light jobs.
- Heavy-duty routers: These large, cumbersome tools are fairly heavy and are best inverted as a table-mounted router. Normally only used by professionals, you’re not likely to need such a large machine at home.
- CNC router: The computer numerical controlled router is the only type of router that can safely cut metal and ceramics. However, they’re extremely expensive and DIYers and hobbyist woodworkers are never likely to need one.
What To Look For in a Router
When choosing a good router, there are several other factors to consider.
Power and Size
Router power is measured in horsepower, typically ranging from around 1 to 3.5 HP. Compact routers tend to be a maximum of 1 HP, while most mid-size routers pack between 1.2 and 2 HP. Heavy-duty routers can be as powerful as 3.5 HP but are normally too heavy to use without a router table.
In general, a mid-size router with around 1.5 HP is ideal, balancing performance with ease of use. Having said that, you might benefit from something a little stronger if you’re planning to regularly use a plunge-style router on dense woods.
Lower power routers aren’t designed for continuous use, and it’s important to allow them to rest and cool down every now and then. Meanwhile, more powerful models can manage deeper cuts in denser materials in one pass, saving time.
Nowadays, most routers come with a variable speed option, allowing you to slow down or increase the spinning speed of your router bit. This is important if you’re planning to work with different-sized wood router bits.
Larger bits work best at lower speeds, which prolongs the lifespan of both the bit and your router’s motor. It’s also helpful to slow down the speed to gain more control over intricate cuts.
You’ll find two standard router bit shank sizes: ¼” and ½”. It’s important to know which size your motor’s shaft can take. Some models can take both, but palm routers can normally only take the smaller-sized bit shanks. The ½” bits tend to offer greater stability and a better finish.
Routers make a lot of mess as they cut away chunks of wood. Most come with a dust extractor port, where you can fit a bag or hook it up to a vacuum cleaner.
For the most accurate work, many routers come with a detachable side fence. This ensures you’ll stay on track and avoids bumps and dips. Many plunge models also have a trammel that can be used to cut perfect circles — ideal for cutouts in countertops.
Which Is the Best Wood Router for Me?
Choosing your ideal router can be tricky. It really depends on what you’re planning to use it for. A mid-powered, or even palm, fixed base router will generally be more than enough for the needs of most beginner woodworkers.
Our advice is to start small and work up to a larger machine if need be. Be sure to check out our wood router reviews to see some of the best on the market right now.
Router Bits — The Basics
Router bits are similar to drill bits in that both feature sharp cutting edges that strip away wood as they spin at high speed through the material. However, router bits are a lot more diverse and are available in a huge range of different profiles and cutting edges.
There are two main types of router bits: groove-cutting bits and edge-forming bits. Both come in numerous shapes and sizes that produce different results. The former cut grooves into the face of your workpiece, while the latter cut on the edge of your workpiece.
Fence-guided vs Self-guided Bits
Router bits can also be categorized by whether they are plain/fence-guided or self-guided. Self-guided bits have ball-bearing pilots, normally at their tip, but they can also be located above the cutting edge, on the shank. The bearing rides against the edge of the workpiece, keeping the bit in the correct position during operation.
In general, edge-forming bits tend to be self-guided, while groove-cutting bits require the use of a side fence or fixed straight edge to keep them on track. Groove-cutting bits can also be used free-hand to create decorative low-relief carvings and lettering.
Common Groove-cutting Bits
You can use groove-cutting bits to cut square, round, and tapered grooves on the surface of your workpiece. They’re fantastic for creating housings for dado joints, dovetail joints, and low-reliefs.
The different bits are available in a range of diameters, allowing you to cut narrow and wide grooves depending on what you’re doing. You can also use these bits to make cutouts in boards and worktops. Here are some of the most common.
- Straight bit: Perhaps the most basic router bit, a straight bit is mostly used to make square bottomed grooves in the surface of your workpiece. However, as well as cutting straight lines, it’s also capable of making angled or curved grooves in the wood, and can be used for cutouts.
- Dovetail bit: This bit creates perfect dovetail housings with ease, but can also be used with a jig to rout the entire joint in a matter of minutes.
- Round nose bits: Also known as radius or core-box bits, these create round-bottomed grooves. They’re ideal for cutting drip channels on sills, but can also be used to add decorative features to cabinet doors and drawers.
- Veining bit: Similar to a round nose bit, a veining bit creates deeper, narrower grooves, and is also great for decorative touches.
- V-groove bits: With a shallow tapered cutting edge, they create a v-shaped groove. They’re mostly used for low-relief carving and free-hand lettering.
Common Edge-cutting Bits
As the name suggests, edge-cutting bits are great for putting a decorative edge on your workpiece. However, they’re not just for decoration, and some bits are used to create handy rabbets and chamfers.
The majority of these bits come with self-guiding bearings, either above or below the cutting edge.
- Rabbet bits: An essential bit that is used to cut perfect rabbets. It’s useful for panel door frames, picture frame pieces, and even simple lap joints. The cutting edge projects out from the router base, with the depth determined by the size of the pilot bearing. Some bits have removable bearings that can be swapped out for different sizes, allowing different rabbet depths.
- Flush-trim bit: Another essential bit for your collection, the flush trim bit features a pilot bearing that is the same thickness as the cutting edge. As the name suggests, they’re used to trim the edge of one piece of material flush with another. Ideal for working with templates or trimming overhanging veneer down, they can be used in a wide range of tasks. The bearing can be above or below the cutter, or in some cases, both.
- Chamfer bit: Used to cut a perfect 45-degree angle on the edge of your workpiece. The size of the chamfer is easily adjusted by setting the cutting depth.
- Decorative edge-forming bits: There are countless bits you can find with different profiles to put a different decorative edge on your work. Common profiles include Roman ogee molding, ovolo bead, cove, round over, and many more.
Router Bit Material
The material your router bit is made from is an important consideration when you’re looking to buy your own. For the most part, the choice is between high-speed steel (HSS) or carbide-tipped bits. HSS bits are more affordable and are more than adequate for the needs of most woodworkers.
However, carbide tipped or carbide coated bits tend to keep their sharp edge longer. They’re considered a better investment, especially if you’re working with harder materials such as dense hardwoods. That being said, if you’re only working with softwood and carrying out lighter tasks, HSS bits should serve you well enough.
Regardless of the material, a single router bit is fairly expensive. So when you’re looking to buy your own, it’s worth only getting the ones you’ll know you’ll use, and adding to your collection as the need arises.
How To Change a Router Bit
On most modern routers, the process of changing a router bit is fairly simple. Be sure to check your user manual to see how exactly it’s done on your model, but here’s some general advice.
Before you do anything else, make sure to unplug it. Then, turn the router upside down to prevent the bit from falling out. Bits can be fragile and the cutting edge can easily get damaged if it falls on the floor as you’re removing it.
Next, press the spindle lock, and using a spanner loosen the collet nut. The bit that is inside should now slide out with ease. Simply insert the next cutter, ensuring that at least three-quarters of the shank is inside the collet. Tighten the nut and check that the new bit doesn’t move if you pull it.
Is It Worth Buying a Router Table for Woodworking?
A router table is a great way to get more out of your router. By mounting your router upside down and into a purpose-made table, you gain much more control and precision than with a handheld router.
Many manufacturers supply a purpose-made wood router table to match their handheld machines. In this way, you can easily convert your handheld router into a router table. Router tables can come as benchtop models as well as full-sized, free-standing tables.
With adjustable fences, they do make it easier to work, but for the most part, they’re not strictly necessary for beginners.
How To Use a Wood Router for Beginners
Using a router is a somewhat scary experience the first time you try it. The motor’s shaft spins at very high speeds, causing a very loud droning noise. As you feed the router into the material, it can sometimes feel as if it’s pulling you in, and all the while the noise is getting even louder.
But, it’s really not as scary as it seems, as long as you’re prepared at least. One of the most common causes for concern is kickback and a lack of control over the machine. However, this almost always stems from routing in the wrong direction.
Let’s find out more.
Understanding Router Feed Direction
So, what is the correct direction when routing? First and foremost, you need to know that a handheld router bit spins in a clockwise direction. For the best, and safest, results, you should always aim to rout against the direction of the bit rotation. This allows the bit to bite into the wood, pulling the machine into your workpiece and ensuring it stays tight to the edge.
If you go with the direction of the bit’s rotation, it’s much more difficult to control the router, with the bit almost bouncing off the material. This results in a less consistent and smooth finish.
In general, when you’re working on the outside edge, whether it’s straight or curved, aim to work in a counterclockwise direction. In other words, work from left to right, pushing the router away, rather than drawing it towards you.
Things are a little different when you’re routing the inside edge of a cut-out. Now you’ll need to go in a clockwise direction. But if you think about it, you will still be going against the direction of the cutter rotation, and you’ll still be routing from the left side to the right.
Bear in mind that if you use a router table, the direction is reversed. This is because the router is upside down, thus changing the spinning direction. As such, you’ll need to feed from right to left.
What About Grooves and Housings?
When you rout a groove or housing, there will be material on both sides of the cutter. This means that there isn’t really a correct direction, since the bit is moving both with and against its rotation at the same time.
The exception is when you’re using a side fence or guide batten. In this case, keep the fence to the left of the router and cut from left to right. This pulls the router against the fence, keeping your cut on course.
How To Use a Router for Wood: Setting the Depth
Before any job, you’ll need to set the cutting depth on your router. Be sure to check the instructions for your specific model, but in general, this is done by loosening the depth stop and allowing the bit to drop below the router’s base.
Most routers have a scaled depth adjustment, but you can also set the bit depth by lining it up against a mark or piece of material. For example, if you’re mortising hinges, you can adjust the bit depth using the hinge itself as a guide.
Once the depth is set, tighten the locking nut. On a fixed router, the bit will now stay in this position, whereas on a plunge-style router, it will return to its housing above the router base. Many plunge routers have a three-position turret stop, allowing you to set three depths. This is handy if you need to make several passes.
Cutting a deep groove, rabbet, or decorative profile that removes a lot of waste, especially in dense wood, shouldn’t be done in a single pass as it will strain the tool and the bit. Instead, make several shallower passes until you reach the correct depth. This also gives a smoother finish and allows you to go over any mistakes made on the first pass.
Routing Grooves and Housings
Now you’re set up and good to go, let’s look at the first kind of router cuts. Grooves and housings are similar, but the former runs with the direction of the grain, while housings run across the grain. They’re common in woodworking projects, and you can cut them on both the surface and edge of your workpiece.
Cutting on the Surface
Secure your workpiece with clamps and fit the guide fence to the edge, setting the cutter in the correct position. If your groove is too far from the edge of your workpiece to use the side fence, clamp or screw a straight guide batten down to act as a fence and keep the cut straight.
Once everything is set up, place the front end of the base on the work surface, with the bit clear of the edge. Switch on the router, and feed it into the wood gradually, ensuring the fence remains tight against the edge. Keep a steady pace and allow it to do the work — don’t push it too fast.
With a through groove, run the machine all the way through your workpiece. Once it’s emerged, switch off the machine. For a stopped groove, stop at your mark, pull the router back a bit, then lift it out of the cut and switch it off.
Edge Grooving with a Straight Bit
Cutting a groove on the edge of your workpiece is more or less the same. However, it helps to fit a side fence on either side. This prevents the tool from rocking, ensuring a straight, clean cut.
Edge Routing With Self-guiding Bits
Whether you’re cutting a rabbet in a cabinet door or running a decorative mold on a curved worktop, the process of edge routing remains pretty identical. Since many edge-cutting bits are self-guiding, you don’t need to use a side fence with them. For best results, it’s important that the edge is square and smooth before you begin.
Set the depth and secure your workpiece in place with clamps, a non-slip routing mat, or a vice. Be sure to leave plenty of clearance for the bearing to pass undisturbed.
Start the router with the base on the surface of your workpiece, but the cutting edge away from the wood. Then, remembering to cut counterclockwise, bring the cutter into the material, until the pilot bearing touches the edge. Run your router along the edge until you reach the end, then stop the machine. If needs be, make another, deeper pass to finish up.
Routing Solid Wood Panels
To put a rabbet or decorative edge around the outside edge of an entire panel, follow the instructions above. Just be sure to start on the end grain. This way, if there’s any split wood, it’ll get cleaned up when you machine the sides.
Routing Inside a Frame
This is similar to the outside edge, just remember to go clockwise rather than in a counterclockwise direction. If you’re putting a rabbet on the inside edge, bear in mind that the corners will be rounded. You’ll need to cut these square with a chisel.
Tips and Tricks for Using a Router
With the basics sorted, let’s take your routing game to the next level. Here are some handy tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your router.
- Work consistently: Feed the router into your work at a consistent rate to avoid overheating and wearing down your cutters. Avoid feeding it too slowly as well, as this can also lead to overheating, damaging your bits and scorching the wood.
- Maintain your bits: Sharp bits work wonders, but if they’re not looked after they can soon dull, which might lead to scorched wood and a struggling router. Clean them after use, by scraping out any resin or sawdust. Then store them where they won’t be damaged, either in a foam padded case or a drilled rack.
- Test on scrap wood first: It’s always worth checking you’ve set your router up properly on a piece of scrap wood. This is essential for decorative bits in order to be sure you’ve got the profile right.
- Use scrap sacrificial pieces to avoid splinters: Clamp scrap wood the same thickness as your workpiece onto your wood when you’re routing end grain to prevent splits.
- Wear protective equipment: Routers are loud and messy. Always wear ear defenders, gloves, a dust mask, and a pair of safety glasses. If possible, attach a vacuum cleaner to the dust port.
- Always secure your work: Make sure your workpiece is rock solid before you start routing to prevent accidents.
Joining It All Up
That just about covers the basics of routing, though there will be plenty more to touch upon as you progress.
But now we’re ready to start putting everything we’ve learned so far into practice. In the next chapter, we’re going to look at some of the most common woodworking joints and how to make them.