Routers are versatile, powerful tools used to cut, contour, and sculpt materials. Essentially a giant motor spinning a sharp bit at an ultra-high speed, they’re commonly hand-held, but also used in table-mounted and CNC configurations. Routers are useful for projects big and small — although big tend to be the norm. Understanding the ins and outs of each type will help you get the best results possible.

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Hand-Held Routers

The most basic router you’ll find is a fixed-base machine. A motor ranging from 6 to 12 amps sits on top of a platform that glides over the material you’re cutting, its bit extending below. Don’t underestimate the power — routers have a tendency to jerk and run away, catching many new users by surprise. Plunge-base variations allow for more gentle bit insertion into the material. Using a router bit with a bearing allows your work piece to act as a guide, keeping your cut even throughout. For starters, this is handy for putting a rounded edge on a flat piece of material.

Photograph courtesy of Harbor Freight

Photograph courtesy of Harbor Freight

Table Routers

A table router is a stand-alone machine that offers a vertical routing spindle which protrudes upward through the tabletop. Material is fed into the machine while the spinning bit forms and cuts to the desired depth at speeds between 3,000-24,000rpm. Table routers provide more stability and control than hand routing.

This style router features a guide fence that helps control cuts, but it can be used without it, such as when attaching a template to the material and using a ball bearing guide and bit to route the negative material. Using a pin router is another way to cut your material — this includes using a template and pin opposite the bit to guide cuts. Pin routing is more advanced, typically left to experts.

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CNC Routers:

A CNC router is a computer-controlled machine that performs routing through CAD/CAM software and programming. There are two different types of CNC machines: the gantry style in which the router spindle moves over secured material, or the fixed-bridge style in which the router is mounted and the bed moves. CNC routers move along three axes (X-Y-Z) utilizing a three-motor drive system; advanced machines use four motors.

CNC routing is perfect for production cutting and to reduce the risk of human error. It’s a good idea to perform air cuts before running the actual cut. With any routing, researching the bits is imperative for the correct cuts and best results.

Pro Tips

» Go through the routing motions before you turn your router on, making sure the height of your chair works with the job, that no cords get in the way, that your clamps are positioned properly, and that your hair and clothes are tucked away.
» Routers are very noisy and messy — make sure you have eye and ear protection so the dust and noise don’t impair you.
» Use the “climbing cut” — moving the router in the direction of the bit rotation — for sections that are susceptible to tear out. But be aware of the likelihood of the router pulling away fast.
» Know the wood you are cutting into. Listen to your tool, pay attention to how it looks, smells, sounds, and is behaving. When routing properly, the router should be stable and steady, with no howling, jumping, or burning smells.