A badly-chosen shop router can leave you with a hollow feeling inside – and lead to frustrations about time, effort and even the quality of your work. Choosing the best router for your shop doesn't have to be a nightmare, though. There is a wide selection of models at different price points with different features available on the market.
Plunging Base or Fixed Base Router?
When selecting a router, you have two basic choices for bases: a plunging base or fixed base router.
Plunge routers allow you to make a vertical movement during the cut, so driving the bit into the wood is easier. The housing and casing contain extra room for movement, making detail, pattern and template work easier. Plunging routers also easily create clean through cuts, deep grooves and mortises.
Fixed routers are solid, all-purpose general routers. While this type of router will not make vertical plunges or cuts, it’s easier to maneuver for edge shaping and straight lines. This is also the type of router you’ll want if you're working with a router table.
Bit and Speed for Shop Routers
Routers generally accept one of two bit sizes – quarter-inch or half-inch. Some models accept both sizes and aftermarket attachments and adapters can allow you to switch bit sizes, including 3/8-inch sizes. Most basic models accept 1/4-inch bits, while most professional models take a 1/2-inch bit. Routers with larger bits should be used with slower speeds and variable speed models give you more versatility in your work.
When springing for a new router, look for one with a soft-start feature. This method of starting the router gradually speeds up the bit to reduce jumping, jerking and chatter when beginning your project.
Shop Router Power
Your router's power is measured in horsepower and is determined by the number of amps the router draws. Fixed base, interchangeable and plunge routers all typically range from 1.5 to 3.5 horsepower in the 8 to 15 amp range.
When deciding on a power range for your shop router, consider how much you need on a regular basis and then go higher. Maximum router horsepower should only be used sparingly to avoid damaging your equipment. If you want a router that can routinely handle 2 HP, aim for a model with a max HP of 3 or higher. Remember: more power isn't always better, it just depends on how much you need. Also the extra weight should be considered.
Choosing a Router Table for Your Shop
If you're typically using your router in one place or spending an inordinate amount of time securing the router to your bench or work table, you might want to invest in a router table. Router tables mount the tool upside down so that the bit protrudes from the surface of the table.
Some router tables allow you to vary the height of the router, while some also have dust collection mechanisms and fence guides to steady your cut for added precision. While some additional features are nice, all of them aren't necessary. At minimum, a good router table must be completely level and strong enough to hold the weight of your router without bouncing, jumping, buckling or otherwise deflecting your cuts. Building a router table the exact way you want is also a great option.
Routers are expensive pieces of equipment, but there are models with features to fit every need and price point. If you aren't quite sure what you'd like, spend some time investigating routers with interchangeable bit sizes and variable speeds. The best shop router for you might not be as awesome for someone else, so choose the right features for your needs.