What Does a Woodworking Router Do?

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We’ve written of routers on these pages in the past, most recently here, where we discussed the difference between fixed base and plunge routers.  But we realized we jumped into router discussion without talking about router basics first.  So, we decided to correct that and plunge (so to speak, pun intended) into routers.

We at Obsessed Woodworking consider a router as among the top four power tools to purchase for your home woodworking shop, along with a power drill, a table saw, and a miter saw.  Although we’ve also discussed using a table saw in place of a miter saw in an article you’ll find here if you can swing the purchase, it’s still a top-four power tool for your shop.

But, as for a router and what it can do for your projects, it’s essential if your projects are going to include furniture, cabinets, and doors.  Even if you’re not at that skill level yet, you will be, and you’ll use your router often once you are.  Let’s see why.

Do I Need a Router For Woodworking?

As we said, if your projects will include furniture, cabinets, picture frames, homemade trim for windows or door frames, and/or doors, the answer is yes, you most certainly do need a router.  There is no other tool that can do for those projects what your router will do. 

Take a look at your current dining room table.  Are the edges square, or are they neatly and uniformly rounded?  It wasn’t sandpaper that created that smooth, uniform roundness around the perimeter of the table.  It was a router.

Take a look at your kitchen cabinets.  Is there a raised panel on the door?  Or an inset feature design on the door surface?  The wood did not grow that way; a router was used to create that effect or pattern.

To a trained eye, a sharp edge on a tabletop looks unfinished; the same holds true for a kitchen cabinet door.  It is rare to see a square edge on almost any piece of furniture or door. A router is responsible for that finished appearance. 

Fancy edges, even simply rounded, give that finished appearance on furniture and show both the love and skill used in its making.  A piece of wood becomes elevated, a part of something truly nice when it has been finished off with a router’s touch.

How Does a Router Work?

How Does a Router Work

A router is a power tool with a flat base and a rotating blade extending beyond the base.  The flat base maintains a level surface as the tool moves along the edge of a piece of wood while the rotating blade cuts on the wood edge. 

The tool is most often hand-held, although it can also be used as a fixed tool in a router table where the rotating blade extends up beyond the table’s surface.  In the first instance, the router itself is moved along the wood edge; in the second, the wood is pushed through the stationary blade.

The blade, or bit as it is called, rotates at a speed of about 24,000 rpm for those up to one inch; up to 2 inches, at a speed of about 18,000 rpm; and descending to about 12,000 rpm for bits larger than 3 inches.  The rpm for each sized bit will ensure a smooth cut.

Bits come in a wide variety of cuts, too, depending on the fancy edge or plunge you wish to make on your project.  Among the variety are the following:

  • Cove
  • Rounded nose
  • Rabbet
  • Dado
  • Round over (likely your dining room tabletop edge)
  • Dovetail
  • Roman ogee (perhaps your window trim)
  • Beading

They all have their use, provide aesthetic design value to your projects, and make strong joints (think dado and dovetail), enhancing the finished look of your pieces.

The size of the bit you’ve chosen will be based upon both the cut you want to achieve and the size of the wood being routered.  Using a guide of some sort, usually homemade, such as a straight-edged wood clamped to the piece being routered, the handheld router is simply run along the line of the guide with the bit cutting the edge of the project piece.

In the case of a router table, it’s the wood that is pushed against and past the router bit that rises up above the table surface.  This is akin to pushing a piece of wood against the blade of a table saw, although on a smaller scale.

Here’s an excellent basic introduction to routers in video form:

What Types of Routers Are There?

The basics are plunge and fixed-base, but within them are different options, including combo routers, variable speed routers, and laminate cutters.  Some fixed-base routers have D handles; some have double knob handles.  As mentioned earlier, we’ve already written of the plunge and fixed-base routers here.

A fixed-base router can be used in a table router configuration, attached securely to the underside of the table and allowing the bit to extend above the table surface.  The wood is moved against the bit rather than the router being moved along the wood’s edge.

What Can You Do With A Router?

Routers can be used to cut the patterns we mentioned earlier, as well as dados, rabbets, grooves, and other designs.  Their versatility comes from the various bits and bit sizes, each adding its own character to your project.

The speed of the bit rotation ensures a clean, neat, and uniform cut along the wood edges.  The bits are held in place by a collet – –  a form of collar that holds the shank of the bit tightly in place by exerting a strong clamping force around it and offering a tight hold on the shank.  You likely have a power drill and swap out bits from time to time; that adjustable clamp is also known as a collet, holding the drill bit tightly in place.

While hand-held routers are used around the edges of the wood, plunge routers are used to cut into the surface of wood away from the edge, whether to create a raised panel cabinet door or for delicate inlay work.  The housing of a plunge router offers controlled vertical movement during a cut and enables you to plunge the bit into the wood safely and neatly.

Cutting dados and rabbets with your router serve another purpose beyond aesthetic value and pleasing design.  Routers can play an essential role in joinery, too. 

A dado is a slot cut into the surface of wood achieved by using a dado bit on your router.  It is cut across the grain, to be distinguished from a groove, which is cut with the grain.  Dados are used in cabinet making to join shelves to the cabinet frames.

A rabbet is a recess cut along the edge of a piece of wood into which the tongue of another piece of wood fits.  It is a common joinery cut in cabinet-making, bedroom dressers, and other furniture.

What To Look For When Shopping Routers

What To Look For When Shopping Routers
  • Power. Although it depends on the projects you are likely to tackle, more power never hurts, as it can be grown into.  This is so when your skillset improves and your fixed-base router becomes embedded in a router table.
  • Speed. With today’s variable-speed routers, and your likely growing skillset, you have the ability to start out slow, so to speak, and grow into higher speed work when your project calls for it.
  • The Base Opening. Larger here is also better, providing a more solid experience, a better view of the work area being cut, and for when you are ready to attach it to a router table in the future.
  • Handles. The main options are D handles, and double knob handles.  With a larger fixed base, a double knob handle might be the wiser choice for better stability in movement.  If you expect your projects to be more simple, though, like tabletop edges and such, a D handle will work well for you.

Routers, then, are handy both for those edges seen and those joints unseen.  You are now coming to understand just how useful, if not indispensable; a router will be in your woodworking shop.  As your skills improve and you tackle ever-more advanced woodworking projects, you’ll be using a router regularly, and you will understand why we believe it is a top-four power tool for your workshop.

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