A beginner’s guide to using a router
For a small investment of cash and a bit more in time spent practicing, you’ll find yourself using a router more than you would have thought possible.
Every contractor that works with wood should have at least one router, and yet, because they take a bit of skill to use, many contractors have shied away from them. Still, once you’ve learned how to use a router (you can get a good starter model for about $60), you’ll find it’s ideal for cutting, edging and trimming wood, plastic, laminates –even metal.
You can recess door hinges and lock plates, make dovetails, shape door jambs, cut grooves (dadoes), create custom or hard-to-find period moldings.
Choosing a router
If you are just starting with routers, first decide whether you’ll get the most use from a fixed-base router or a plunge router. With a fixed-base router, you set a specific depth, which remains constant through the cut. Because the base is fixed, it cuts best from the edge of the material.
With a plunge router, the router base remains flat on the material while the bit “plunges”to make the desired cut. That allows you to cut into the center of the material. If you want both, there are models with interchangeable bases that can be used as either plunge or fixed-base style by removing the motor and attaching it to the alternate base.
Next select the power rating. With ether a fixed-base or plunge router, you’ll be looking at 1½- to 3½-hp and 8 to 15 amps. In that size range, the router will have a ¼- or ½-inch collet to grip the bit. If you pick a router with a ¼-inch collet, you can use less-expensive bits with a ¼-inch diameter shaft.
A router with a ½-inch collet uses bits with ½-inch shanks, which, though more expensive, are more stable for better control. With an adapter, a ½-inch collet will also accept ¼- and ⅜-inch bits.
Or your router may come with two collets: a ¼-inch and a ½-inch. Changing from one to the other is as simple as unscrewing the one that’s on the router and screwing on the other.
Other purchase considerations when using a router
- The router will weigh 7 to 11 pounds, so lift it before you buy it. You want something with enough weight to power through the work, but not something that will wear you out.
- Router handles are different sizes and shapes, and placement varies. Pick it up and hold it; be sure it feels comfortable.
- Variable speed control allows you to select the best speed for the job, and a soft-start feature brings the motor up to speed gradually.
- A tool-free bit change feature or a spindle lock for single-wrench changes can be a great time saver.
- If the router has a dust collection feature, you can keep the area free of dust, sparing your lungs and making it easier to see your work.
A router cuts by turning the bit at a very high speed. Bits are available in hundreds of shapes to match the job. Use high-speed steel bits in soft woods, or get carbide bits which cut soft and hard woods and last many times longer. There are also specialized bits for cutting other materials, such as aluminum.
When you install the bit, don’t bottom it out. Pull it out slightly (1/16 to 1/8 inch) and then tighten the collet. This helps keep heat from transferring to the motor. Tighten the collet firmly but don’t over-tighten it. Bits must be sharp and “nick-free”.
You can quickly test this by brushing the bit lightly across your fingernail, if it doesn’t grab, it’s dull. Clean the bits often to remove any pitch and grime. Never tighten the collet without first installing a bit in it. Doing so can damage the collet.
Depth of cut
The depth of cut will depend on horsepower, bit and type of wood. Choose a depth of cut that doesn’t place excessive stress on the router motor. If the motor speed slows down as you’re working, turn off the router and reduce the depth of cut. Then, make the cut in two or more passes. Typically the depth of cut should not exceed 1/8 inch in a pass.
How you set the depth of cut will vary from model to model, so you’ll need to depend on the manufacturer’s instructions to get it right. Even then, you should probably try it first on a scrap piece to be sure it’s what you want.
For example, on the basic fixed-base starter model mentioned above, depth of cut is set by turning the depth adjustment knob to the desired depth and tightening the lock lever. Depth is indicated on the knob.
Setting depth of cut on a plunge model is a little more involved. Basically, you’ll set the baseplate on the material and lower the router until the bit is just touching the surface. This is position “zero”and the depth adjustment will be made from there. Set the depth of cut by lowering the threaded depth rod and lock it into position.
Routing an edge
Routers are the best choice for putting a smooth edge on wood, and you can easily make the same cut on multiple pieces. If possible use a guide, even if it’s just a straightedge clamped to the wood. However, edges can also be routed using piloted bits, which have a bearing on the bottom of the bit that rolls along the stock as if it were a straightedge.
Use a sharp bit, start at one end and steer the router in a counterclockwise direction around the wood so the bit pushes the router toward you rather than pulling it away. At corners, where the router base has the least support, slow down and keep one router handle over the wood to maintain control.
If the router is hard to control, you’re likely using the wrong direction of feed for the router. If it heats up, the motor is overloading – adjust your speed or depth of cut and be sure the bit isn’t dull.
Once you start the pass, continue a steady pace until you reach the other end. You will soon learn how the router sounds and feels when it’s working properly.
To cut grooves or dadoes, you usually want to guide the tool in a line parallel to a straight edge. To get that straight cut, securely clamp a board or other straightedge to the work surface, and guide the router along this path.
Use a bit that matches the width of the groove you want so you can make the cut in one pass. Templates are also available that guide the cutting bit to the desired profile. To cut a mortise for recessed door hinges or lock faceplates, use a jig.
Safety recommendations are straightforward and each one is very important.
- With any power tool, safety glasses are a must –with a router, they are mandatory. The router throws off wood chips that can easily damage eyes. Ear protectors and a face mask are also advisable.
- The tool has very fast rotating parts so be sure clothing, hair, etc. are well away from the bits and won’t be caught in the router.
- When using a router always use sharp bits. Dull bits can “catch”the wood and twist the router out of your hands.
- Make sure the piece you are routing is secured to a work surface so it remains flat and stable during the routing.
- Keep a firm grip on the handle and make sure the bit is not touching anything before you start the motor.
- Don’t push or force the router –allow it to feed itself.
- Unplug the tool when making adjustments or changing bits.
- Wait for the bit to stop spinning before setting the tool down.
–By Steve Sturgess, stevesturgess.com