I’ve seen a lot of questions recently about routers on my feed and not the kind that your WiFi comes from. We’re talking about those nifty little fast spinning wonders that make a boring piece look beautifully finished. But there are actually a bunch of different variations of the same tool and believe it or not… you might need more than one someday. I have three currently and I use them all differently. So like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter assisting the little witches and wizards of Hogwarts in finding a House to call their new home, Lazy Guy DIY is going to help you find the right router for your work… or put you in Slytherin with the rest of the Crabbes and Goyles.
First off, I’m excluding CNC’s from this post. If you’re using a CNC then you don’t need a guide about what routers to buy. You’re too fancy for us. So you fancy folk can sit back and skip this post and enjoy a nice beverage with your pinky out.
The Three Amigos we’re going to touch on are a Full Sized Router, Compact/Trim Router and the Combination Base Router. There are of course plenty of other options, but let’s stick with the basics here. And rotary tool/Dremel folk… you’re on your own.
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Compact/Trim RouterI’m going to start with the little guy here. Not because I feel sorry for him since I’m so big and he’s so little, but because I think this is the best option for a beginner DIY’er. With a price point right around $99 (for most brands) it’s not only easy to use for newbies but it’s also not too tough on the budget. Plus consider this, a full sized router is around 12-15 pounds while a compact router is closer to 5 pounds. While a 10 pound difference might not sound like a ton to you muscle bound folk, it’s a huge deal. Next time you’re dozing while watching tv and a cat unexpectedly jumps off the mantle onto your chest while you’re asleep in the armchair, imagine that being 10 pounds heavier. Not relatable? Does that just happen to me? I guess imagine rolling a 16 pound bowling ball instead of the neon colored 6 pounder. Your arms know what I’m talking about.
So what do we use this little guy for? My first for profit builds were toddler tables and chairs. One thing toddlers really love to do is fall into sharp edges, so I always routed the table edges with a roundover bit or a beveled edge (called an Ogee) to make it real fancy. With a compact router you can easily zip (counter clockwise if holding the bit downward) around your table and really give it a finished look. I do the same with drawer faces, frames and signs. Another great application is when using a flush trim bit. This absolutely blew my mind when I first used one. Have you ever attached a piece of plywood onto your build only to have the tiniest bit of overhang that’s too small to cut with a saw but too big to sand off? With a router and a flush trim bit you can pass right over the edge and because of the little wheel on the end of the bit, you’ll cut away the excess from your plywood and not your build surface. Want to see it in action? This was actually one of my first videos I ever posted.
Which models do I recommend? Here’s where preference is going to kick in, corded or battery powered? For quick jobs I’m loving my new Ryobi One+ Cordless Trim Router (bare tool). RIDGID has a beefier version for around $120 that comes with their lifetime warranty. For under $75 I can slap on my batteries from the rest of my Ryobi tools right on this little guy and quickly make a pass (not in a flirtatious way) and get the job done. The fact that is doesn’t have a cord really changes the game when working on a project. Whether it’s hard to reach places or onsite installs, not using a power outlet is a dream come true when using a router. If you’re looking for a marathon session of routed edges you’re going to want a cord though. Depending on which battery size I’m using, you only get about 30 minutes to an hour of use before you have to swap out. That’s generally plenty of time though for light to medium duty work. If you’re going corded for bigger jobs, then I really like RIDGID’s other compact router in the $100 range. Before you pull the trigger, you might want to consider the Makita Compact router because it lets you upgrade later to a…
Combination Base Router
If you’re willing to spend a little bit more, I absolutely suggest you do so for a router that accepts a combination base. That Makita I mentioned above lets you buy the base tool and upgrade later, or buy the Makita Combination Base Kit all at once. But first, what are combination bases? The most popular (and my favorite) is the plunge base. This spring loaded base lets you choose a desired depth and literally plunge your bit (can I do a “just the tip” joke here without offending people? Doubtful) into your project and cut a controlled groove. This is great for letters on signs, pattern cutting, keyholes for hanging projects, mortises for joints, cutting circles (like a table), inlays like those fancy bow ties you see on live edge pieces and so much more. Pretty much the plunge base is the be all do all of the router world. I use my plunge base more than any other setup. You can buy a dedicated plunge base router, but most of them will cost you well above $250 and they are generally full sized. I’d stick with the Convertible Makita Kit I mentioned above or the Bosch Palm Combination Router. It’s nice to have the option to go back and forth and oh yeah.. it’s not heavy.The other types of combination bases aren’t as exciting and are very specialized so I’ll be brief (although I’m more of a boxer kind of guy). There’s an offset base attachment that lets you get to hard to reach places close to a wall (as close as ¾”) and then a tilt base that lets you angle your bit between 30 and 45 degrees. Important yes, but not useful enough for a general DIY’er.
Full Sized Standard Router
This is the OG. Like the giant bag phone your parents used to have (I had one in my trunk for emergencies!) rather than your fancy little smart phone (I think I’ve said “fancy” 6 times in this post. Sorry) that you can easily carry in your pocket. But this big boy is actually still useful… and oh yeah, way more expensive than the smaller routers. These will also most likely be fixed base, have more power and generally have ½” collets compared to the ¼” the smaller units use. What’s a collet? Oh dear, I should have covered that already… The shaft of your router bit (stop giggling like a 12 year old) is actually called a shank (not a shiv like you use in prison). The shank generally comes in two sizes, ¼” or ½” which represents how thick it is. The smaller is by far the most popular in your hardware store these days, but the collet is the ring that tightens onto your router bit that keeps it from spinning away and flying at you at several thousand RPM’s.
If you’re getting a full sized router you’re going to want one with 2.25 HP or greater and the reason for that is hardwood. Maple, Cherry, Walnut, Oak… those are hardwoods. If you’re doing any serious router work with those species like leveling out a live edge slab, you need to use the big guy. And oh yeah, the price tag starts at around $150 and goes up into the $400+ depending on what models you choose. Most people seem to agree the 2.25 HP Dewalt is one of the best. I’m using this Bosch for my heavy duty work that retails around $160, but I chose it for another reason…
Router tables. The Bosch I use conveniently fits right into my Bosch (not surprisingly) Router table. It mounts from the bottom with the spinning bit pointing upright. While I can do most everything with a handheld router that I can do with a router table, having the ability to mass produce precise cuts is one of the key benefits. Sure I can route custom trim with a palm router, but I can also just as easily pass it right through the router table in seconds and call it a day and then do that with 10 more pieces. The other benefit comes in where a piece might be too small or difficult to handle with a handheld unit.
I can easily cut a round over into a smaller piece of wood with the use of a gripper and not have to worry about how I’m going to clamp the piece down so it doesn’t go flying away. When you start getting into cabinetry or doors, you’ll see more people using router tables as well so you can cut tongue and groove or bevels for door panels. It’s an upgrade for sure for a more experienced woodworker… but then I have one so that tosses my reasoning out the window.
So that’s it! Which one is the right fit for you? It really depends on what you’re working on. I do strongly remember to start small and work your way up. Also, be careful. For real. Make sure your collet is tight and your hands are in a safe place. I’ve had a router bit fly out and luckily just graze me when it went full projectile. A hardened metal blade spinning at 10,000 RPM’s can be scary, but also extremely useful. Be smart, watch a few videos and be ready to see all of the awesome things a router can add to your projects.
~ Lazy Guy