Other tips before you buy a woodworking router

While cost, horsepower, and collet size are the big three considerations in selecting a router, you should also be familiar with the following:

Your collet size options. Almost any conceivable routing job you'll encounter can be handled by a router with a 0.25" collet. But, if you plan to do lots of exceptionally heavy work, you might consider a tool with a collet big enough to take 3/8" or even 1/2" bits. Just make sure it will take 1/4" bits as well. A few routers won't.

Collet Adjustment. Most routers require two wrenches for bit changes. One holds the motor shaft; the other turns the collet nut. Other routers have built-in shaft locks so you only need one wrench. That's one less wrench to handle, one less wrench to keep handy.

Depth Adjustment. All three major types (ring, rack and pinion, and spiral) work well. And almost all read out depth in the same 1/64" intervals. But if you plan to use your router upside down in a router table, you might prefer rack-and-pinion depth adjustment. With many of the others, the router motor slips down in its base as soon as you loosen the locking clamp.

Plunge Routing Capability. Plunge routers are spring-loaded, with their bits retracted above the base until you "plunge" the router down by pressing downward on the grips. The bit will then drop to the depth you have preset. For certain cuts, most notably those in the field of your stock rather than along the edges, this capability comes in very handy. Without the plunge feature, you have to start your router in the air, and then lower it down to the work.

Switch Type. A trigger switch is probably the most convenient for conventional routing for two reasons. First, you can squeeze it while maintaining two-hand control of the tool. And second, it shuts off automatically when you release it. On the minus side? You can accidentally squeeze the trigger when you pick up the tool. Not only that, but triggers also are hard to get at if you fasten your router to a router table. In addition, most trigger-switch routers have no removable bases. This rules out freehand carving as well as the use of just the router motor.

Toggle, rocker, and slide-type switches can be almost as convenient as triggers, provided they are located where you can reach them with both hands on the router grips. They are also better than triggers for router table work, and they usually allow you to remove the router base if necessary.

Drawbacks? Some of these switches are poorly located. All can be accidentally left on, or knocked on when the router is unplugged.

Handle Type. Most routers come with a pair of handles, usually knobs. But others have two vertical arm like grips, or a pair of D-shaped handles, or a combination of D- handles and knobs.

Which type is best? It's a matter of preference, but my experience is that small spherical knobs can cause cramps in your hands. For that reason I prefer a huskier grip such as arms or a pair of D-handles. For freehand work, I like the handles low on the router so I can rest my arms on the work for better control.

Electronic Features. The electronic revolution is just beginning to work its way into the shop, and three routers listed in the chart have special electronic features. Some woodworking routers have a digital depth-of-cut display, and these big routers give you a choice of two speeds, other woodworking routers have electronically controlled variable speeds, plus indicator lights that help you feed the tool at the proper speed. If you have experience with routers, you can probably sense the proper feed speed by ear and feel, but the indicators can help if you are just learning.

Variable Speeds. I've found them useful, especially for making slow, finish cuts in hardwoods.

Dust Pickup. These work fairly well on some cuts, and not so well on others. My feeling is that if I have to sweep up any chips, I might as well sweep them all and be free of the clumsy vacuum hose.

Worklights. These can be helpful if properly located in the router. Try before you buy.