One of the best tools you can add to your workshop is a router. No not the thing that makes your internet go, the rotary tool that cuts and shapes wood. Here are the four best routers you can own.
What to Look for in a Router
Routers are incredibly versatile tools that woodworkers use for many purposes. If you need to glue two pieces of wood together to make a larger piece of wood, you can flatten the edges first with a router to make them align better. Routers can round over sharp edges for a better feel on a table or other furniture. You can carve slotted holes (known as mortises) into your piece to make a chair, or complete a door. And the list goes on.
Because of those various uses, routers come in two primary types—fixed base and plunge. And you’ll want to pay attention to which you’re buying, as they have different strengths and weaknesses. Beyond the type of routers, you also want to pay attention to collet size, variable speed offerings, and power (typically measured in horsepower).
Fixed Base Routers
Of the two types, a router with a fixed base is the more precise cutting instrument. Before you begin cutting, you raise and lower the cutting bit to your desired depth using a turning knob. This turning knob and “locked depth” nature makes for exact measurements and cuts.
Once you’ve found your desired depth level, the cutting bit will not move until you turn the knob again. This makes long even cuts very easy. But you’ll always start at an edge of a piece of wood and move in. Fixed based routers are not the best choice for cutting holes or mortises. That’s because the cutting bit stays in a fixed position and you can’t easily lower it into your wood piece straight down.
Plunge routers differ from Fixed base routers in that you can adjust the depth of your cutting bit easily, even as you are cutting through a workpiece.
Before you start, you set a maximum depth level your router can move to, using a built-in stop bar. Then you position your router’s cutting bit at a starting level. As you are working, you can lower the cutting bit easily, until the stop bar hits the router plate.
Plunge routers are great for cutting holes in the middle of a workpiece, and for when you need to take off a lot of material. Trying to remove a deep layer of wood all at once doesn’t work well so with a plunge router you can take off small layers quickly until you’ve removed the total amount you need. However, they are not as precise as a Fixed Base router.
For most new woodworkers, a Fixed Based router is a good starting place because of its precision. A plunge router’s strengths focus on advanced skills like mortise cutting. Many routers come as combo kits and can convert from fixed base to plunge and back.
Besides your router, you’ll also need router bits. The shank of the router bit that inserts into your router is measured in diameter. The collet is the piece of the router the bit goes in. Typically manufacturers make router bits in 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch shank diameters.
For most hobbyist woodworkers 1/4 inch will do the trick. But for large projects (like a slab of wood), 1/2 inch does a better job. Inexpensive routers tend only to support 1/4 inch bits, while more expensive routers come with two collets (one for each size) you can swap out as needed.
If you already own router bits, you want to make sure the new router has a matching collet, or you’ll have to buy bits all over again.
Routers typically include two wrenches for loosening the collet so you can change the router bit as seen in this picture.
Some routers offer speed settings via a turn dial. If you need to use large router bits with a 1/2 inch shank, that variable speed comes in handy so that you can slow down the rotations.
Slower rotations provide more torque which will, in turn, chew through the wood more easily. Inexpensive routers tend to have one speed, while other routers come with a dial to speed up or slow down the bit as needed.
The size of a router’s motor determines how much power it provides. The larger the motor (measured in horsepower), the more easily it can be used with large scale projects. But routers with less power will also be smaller and easier to handle, which is useful when you need to trim a small piece like a box.
Router manufacturers typically either list the horsepower (HP) available (usually between 1/4 HP on the low end and 3 1/4 HP on the high end) or describe the router in terms of size. A palm router is usually 1 HP or less. A mid-sized router is often around 1.5 to 2.5 HP, and a full-sized router is 3 to 3 1/4 HP. For most hobbyists, mid-sized is ideal for your first router, although palm routers will save you money if your budget is tight.
Best Overall: Bosch 1617EVS Wood Router Tool Kit
One of the best-known brands for tools, Bosch gives you everything you want with the 1617EVS router. This mid-sized router is 2.5 HP, which should provide plenty of power, and has variable speed when you need to work on larger projects. And speaking of support of larger projects, the router comes with two collets, 1/4 and 1/2 inch.
While this is a fixed base router, the base is removable, and you can buy a plunge router add-on to convert it as needed. Short of incredibly large professional projects, this router should be able to meet all your needs.
BOSCH 1617EVS 2.25 HP Electronic Fixed-Base Router
A fixed based router, featuring 2.5 HP and 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch collets. The Bosch router also has variable speeds and an optional plunge router conversion add-on.
Premium Pick: Bosch 1617EVSPK Wood Router Tool Combo Kit
No, you aren’t experiencing déjà vu if you think you’ve seen this router already. The Bosch 1617EVSPK is an upgrade of our overall pick, and everything great about that router applies here. You get the same horsepower, collet sizes, and variable speeds. But this kit comes with both a fixed base and plunger base.
You can buy them separately, and we certainly suggest doing so if the price for this kit is too much upfront. But going with the kit will typically save you $60 in the long run.
BOSCH 1617EVSPK Wood 12 Amp Router Tool Combo Kit - 2.25 Horsepower Plunge Router & Fixed Base with a Variable Speed
You're still getting the Bosch 1617EVS with its variable speeds, multiple collet sizes, and 2.5 HP. But with this premium pick, you get both a fixed base and a plunge base for less than buying separately.
Budget Pick: Makita Rt0701C
If you don’t need a powerful router and plan to use it mostly to round over or flush cut the edges of your material, then the Makita Rt0701C is a great choice. You’ll make some compromises, like the 1 1/4 HP motor and the single 1/4 inch collet size. But the smaller motor is also a potential advantage, as this router is compact and you can use it with a single hand.
You still get variable speed adjustment, and the fixed based system allows for precise cuts. And at four pounds, it’s nearly half the weight as our overall pick, so your arms will be less tired when you finish cutting.
While this is a fixed base router, you can step up to a model that includes a plunge base as well.
Makita RT0701C 1-1/4 HP Compact Router
The Makita is a smaller router, with a 1 1/4 HP motor. But it fits the hand better and weighs less. This router only accepts 1/4 inch shank router bits.
Battery Powered: Ryobi Trim Router
The one problem with all the other routers on this list is the power cord. Used freehand (instead of with a router table), you move the router over the wood piece you want to cut. But as you move around your workpiece, the power cord inevitably gets in your way, or worse, ends up too short.
The Ryobi Trim Router is a small fixed-base router that is battery-driven. Like most small routers, it’s best for edge work and trimming (as the name suggests), and only accepts 1/4 inch shank router bits. While it does have variable speed controls, you won’t find a horsepower rating here, due to the nature of battery power. Suffice to say, you won’t make through-cuts, like a dado, with this tool. This is best for edge work only.
The battery is sold separately, but if you have Ryobi tools, you may already own a compatible One+ battery.
A Good Router Bit Kit: Hiltex 15 Piece Set
Just like a drill, a router doesn’t do you any good without bits to put in it. Generally to start you probably want at least a straight bit, a round over bit, and a Roman OGEE bit. Buying quality router bits piece by piece can be expensive and if that’s what you prefer the easiest thing to do is buy a bit when you need it. And then until you need the next bit before you buy any more.
But to get started, you can buy this 15-piece kit. You’ll get all the common router bits, plus a few more and a convenient storage case. Bits found in a kit like this typically don’t last as long, but they’re a great starting point to learn what the different bit types do and which ones you use most.
Hiltex 10100 Tungsten Carbide Router Bits, 15 Piece Router Bit Set, 1/4” Shank Tungsten Carbide Router Bits, Router Bits for Woodworking on Wood , Blue
With 15 router bits, this kit should have everything you need to get started and then some. The storage case is handy to have and thankfully includes clear labels with pictures, so you know what's what.