Woodworking: Why Do I Need A Router

The Router For The Beginner

The router is one of my favorite wood working tools because of their many uses. So in this bundle of information I’ll answer the question “why do I need a router”? So to start off I want to make clear there are a couple of different types to choose from which are the handheld and the plunge router. A question that gets asked a lot from beginners is which one to choose. That’s a good question but the problem is there’s not an easy answer especially if your on a budget. It comes down to what you plan on doing, how much are you going to use it and how much you’re willing to spend.

The Handheld And Plunge Router Together

One good thing is you can usually find both types that are sold together. So if you can afford it, I would buy both router bases so that you can just change out the base when needed. However, if you just plan on doing simple projects where a router may not get a lot of use, maybe just buy the fixed router. As you get better and realize all of the things the wood router can do you can always buy one later. I can almost promise you, the more different projects you do the more you will see the benefit of also owning a plunge router.

All routers are used to rout wood or to hollow out and make a channel. You can take a plain dull looking piece of wood and remove the sharp edge that runs the length of the board making it look more attractive. I’ve seen people make chair railing for their house because it costs less. Plus it gives your house a unique touch which is like a signature, no two people will do routing the same.

The plunge router does the same thing as a handheld router. What’s different about it is that instead of starting at the edge of the wood to rout, you can go to the middle of the wood plunge down and work outward towards an end or an edge. An example is engraving something like maybe a welcome sign made of wood for your house. One advantage that the plunge router has over the fixed is that it is capable of doing all the jobs that a fixed can. But the fixed router can be more maneuverable in certain situations.

The Table Router

Table routers are a good accessory for the handheld router for routing long pieces of wood. Earlier I talked about the chair railings for the home. It also does a great job when working with narrow pieces of lumber that are hard to rout with the handheld or the plunge router. The table router will also speed up the process since you don’t have to clamp the wood down like you would with the handheld type. This table also excels when you’re working with odd shaped patterns because you can use both hands to guide the pattern through the router. Visibility is increased as well. The router table is where all of your joinery cuts will be made.

Before you purchase one keep in mind that you can build one yourself that you can find in most books that have to do with routing. But if you want to purchase one there are some things to consider. Make sure that the bit guard adjusts easily. Buy the largest router table that you can fit in your work shop. The bigger the table the more accuracy you’ll get when routing. Check to make sure that the fence set up is easy to work with. I’ve seen some where you can bolt a piece of wood to the fence to help protect the fence itself. This is the kind of setup you want to look for.

Things To Look For When Buying The Router

Before you purchase, look at several different brands to see what the options are for each. I think that the minimum horsepower should be around 2HP. This should suffice for most if not all projects that you will want to build. Yes there are more powerful ones on the market but remember the bigger and more powerful ones will be heavier and a little harder to control especially when you turn the damn thing on. They are more expensive as well but if you think that you will need a bigger version, then go for it.

Something else to make sure of is that the router that you intend to buy has a variable speed control equipped. This in my opinion is a must because when using router bits some will need to spin faster while others need to be slowed down. A soft start is a nice option to have so that when you turn the handheld or plunge router on it won’t be so jarring. If you don’t mind the quick start up then don’t get it. For those that don’t know what soft start is, is allows the router to get to full speed over a few seconds. One that doesn’t have this option will go from 0 rpm’s to oh hell here we go full speed in about one second.

There’s a bunch of different types of router bits in all different shapes and sizes and some of the bits have a shank that is 1/4″ while others are 1/2″. Buy a router that comes with a 1/4″ collet and a 1/2″ collet. The collet is what holds the router bit in the router. Don’t worry they are easy enough to change out.

Safety First

First off, before you do anything, make sure that you are wearing all of your safety equipment. I’m not going to beat the dead horse to death here since I already mentioned pretty much everything and why when working with table saws. So if you want a more in-depth look, go over the table saw page. I’ll just make a quick a mention here. Wear your safety glasses, earplugs or earmuffs.

Make sure all loose clothing is tucked in and loose jewelry is taken off. The safety difference when using the router is you’re going to want to either wear a dust mask or possibly a respirator. When the router works through the wood it creates a really fine dust which you don’t want to breath in. Some routers are capable of having a vacuum attachment that’ll collect all of this debris as you rout away. Also remember to keep hands and fingers away from the router bit.

Get To Know Your Router

Alright here we go. If you’ve never used a router before I suggest that before you start routing on your work piece find a piece of scrap wood to practice on. Make sure that you clamp the piece down so that it won’t move around. Make sure that the routing bit that is being used is nice and sharp.

Counter Clockwise Movement

An important thing to remember is that when moving the router most of the time you should be going in a counter clockwise direction on top of the piece of wood. When moving in this direction you should feel the router push back on you. This is a normal feeling and you’ll have better control of the router and is also safer this way. Although, by routing this way the router has a tendency of chipping out the corners of wood.

Climb Cutting

To prevent this from happening you’ll have to rout clockwise on the top right corner and the bottom left. This is known as climb cutting. When climb cutting, it will feel a little odd at first and the router will want to run away from you so be sure that you grasp the router firmly. The trick is to take your time and not rout away to much material on the first pass.

Router Speed Is Key

When using the router, speed is key. If you move the router too fast you’ll end up taking divots out of the wood which will ruin what you’re working on. When the router is moving too slow, you’ll scorch or burn the wood which can be difficult to sand out if not impossible.

Some Router Joint Examples

The router does more than add decorative edges and cut channels and grooves. It will cut joints for putting drawers in a desk together or cabinets for your kitchen. A couple of joints the router can do are rabbet and dado joints along with dovetail joints and others. These are just a few a router can do. However if you plan on doing any of these types of cuts I would try and buy a router table so that all of the cuts stay precise.This is a good way to utilize that hand held base. Let’s dig a little deeper into what each of these cuts are used for.

Cutting Rabbets For Joints

The rabbet is one of the easier cuts to make with a router. The reason that you might want to cut rabbets is that they are handy for putting bottoms in drawers, putting a pane of glass in a door of a cabinet. With the rabbet cut, plywood can be easily recessed on the back of cabinet to make it look nicer. So what is a rabbet cut exactly? Well all it is, is a right angled cut that’s made down the edge of wood or along the width of an end.

Remember when I said to use a router table for more precise cuts? Well there’s some instances that won’t be possible like interior cuts for a bookshelf and dresser drawers. Don’t despair, the rabbeting bit is well suited for this kind of job. The bit itself has a bearing that acts as a guide as rout down the edge of your board. It also controls how deed the cut you make because this type of bit comes with different sizes of bearings that are interchangeable.

Purchasing A Rabbeting Bit

That’s one thing to keep an eye out for when you decide to purchase a rabbeting bit. Make sure that all of the bearings come with it. Normally a good setup will come with all the bearings ranging from 1/8″ to 7/16″ of an inch. As long as you keep the bearing on the edge of the wood all of the cuts should stay straight.

If you don’t have a rabbeting bit or don’t want to buy one for whatever reason there’s an alternative course of action. You can use a plain old strait bit. You just have to setup something for the router to ride along for your cuts to be straight. One option is to use a level that can be clamped down to the wood and use that as a guide.

The Dado Joint

The dado joint, what a funny name for a cut. Interesting fact though, this kind of cut is called this because the groove that’s made is always across the grain of wood with a smooth flat bottom. If the groove is made going with the grain, well it’s just called a groove. Why would you want to use this type of cut you may ask? Well this is used typically when cabinets are made where tight joints are essential in the assembly process.

The dado cut is a very strong joint when made correctly and will support anything in the way of weight. This works great for fitting shelves in a bookcase or a cabinet. Pretty much anything where a shelf is needed. The only thing that it won’t hold up to is stress. What I mean about this is that if you put a shelf in the frame of a let’s say a bookcase, the shelf will pull apart from the frame itself fairly easily.

Making A Dado Jig

That’s why when you make a dado cut, it’s important to make sure that the groove is only slightly bigger than the thickness of the wood that you’ll be using for the shelf. By slightly I mean only a couple thousandth’s of an inch. The best way to do this is with a jig. The jig itself doesn’t need to be fancy and you can make one yourself. The video below has very good instructions on how to properly and easily make this type of jig. This gentleman explains it much better than I ever could.

Lay your work piece on the bench, measure where you want to make your cut with a pencil. Take one part of the jig, line the edge of it up with the pencil mark and clamp it down. Next take your work piece and stand it on the end against the jig that you just clamped down. Take the other half of the jig and slide it up against the wood that you’re holding and clamp it down as well.

If done correctly, this will ensure that the dado won’t be to wide and it should be just right. A nice snug fit. The router that I suggest that you use is the plunge router because you can set the depth of the cut. The next step is choosing the the right router bit for the job. I’m sure there is more than one choice but for this example I would suggest using the templating router bit. This bit here makes a nice smooth cut along the sides and the bottom of the dado is smooth too.

Dado Depth

Now the depth of the cut is determined by the thickness of the work piece that you have. It’s recommended that whenever possible that the depth should be half the thickness of the work piece. This gives more surface area for your shelves and more room for the glue when you put the shelves into whatever your building. However there are some cases that this would be a bad idea.

For instance if you have a long cabinet and you need to install a partition half way down. Well that partition is more than likely going to accommodate two shelves. The better way to get around this problem is on each side of the partition is to cut your dados’ one third the depth on each side of the partition so that there’s still some material left in the middle.

The Dovetail Cut

The dovetail cut is an excellent choice for putting drawers, jewelry boxes and yeah pretty much anything that involves ninety degree angles. There are other reasons why this type of cut is so popular. The biggest reason is for its strength. With some wood glue added to it, it will never pull apart on you and also eliminates the use of fasteners. The dovetail also adds a touch of style and elegance to your finished piece.

Before power tools came into existence the only way to make this kind of cut was with hand. Can you imagine how long that took? Also think about if you made a bad mistake you would probably have to start the whole process over again. However, with the help of router and a router table and with a jig the process has become easier, faster and more efficient.

Dovetail Intimidation

The dovetail can be a little intimidating just by looking at it but with the help of a router and a jig it’ll make your life a whole lot easier. This type of cut comes in a few different types. The first is called a through dovetail and is normally used when you don’t mind if the joint shows the end grain or not. Out of the two that I talk about this one provides the most strength. Plus if cut correctly there shouldn’t be any gaps when fitting the pieces together. Before gluing the pieces together always make sure that they have a snug fit. A rule of thumb is you shouldn’t have to beat on the pieces to get them together. Light tapping with the use of a rubber mallet is fine.

The half blind dovetail cut is a little different. It’s mostly used when the showing of the end grain isn’t wanted. The faces of drawers in a dresser is one example or the faces of kitchen drawers is another. It’s not as strong as the through dovetail cut but is pretty strong nonetheless. To make this cut, you’re going to need a jig unless you want to try hand cutting the fingers which is what people used to do a long time ago. Another option is to use a band saw. But if I were you I would invest in a jig that can do the job.

Dovetail Jig