Reviews can compare woodworking routers based on important factors, but it's still important to see how a router feels in your own hands. If at all possible, test drive a router before buying it, or make sure the retailer offers a full refund on returns.

Being able to test or return a router is important because quality control seems to be a problem in general. Router expert Pat Spielman says that "Â… any two routers of the same brand and model may perform quite differently," and user reviews certainly confirm this. Be sure to check all aspects of your router as soon as you buy it, using a top-quality bit. Don't wait until the last minute to buy a router you need for a project. Give yourself time to check it out and if necessary, keep exchanging routers till you get one that works as it should.

Expert reviews recommend considering the following features when selecting a wood router:

  • Look for power that matches your usage. High-speed, low-torque routers make the smoothest cuts that need the least sanding, but they're not designed for heavy-duty or continuous use. Mid-sized 1.5- to 2.5-hp routers may be able to make deep cuts in hardwoods, but only by straining the motor and shortening the router's life. Larger routers of 3 hp and up are better suited for heavy jobs and production work. For most jobs, though, mid-sized routers have plenty of power, and for small jobs, a lightweight trimmer is apt to be easiest to use.
  • Soft-start EVS motors are safer and easier to use. These eliminate the wrist-wrenching jar when the router is first started, which experts say can twist a handheld router right out of your hands. Routers with soft-start motors use EVS (electronic variable speed) technology, with electronic feedback to keep the cutting speed constant even when the load varies.
  • Variable speed allows you to run the router at a lower speed when using especially large bits. The speed dial has numbers to indicate the relative speed. It's ideal to be able to read the corresponding rpm from a chart right on the router; second best is a chart in the router's manual.
  • A flat top on the housing makes it easier to set the router upside down for bit changes. Self-releasing collets (which grip the bit) and spindle locks also make it easier, so only one wrench is needed for bit changes (though some woodworkers prefer the two-wrench system).
  • Two-stage depth adjustment makes fine adjustments easier. This means that a fast coarse adjustment is supplemented by a micro-adjustment. Look for an easy-to-read scale. The best routers have scales you can "zero out," setting the scale to zero when the bit's point touches the surface of the workpiece. Be sure you can also adjust the depth easily when the router is mounted in a table -- a long depth-control knob makes this easy.
  • Look for a large hole in the base to accommodate medium to large bits. Expert reviews prefer a 4-inch hole (except on trim routers), with 3 inches as the minimum. If this is the only problem with a router you like otherwise, several reviews recommend making your own base out of clear Lexan, with whatever size hole you need. For some projects, especially on the edge of a workpiece, a base with a large hole may not leave enough support.
  • Be sure you can keep good control. Choose handles that give you good control, and make sure you can reach the switch without letting go of the handles. Reviews like a trigger switch in a D-handle, with a safety switch to prevent accidental turn-ons, plus a lock-on switch to prevent trigger-finger fatigue. For a router you'll also use table-mounted, a second switch mounted on the motor itself is ideal.
  • Be sure the base is machined precisely, lets you see the work well and has good mounting areas. LED lights are a plus. More important is a base that's truly flat, with the circular edge at the same distance from the bit at all points, so the bit is precisely centered. So many accessories mount to the router's base that it's important to have plenty of sturdy threaded holes.
  • Look for high-quality self-releasing collets made of tempered steel. Longer collets with more slits will grip the bit better and keep it centered even if its shank isn't precisely machined. (If the router vibrates excessively, this is often a sign of a worn or poor-quality collet or bit.)
  • Two separate collets are better than one with an adapter. Most mid-sized and larger routers come with both a half-inch collet and a quarter-inch one, but a few just include an adapter for the quarter-inch bits. Expert reviews say this solution isn't as precise or secure. Some small routers only take quarter-inch collets.
  • Guide bushings are essential accessories. These are metal sleeves that lock into the base of a router for cutting with a pattern or using various jigs. It's an advantage to choose a router that accepts industry-standard Porter-Cable bushings or at least offers an adapter that makes this possible. However, the Bosch system makes changing guides faster.

After you buy a router and check its build and performance, experts say these factors are important:

  • Use high quality bits for safety and performance. Poor-quality bits can not only produce poor-quality work, but may bend, chip or break. Pat Spielman's "The New Router Handbook" (see Best Research) has an excellent section on how to examine and test a bit; he also recommends buying anti-kickback bits. For bits that are available with either half-inch or quarter-inch shanks, half-inch bits are recommended because they vibrate less and produce less runout.
  • Be sure to use hearing and eye protection. Even using top-quality bits, a chip could damage your eyes. Woodchips and sawdust can get in your eyes, too. Ear protection is also a must, since even the quietest routers are still noisy enough to damage hearing.
  • Maintenance is important. This should be obvious, but some of the owner-written reviews that say a router worked well at first, then started sticking or slipping or stopped working, may possibly be due to a lack of maintenance. Various parts of the router need regular cleaning and/or lubrication. If this is neglected, you can't expect the router to keep performing well. Pat Spielman's "The New Router Handbook" has a fairly long list of router maintenance tasks.

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