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Plunge routers vs. fixed-base routers

Wood routers are categorized by the way the motor is attached to the base:

  • Plunge routers attach the motor to a spring-loaded base, so you can plunge the bit safely and accurately into the middle of a piece of work. They're the safest type.
  • Fixed-base routers lock in the depth of cut by raising or lowering the motor on the base. They're often considered the easiest for beginners to learn to use, especially when mounted in a router table.
  • Trim routers (also called laminate trimmers or palm routers) are very light and small fixed-base routers, using bits with quarter-inch shanks, powered by 1-hp or smaller motors.
  • Combo router kits come with one mid-sized motor plus both a fixed base and a plunge base. They're a cost-effective and convenient way to get two tools in one.

You can use both types of wood router (plunge and fixed-base) in either of two modes: handheld or mounted upside down in a router table. This is more or less like the difference between using a circular saw and a table saw, or a jigsaw versus a scroll saw. In one mode, you hold the wood steady while moving the tool; in the other, you hold the tool steady while moving the wood.

Expert reviews find that within each type, the best handheld router is usually not the very best choice for use with a router table -- so it's a good idea to think ahead about how you are most likely to use a router. Handheld routers are useful for a variety of tasks -- for example: rounding the edges of wood, making grooves, trimming laminate or cutting mortises for hinges. Table-mounted wood routers are used for precise cuts (as for joinery) and production runs.

Although experts say to take horsepower and even current draw (amp) specifications with a grain of salt, router size is specified in horsepower and type. Trim routers, which are rated at one horsepower or less, are best for small jobs. Mid-size routers of 1.75 to 2.25 horsepower (or 10 to 13 amps) are best for general use. Router combo kits are usually of this size. Heavy-duty routers are meant for continuous use or making deep grooves in hard woods. These are usually 3-hp (15-amp) routers.

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