SELECTING A ROUTER
Choosing a router can be a complicated proposition. This January (2005) I count ~ 60 plungers and fixed base and maybe a dozen or so trimmers. Horsepower and weight, ergonomics, tool budget, application, the expected life of the tool and the operator, skill level and just what your future in woodworking is, all play a part and add to the consternation. There is more to the story. The router has more application than any other tool and as such (a single tool) can't be expected to perform in all arenas well. The multiple casting (plunge, Dee, and fixed base) PK's simplify this dilemma but not entirely. For example, table routing should be a 3 horsepower task; lesser powered tools will run hot and shake themselves to death taking the typical big bites of long duration in the router table. All of the PKs are in the 2 HP range.
Allow me to sort out (with specific examples) some of the ambiguities, starting with the trivial. In my view, the plunge and fixed base router functions are a first-base essential. However, there is a safety issue here if you purchase only one router. Plunging with a fixed base casting is done at risk; the router may steer itself or a cutter may break. Using a plunger in a fixed base application is nearly as hazardous; try plunging/routing on the edge of stock, for example. (You'll tip the tool over if you plunge it with only half the casting on the work.) Notwithstanding, the plunge router, though less frequented, should be the first router in the router armamentarium. There are many; every router manufacturer makes one or more. Some of my favorites include the big Festo, the Bosch RA 1166 (a PK plunger), PC's 7539, and all 3 of the DeWalts (625, 621, & 6182).
The Dewalts are well appointed with superb electronics. They're very ergonomic, powerful, plunge better than their competition, but they do have stability problems. All plungers are wide handled, top heavy, and will teeter easily whilst routing along the edge of stock. The stability problem is not a DeWalt exclusive. Routing where the casting is surrounded by substrate poses little stability risk but the same router hanging near the edge of templet or workpiece end, will tip, killing its fixed base function. (Fixed base function: Essentially single depth trim or joinery cuts).
So what to do if you want only one router with both fixed base and plunge functions? Get a DeWalt and one of my offset subbases. I designed a plate for each of the castings to accommodate their unique functionalities and equilibrium issues. Click the Offset subbase link for details, make your own subbase, or consider one of my competitors. Practicing the fixed base function with a plunger (and no oversized subbase) is risky business.
The next step up is for those on a budget who want the fixed
and plunge functions but only one interchangeable motor, the
PK. (The life long woodworker with a more generous budget should
consider a separate plunger and fixed base. Better choices are
available in dedicated fixed and plunge routers with their own
motors). To date there is only one omission (Milwaukee). All of
the majors produce a PK or 2; (PC, Dewalt, Makita, Hitachi, Bosch,
Ryobi and Sear's).
With this much competition, prices are at a minimum and quality at a maximum. In my estimation the DeWalt 618PK, (no dee handle), is the best compromise in a PK. Caveat: All of the PK's are in the low 2HP class and, as such, cannot be counted on for sustained inverted router table use.
For the plunge only user there are at least 30 entries, ranging in power and price from ~3/4" to 3 and 75$ to 300$+ respectively. A plunger, in my view, is a multiple stab and excavate tool. As such, the cut/pass can be shallow and swift requiring only 1 or 2 horsepower. The 3 HP plungers are for deep cuttings of long duration. These buggers are heavy and unwieldy. The 2 HP tools (Bosch 1166, 1613, DW 618 & 621, and Makita 1100 e.g.) are spry and more easily manageable.
For the fixed base only users there are 30 + choices, many
essentially the same tool with maybe a Dee handle or soft start
differentiating one tool from another. There are only two 3 HP
fixed base, Milwaukee and Porter Cable. (I suspect that with DeWalt
now in the power seat, that may change.) Both of these tools are
excellent for sustained, hand held, rigorous cuttings. In the 2 HP
setting, there are many good choices, the PC 890 being on the top
of my list. For detailed appraisals of the other 2 HP contenders
(et.al), the reader is invited to the
Warner Magazine link.
The fixed base routers are designed for hand held use. Their snug and compact design render them best suited for edge work at a single fixed depth, (hence fixed base). They are wonderful for dado cuts, joinery and templets, but they are especially well suited for trim/decorative profiles along the edge of stock. An offset subbase will substantially upgrade handling and safety here. Do not plunge with a fixed base router.
Implicit in the choices above is hand only operation. But router table routing is viable and perhaps more important than hand routing. Oddly, of the more than 75 extant routers, there is not one of them designed for router table use! Plungers are all designed with handles and springs to work with gravity. The fixed based tools are underpowered (save PC 7518 and Milwaukee 5625), double gripped for hand held use and none of the graphics are printed upside-down. Moreover, their depth adjustment mechanisms are designed to enjoy gravity, switches are located for the hand held, and motors drop out of unlocked inverted castings.
So what's the deal? A table router is essential, right? There are many avenues to a solution, all compromises, some expensive, some ridiculous. In my view, the simplest way to manage the router table router is to turn a 5625 (Milwaukee) upside down and bolt its base casting to a well stressed, thin (5/8" in my case) piece of unclad MDF. Leave the big cutters to the shaper and keep the cutter hole to ~ 2". There will be ample depth reach with either a PC 7518 (>2.75") or the Milwaukee. That is the simplest and most practical approach to router table routing.
Is it common? Absolutely not. The 3HP plunger is the most common router in the router table. They are all fastened to metal or plastic subbases which rest, nest, and squirm in router table windows. Will I recommend one? I would be doing you a disservice if I did.
What about the expensive steel/aluminum lifts? They work with any router and pretty well at that. Would I recommend one? No. I do, however, strongly recommend you exploit the router table function no matter how you do it. Though the power requirement high (3HP), the functionality complicated, a router table is a critical player in Routerdom. Its safety, dust collect ability, ability to rout product on edge or face, produce tearout free cuttings, apply itself to joinery and abate noise should not be left unexploited.
What about the trimmer? Trimmers are great for that which they're designed. There are many and a life time woodworker should have at least one. Use them for shallow excavational work, trimming veneer, Formica and very light edge profiles like 1/4" round overs or bevels. Though not essential, they are nice to have and in my view, the PC 7310 and 310 trimmers are the friendliest. The 7310 depth adjust is poor but its power and ergonomics (with my offset subbase) outweigh the boondoggle. The 310, also with my offset subbase, has the best of depth adjusters and for light work it is the best compromise. Bosch & DeWalt trimmers are great contenders but PC remains the industry leader. To be sure, the trimmer is ready for a makeover, and at least one company (not to be mentioned) is doing just that. For more on routing, consider "The Router Book".
And safe routing!
Pat Warner 1/02/05
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Last modified: Thu Oct 8 07:16:29 PDT 2009