There are some tools that are kept in the workshop or around the house that have become household names. These are the tools that form the bread and butter of the trade and that are almost impossible to live without. They include things like saws, like clamps, like jigsaws…
But then there are the less obvious items, the things that many a woodworker might find themselves asking if they really need. These are the tools that can offer a lot of benefits and that have a lot of different use case scenarios but that perhaps aren’t quite as well-known or as ‘essential’.
As a hobbyist or as a professional, you need to make the call as to whether you really need these items, or if perhaps your money would be better spent elsewhere.
A compact router is just such a tool. This is something that most woodworkers can live without but that can make life a lot easier. If you’ve found yourself questioning whether you really ‘need’ a compact router, then read on and we’ll learn a bit more about these tools, who they are for and how to choose a good one so that you get the best possible value for money.
What is a Compact Router?
A router of course is a tool that you use to hollow out (or ‘route’ out) an area on the face of a hard workpiece. It essentially allows you to cut grooves in them, which look like river beds and that can trace shapes around the surface.
This is useful in woodworking and especially in cabinetry. It can also be very useful for a range of different jobs around the house.
Compact routers are routers that are compact enough to be held in the hand and can sometimes be called a ‘palm router’ for that reason. You can then drag and push them around the flat surface, cutting grooves into the surface as you go, or cutting all the way through. It has a wide range of different cutting, shaping and trimming applications in fact and many people consider it to be the ‘woodworker’s best friend’.
So if you were still on the fence about whether or not you need one, the answer is probably that you should invest in one anyway…
You’ll find yourself reaching for the compact router whenever you want to cut through a thin piece of wood and don’t want the hassle of working with larger and more cumbersome power saws. You’ll find yourself reaching for it too whenever you want to make some stylish molding.
Just a few of the uses include…
Making Clean Edges
If you want to make a smooth and clean edge on a narrow piece of wood, then you might just benefit from using a router. These are great for making even and level cuts on straight or curved edges.
Molding is one of the more interesting uses for your router, allowing you to carve ornate and beautiful patterns into all kinds of surfaces to make your creations that little bit more visually interesting.
Rabbets are the grooves or recesses that are often found on the sides of bookcases and that you can use to slot other pieces of wood into. They are also popular in door and casement window jambs and can help to form a very strong joint with the help of a dado.
As well as molding, another way to make your woodwork more visually appealing is simply to cut intricate and delicate patterns straight into the surface. This is something that you can do easily with a compact router.
Want to cut something with a hand saw but aren’t confident you’ll be able to stay along the right path? Use a compact router to cut a groove and then just follow that.
Types of Router
As you can see then, a router has a vast range of different uses and is something that really does belong in any woodworker’s collection, even though they might have been getting by without one.
In order to get the very most from this purchase though, it’s important to consider the different features and other factors to consider when making your purchase. Getting the right tool for the job will greatly improve your end product for your own enjoyment, or to ensure that you get hired again!
A plunge router is a router with a spring loaded base. This allows the bit to be pushed down into the wood and also lets the user lock the router at a chosen level. The benefit of a plunge router, is that when it isn’t locked, the user will be able to alter the pressure they are applying. This means that a cut could get gradually more shallow, or it could make it easier to cut from the middle of the wood, rather than from the edge.
Fixed Base Routers
As you might already have guessed, a fixed base router is essentially like a plunge router except that the bit depth can’t be changed during the cut and must instead be locked into place prior to beginning the cutting. This is useful for ensuring that the cut stays at a fixed height, though of course this is something that you can do with a plunge router simply by locking the base in place.
The only reason you might opt for a fixed base router in reality then, is so that you can avoid the additional expense when you are sure that you don’t need the plunge functionality. That said, they do also tend to be a little lighter and easier to work with, which might be more appealing for a complete beginner.
The ‘bit’ is of course the cutting part that attaches to the bottom of your router. The job of the bit is to define the shape of the cut in the wood, as well as the ease with which you can cut through.
Router bits can come in numerous shapes and sizes and you will likely want to invest in several in order to ensure that you are able to handle the widest range of different jobs.
These router bits include:
This is designed to place a convex, rounded edge on the wood, which will be just slightly below the level of the sides of the wood. This is great for decorative purposes.
This creates a straight edge at a slight angle along the side of the material.
This cuts using a concave quarter circle along one edge of the wood.
This makes a box groove, useful for slotting pieces of wood together and for numerous other applications.
This will make a 90-degree square cut along the edges of the wood.
Useful for making S-shaped designs.
Round nose cuts are half circle grooves.
This makes a rounded edge on a piece of wood but without recessed edges, a great way to add a professional finish to a piece.
As the name suggest, this creates a v-shaped groove in the wood.
Bits will also of course be available in different sizes and will have different shank sizes to fit different routers. Router bits should be made from high quality steel and will normally have carbide tips that can last a long time even when they are repeatedly used at high temperatures. They can often be used to complete a number of different jobs, the same piece might be used to cut out a recess for a door hinge as for rabbeting, for example.
Make sure you get a bunch to go in your collection and you’ll find they have a large range of uses!
More Accessories, Features and Parts
There are other accessories and parts that can help you to get more out of your compact routers. These include…
Router Tables and Fences
These are tables that let you place your router with the bit facing up and secured in place. This way, you can then engage the router and slide the wood along it instead of the other way around. You can also get routers that are not compact and that will always face up in this way.
Fences are supports that you can lead either the wood or the router against. This helps you to keep a steady hand, thereby ensuring that you can cut in straight lines. Fences can also prevent slipping and that way avoid an injury.
Jigs and Clamps
Jigs and clamps can of course be useful for fixing the wood in place while you are cutting. This is always useful to again ensure that you get a straight cut and to avoid slipping and causing injury. At the same time though, jigs and clamps can also be particularly useful when making specific cuts such as hinge recesses, box joints, dado joints, dovetail joints and more.
Router Speed Controls and Switches
Look for a router that comes with not only an on off switch but also variable speed triggers. This will allow you to alter the speed of the router, which will in turn affect how quickly it cuts through different materials and therefore how quickly it moves when you apply pressure to push or pull it around. You don’t want a router to be too slow, or you will need to apply too much force in order to get it to move. Likewise though, you also need to avoid routers that are too fast and will therefore move very quickly through the wood and cause you to lose precision.
When choosing your router, consider the attractiveness of the bit. In other words, if you are making a cut in order to aid the structure of your furniture, then you might not need to worry about how nice the finish is. On the other hand, if you’re making a free hand mortise, then it’s important that the inside of the groove looks attractive. Consider this when looking into your bits and into the routers themselves!
Bit Height Adjustment
The ability to alter the height on trim routers is a very important one and it’s crucial that this process be easy. You want something that will let you quickly alter the height while you are working, even if you don’t go for a plunge router.
The max power output is very important to consider too. Of course a compact router is always going to be slightly less powerful than the full-sized option and you may find there are times when you need a little more oomph. Whenever you downsize a given tool, you are going to be sacrificing power to a certain extent. When looking for your router, keep this in mind and try to find one that is still going to give you at least a decent amount of heft for cutting more easily through thicker materials. The more effort you need to apply, the less delicate and precise your cuts can possibly be.
Note though that power only tells some of the story. What’s just as important – or even more important – is to listen to the reviews and what they say about the handling. How is tit to use? How easily were they able to make more intricate and delicate patterns?
Of course on top of all these considerations, you should also think about all the usual stuff. How is the price? What is the weight like? Do you have space for this tool in your collection right now? And do you like the look? Look might not be a big factor but it’s still worth considering; if you’re spending a lot of money then you want something that will look good!
Whatever you decide though, you can rest assured you are making a good purchase. You’re sure to find plenty of uses for this tool over the years to come and the sooner you make the decision, the sooner you can start benefiting from it!