A Versatile and Confusing Tool

The router is probably the hardest woodworking tool to comprehend.

This difficulty probably stems from the fact that its functions can’t be resumed in a few words. Indeed, the router is able to do tasks that can, at first, not seem to have much to do with one another, which can be confusing.

In fact, a router tool can be used to make decorative edges, to cut circles or grooves, to carve rabbets, to duplicate patterns, to cut joints like box joints or tenon and mortise, to carve letters to make signs, and more. Since the router can perform so many tasks, it is an essential tool for almost any woodworker. It can also be intimidating at first, partly because of its steep learning curve, but also because it has the reputation of being a dangerous tool. It is true that anyone using a router has to be cautious, but this reputation is unwarranted to some degree since, in fact, the table saw is the cause of more accidents, especially serious ones.

A Makita router tool
A Makita router tool

Woodworking with almost any power tool can be dangerous, but I don’t think it should hold anyone back from this activity. It should instead motivate us to be careful when using any kind of tools.

Understanding the Router Tool

Because of the versatile nature of the router, I think that instead to try and understand the tool by its functions straight away, it is preferable to first examine the tool itself and focus on its three main parts.

These parts are the router motor, the router bits and the router bases.

All of them are needed for a router to function except when a router lift is replacing the base, which is out of the scope of this article, although a future one might touch on the subject.

After these three parts are explained, they will all be put together in an example that will be shown later in this article. This example consists of one of the uses of a router tool, which is making decorative edges.

Le moteur d'une toupie, une base plongeante avec une mèche en avant d'elle et une base fixe
From left to right a router motor, a plunge base with a router bit in front of it and a fixed base.

The Motor

The motor accounts for most of the weight of the router tool. The role of the motor is to make a router bit spin at high speed (often 20,000 rpm or even more). The router bit is inserted in a collet located at the bottom of the motor, which is then tightened in order to secure the bit. This system works in a similar way to the one found on rotary tools from brands like Dremel. There is no need to give further explanations on the motor in order to understand the router tool.

A Makita router motor
A Makita router motor


The Router Bits

The router bits come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and functionalities, but at the core they all do the same thing, which is cutting into wood in a specific way. They can be divided into two main categories: those that are equipped with a bearing and those that are not equipped with one.

The bearing of a router bit is meant to roll on the edges of a piece of wood in such a way that the router bit follow these edges. Another section of the bit, which often has a greater diameter than the bearing, then cut into the plank in a constant and desired way. This is how decorative edges are made, for example.

A decorative router bit
A decorative router bit (note the small bearing at the bottom of the bit)

The router bits that don’t have a bearing often are guided in their cut by some sort of jig or guide (or with a router table, which might be the subject of a future article). Sometime they can also be used without being guided by anything more than the hands of the user on the handles of the router, like when letters are carved into a sign freehand.

A straight router bit
A straight router bit

The Bases

As for the bases, they serve as a stand so that the router can glide on a piece of wood and remain at a constant 90-degree angle with respect to the wood surface (there are some types of bases that can keep the router at other angles, but they are seldom used). The bases also allow to set the router bits at a desired depth of cut.

A fixed base (to the left) and a plunge base (to the right) with the router motor behind
A fixed base (to the left) and a plunge base (to the right) with the router motor behind

There are two main types of bases: the fixed base and the plunge base.

When using a fixed base, the depth of cut is set before starting to work on a piece of stock and this depth will remain the same for all of the task at hand or until the user stops the router and sets another depth of cut.

A router with a fixed base
A router with a fixed base

The plunge base is fairly different. It possesses two pistons that allows for the router motor and, more importantly, the router bit to move up and down during the cut according to the pressure the user puts on the base handles. That being said, a maximum depth of cut can be set on the router base by setting up a stop built into the base. Also, it is often possible to set the tool at a given depth of cut with a lever made for this purpose before making a pass or even while doing it.

A router with a plunge base
A router with a plunge base

Thanks to the plunge base, it is for example possible to carve letters in wood freehand (some jig can help to see this kind of task through) or to carve a mortise in the middle of a piece of lumber.


Example of a Task Accomplished with a Wood Router: Decorative Edges

Router motor with a roman ogee bit installed
In order to make a decorative edge with a router, an appropriate router bit is chosen and installed in the collet with wrenches provided with the tool. Here, the router bit is a Roman ogee.
Router motor installed in a plunge base
Then, the motor is inserted in the router base and fixed in place with a lever built into the base.
Router bit set to the desired depth of cut
After that, the router bit is set to the desired depth of cut by lowering the motor with respect to the base and then by pulling on another lever so it stays in place.
A router speed control
That being done, the router speed can be adjusted if it has an electronic speed control. For this task, the router is set to its maximum speed.

Finally, after having put on the appropriate visual, auditive and respiratory protections, we can start to cut into the wood in order to make a decorative edge. In order to do so, the base must be well supported on the stock being cut at all times while making the router bit bearing follow the edges of the lumber. Also, the router has to be moved at the right speed in the counterclockwise direction (clockwise direction when routing an opening in a piece of stock). It is also necessary to follow some principles like routing in several passes instead of trying to remove too much wood by using an excessive the depth of cut. A future article might describe in more details how to use a wood router.

Black walnut stock with a decorative edge
In this case, I routed a decorative edge in a small section of a black walnut stock.
A squirrel sculpture with a base
It has been used as a base for a squirrel sculpture.

If you like this kind of artwork, I invite you to visit my online store by following this link: carvedverses.ca

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Why these verses?