Most wood workers, even beginners, realize the value of having a router but with all the different types available it isn't always easy to determine which is best for you.
Routers can be classified into three main groups; large, mid-size and trim. Within the large and mid-sized groups there are more variations, plunge and fixed base. So how do you know what to get? Lets break down the different types and see what each is designed for.
A large router is best suited for a router table since they are quite heavy and cumbersome to operate by hand. The motors are around 3 HP and are designed to be used with large bits that remove a lot of wood, bits like raised panel bits. A variable speed motor is recommended since it allows you to reduce the speed as you increase bit size.
This is the all purpose family of routers that are often the first ones bought by woodworkers. With motors size ranging from 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 HP they can be used with a wide range of bits. They are also the most versatile of all the router families, easily used by hand or mounted in a table.
Trim routers are the babies of the router family with motors sized at 1 HP or less. Trim routers are equipped with a 1/4 inch collet thus are only able to be used with smaller bits that remove small amounts of wood at a time. Their small size and light weight makes them very easy to use by hand but have insufficient power to be used in a router table.
The Base is Also Important
A fixed base or plunge base both have their advantages but which one is best suited for you?
A fixed base router requires you to unlock the base from the motor, adjust the depth of the bit and secure the lock, fixing the depth of the bit. Since the base is often removable on a fixed base router it allows easier changing of the bits. A fixed base is ideal for template work and for beading.
A plunge base router allows the motor to move up and down along two guides. With the motor locked on the base a level lock controls the depth of the bit.
The main advantage of a plunge router over a fixed base is it allows the motor to come up to speed before making a cut. The bit can be lowered into the stock allowing cuts to be made that are in the center of the stock. Cuts like mortises and dadoes are best performed with a plunge router since the bit can be raised out of the cut once you reach a stopping point.
Variable speed is suggested since it allows you to reduce the RPM's of the bit. Remember that as the size of the bit increase the more wood is removed and the slower the bit should rotate. This added function will come in handy allowing you to use a full range of bits safely.
Routers are excellent dust makers, no doubt about it. Having a router with a vacuum port is going to save you a lot of clean up and possibly some health problems as well. More manufacturers are including a dust port on their tools.
My old Craftsman router was retired a couple years back after I bought a log tenon jig. This jig required a 1/2 inch bit but my Craftsman only had an 1/4 in collet. I bought a Porter-Cable 690 which has an interchangable collet so I can use both 1/2 & 1/4 inch shank bits. More added versatility.
Soft start simply means that the motor comes up to speed gradually. A small feature but it does prolog the life of your router especially when you are using large bits.
Before buying a router ask yourself what you plan on using it for. Are you trimming arborvitae on counter tops or are you making your own molding. The intended use is, of course, going to determine what type of router you need. Getting a router with dual collets will expand its use and save you from buying a second router.
So ask yourself the important questions before you take the "plunge" and buy your router.