How to Use a Wood Router - Best Tips and Techniques
Ask any woodworker, and they will tell you: The wood router is in the top three most useful woodworking tools in existence. Some might say that it is the most useful machine in a woodworker’s arsenal. If you take a look around your home, you would almost certainly find a plethora of wood items that used a router in their construction.
The wood router, while important, is not a simple tool to use like a saw, screwdriver or chisel. These days, they are power tools made of potentially dangerous machinery. Learning how to use a router is important for the safety of the user and the quality of the woodwork.
Here we will look at what a wood router does, its design, the components that comprise it, safety tips and some techniques for easier and more efficient work. Working with a wood router can take your woodworking to the next level. But, like working with wood, if it is worth doing it is worth doing right.
The Wood Router
In the simplest of terms, a wood router could be described as a specialized power drill with a bigger motor. All it really is is a motor with a socket that a bit can fit into. This bit, which can be a variety of shapes, is spun at high speed and clears away wood as it is moved along a plank.
Alternatively, the wood router can be installed into a specialized table so that instead of moving the router, you move the piece of work along the bit instead of the other way around. In this way, it’s like a table saw; only it is spinning drill-like bit instead of a saw that is clearing away wood.
The wood router is used for a wide variety of woodworking activities including:
The Parts of a Wood Router
Before we can go over how to use a router, we must first go over the parts that a router is made of so that we have a glossary of terms to call upon.
The Router Table
The cast majority of jobs that involve a router take place on a router table. This device is a specially made table that you attach your router to. The router is affixed underneath the table, and the bit protrudes out of the top. This way, you move the wood flat across the table until it comes in contact with the bit and the cutting ensues.
The table is perhaps your most important accessory to the router, as “freehanding” a router is difficult to master and may lead to uneven cuts. Wood router tables can be somewhat expensive, but there are ways that you can construct your own cheaply and quickly.
There are many parts to a router table, but the fence is the most vital. It is the vertical plane that you hold the wood against to keep it straight. Like a ruler when drawing a straight line on paper. Some fences have an opening for a shop vac so you can attach one to suck up wood chips and waste. If you don’t have a router table yet, it should be first on your list of accessories.
Like with any power tools, safety is paramount. The safest way to use a router is with a table, as freehanding puts more uncertainty into the process. We’ll focus mainly on general safety here, but there are several freehand specific safety precautions to take if that is your aim.
When using any power tool, safety gear is a necessity. Safety goggles are mandatory, even with a shop vac collecting the detritus. The spinning of the router will send chips and dust flying in all directions, and you want to be protected.
Additionally, routers are particularly loud tools, so hearing protection is highly recommended to prevent permanent hearing loss. You may also want to invest in a mouth and nose covering to avoid inhaling too much wood dust. A simple surgical mask should be fine, as wood dust is relatively large, but you could also get a washable cloth one.
These tips will not only help you cut more safely but also more smoothly and efficiently.
Feed the workpiece against the rotation of the bit. Move the router from left to right if freehanding, and move the workpiece from right to left if using a table. Your cuts will be more even, and you will be less likely to lose control.
Start and stop the cut safely. To do this, never start up the router while the bit is in contact with the wood. Also, make sure the work is clear of the bit before turning it off. This will make your work cleaner and prevent damage to the wood and router should anything get snagged.
Be patient and take small cuts. Don’t force the router to make a deep cut if you can just take another pass. Cut in increments where possible for more even work and less large chunks flying around. Your router and bits will last much longer that way.
Tips, Tricks and Techniques
Here are few things you can do that will teach you how to use a router cleanly and work more efficiently.
Get a Lot of Bits
Individual bits may get a little pricey, but you can find large sets of 30, 40, 50 or more bits for bargain prices if you know where to look. They are nice to have, even if you don’t foresee using all of them. However, the most important bits in your arsenal will be the straight bits and round over bits. If you only get a few bits, get mostly straight ones with a couple round overs thrown in.
Get a Pilot
Some bits have a bearing on the tip that spins freely called a pilot. This is for guiding the work when doing edging. They aren't really used for straight bits, but other bits often have them. They are simple components that go a long way to making your work straighter. It will eliminate the need for an edge guide for the router in many cases.
Buy the Right Bits
You'll find two kinds of bits on the market: high-speed steel and carbide. Carbide bits will cost you around three times as much, but that is money well spent. First of all, steel bits do not last nearly as long and will lose their edge much faster. Dull bits lead to burning and tearing of the wood. Carbide bits come with ball-bearing pilots and will last up to ten times longer!
Also, make sure your bits are the right size for your router. There are two main sizes: ½ and ¼ inch diameter shanks. Routers usually fit one or the other, but some come with substitute collets or adapters so it can use both. Try for ½ inch shanks when possible, because there will be less wobbling and your cuts will be cleaner due to the less deflection that will be happening.
Maintain Your Bits
Like everything else, your bits will wear down. You can slow this process by cleaning them regularly with tool cleaning solution and a soft rag to get all the gunk out. This gunk increases friction and is bad for the wood, the bit and the router.
Eventually, you will have a dull bit on your hands, but that still isn’t the end. You can get them sharpened a few times before tossing them. There are services who will do it for you professionally, but the cheapest way is to buy a bit sharpening kit and do it yourself. It is much cheaper and faster that way.
Add and Subtract to Your Table
Purpose built router tables for sale often have additional features for convenience and safety, but these are not always ideal or even needed. For instance, a safety shield for the bit is often included with a router table, but these can obstruct your view and cause you to make more mistakes. Your safety gear, if complete and in good order, is more than enough to protect you.
Also, the opening for the shop vac is a bit large on some router fences, and small pieces of wood may get pushed in there, making for an uneven cut or ruined piece altogether. You can clamp an extra plank of wood with an opening cut out for the bit onto the existing fence to reduce clearance, or just make your own adjustable fence.