Don't Fear the Router - 11 Tips

A woodworker using a router to cut MDF.

To the first-time user, a router seems like a fairly simple machine—a motor with perhaps a profile bit, a switch, and some handles. No big deal. But when the motor is switched on, your opinion may start to change. You feel the centrifugal force as the motor spins. And it is loud! To make the experience complete, when the router makes contact with the board (which, if you are lucky, is clamped to a work table), man, what a surprise.

New users of routers hopefully conquer their fear eventually and learn the amazing versatility of this tool. The router can create roundovers, bevels, dovetails, lock miters, mortise-and-tenon joints, grooves, spline cuts, raised panel doors, and a plethora of edge details. It can produce template work and be configured to work as a jointer. All this for less than $250.

So why are routers scary? The fear factor all comes down to a lack of knowledge. So let's review router basics. If you're a first-timer, we'll show you how to avoid that copper taste of fear. If you've been using routers for a while, keep reading. You're bound to learn something new.

Here are the 11 Commandments of Router Use:

1. Always Wear Eye and Ear Protection

Routers use big universal motors and many can be loud. Hearing protection is recommended when sound exceeds 85 decibels. Some routers can exceed 100 decibels, so always wear hearing protection even if you're using the quietest router on the market.

Routers can throw huge amounts of chips as well, and you often must look closely at what you're doing. So eye protection is also a must.

2. Unplug the Router to Change the Bit

Unplug your router every time you change the bit, and when you're done, double check that the switch is off before plugging it back in. It's easy to put a new bit in, flip the switch, and realize that the router is unplugged. Then you plug it in and if you're lucky, you can stop the tool before it hits the floor or before you hurt yourself.

Some routers have a build that helps you avoid making this mistake, putting a plug between the motor and the switch in the handle. With this setup, you unplug the motor at the handle, change bits, and set the base before you plug the motor back into the handle.

3. Securely Tighten the Collet

When you install a bit, there are a couple of things to watch for. First, clean any debris from the collet (the holding device or clamp for the bit). Second, don't let the bit bottom out in the collet. Pull it up 1/8-inch before tightening. Lastly, always give the wrench an extra tug when you tighten it to be sure it is secure.

4. Keep Hands and Cords Clear of a Spinning Bit

It makes perfect sense to keep your hands clear of the bit, but the cord is easily forgotten during operation. Know where your cord is at all times. If the cord is lying in the way, your attention can be diverted while you move it, and it only takes a second to make a mistake. Cords can also get wrapped around clamps, ankles, and other items and restrict the router's movement during a cut. Also, when buying a router, consider where the cord is on the tool. Some routers integrate the cord into the housing so you can turn the router on its flat top to change bits, which is a nice feature.

5. Always Make a Test Cut

Always make sure you've got the router set up correctly by making a test cut. Don't risk ruining a finished piece with a mistake that could be easily avoided.

6. Let the Bit Cool

It is easy to forget that an awful lot of heat is generated at the bit while it cuts the profile. While not a life threatening mistake, you should still let the bit cool to prevent any harm.

7. Clamp Smaller Work Pieces

Don't hold the router with one hand and the work piece with the other. Always keep both hands on the router instead.

As an added safety feature, big knob handles or a "D" style handle will help you stay in firm control of your router while the clamps hold the work piece secure.

8. Never Switch on the Router When Bit is Touching Anything

If the bit is in contact with the work, it will either throw the work, or the router will race right out of your hands. While some new routers are offering a soft-start (or gradual acceleration) feature, most still start at full speed immediately. If you feel this might be a concern, consider a soft-start router when you make a purchase.

9. Feed Router Opposite of Cutter's Rotation

Remembering which way to run your router is very important. If it is run in the wrong direction, the router can race out of control.

10. Use the Proper Bit and Speed

If you're using a large panel raising bit, you need more torque but a slower speed, which is why you will find variable speed controls on many routers of over 1 1/2 hp rating. Smaller bits work best at faster speeds while larger bits work best more slowly.

11. Use Multiple Passes

This is a safety and performance issue. While a 1/2 inch up-spiral carbide bit is probably capable of plowing a one inch deep groove, it's putting a lot of stress on the bit and the router. It is much safer and provides a better cut to make deep cuts in incremental passes. Use your better judgment as to how many passes are necessary, but in general, quarter-inch depths are a safe increment to use.