Basics of Using a Router Power Tool Safely

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The router reigns supreme when it comes to woodworking. With it, you can make raised-panel doors, round the edge of a coat rack, or create your own baseboard molding. You can also trim plastic laminate, cut dovetail joints for a jewelry box, or carve dado grooves into a bookcase. All this and more await the enlightened router user.

How to Use a Wood Router

But getting good work out of a router is a little more complicated than just pulling it out of the box. Whether you’ve purchased a fixed-base router or a plunge model, you have to tame this tool before it’ll perform its magic predictably and safely.

Router Safety

Routers can definitely be dangerous. They spin their bits at 22,000 rpm quite a bit faster than the 3,000 to 4,000 rpm speed of the average circular saw. Before putting your router to work, make sure you have a good feel for the tool. Learn where the on/off switch is so you can reach it in a hurry. If you have a plunge router, practice lowering and raising the bit and working the plunge lock.

Because routers can be locked in the on position, always make sure the tool is really off before you plug it in. Always unplug the router before you make any major adjustments, change bits, adjust the bit’s depth of cut or mount accessories.

Unless you have a router with soft-start electronic control, grip the handle firmly when you switch the machine on. A big router has enough starting torque to jerk out of your hands if you’re not vigilant. While you’re working, always keep both hands on the router’s handles. And always wear goggles and ear protection; routers are noisy and throw chips with surprising force!

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3 Ways to Use a Router

There are three different ways of working with a router. Understanding each method will help you select bits and accessories for the tool you’re using. It will also help you to determine which technique is right for the routing work you plan to do. We’ll explain each of the three methods for each procedure we discuss.

Routing with an Edge Guide

An edge guide is a valuable accessory for any router. The edge guide has a straight face that can be adjusted at different distances from the bit. You adjust it so that it runs against a straight edge of the workpiece, and the edge guide keeps the router going in a straight line.

Routing with a Piloted Bit or Guide Bushing

A ball bearing guide, mounted on a router bit’s shaft, allows the bit to travel along the edge of a workpiece or template. Edge treatment bits all depend on pilot bearings for guidance.

Using a Router Table

Mounted upside down in a router table, your router becomes a stationary tool that works just like a wood shaper. Most router table operations are done using a fence to guide the workpiece. Larger bits, like panel-raising bits and multiform bits, are designed for router-table use only; they’re too big to use safely in hand-held mode.

Get Ready to Rout

Once you’ve made your bit selection and chucked the bit securely in the router’s collet, you’re ready to adjust the bit’s depth of cut. It’s best to start with a shallow cut. By increasing the depth gradually (instead of cutting to final depth with your first pass), you can avoid straining your router and your arms. A test cut in some scrap material will tell you how deep your bit is set to cut.

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If you’re using a router table, adjust the fence position to “hide” or cover part of the bit, starting off with a light cut and then moving the fence back to reveal more of the bit. This approach works well with larger molding bits and vertical panel-raising bits, which shouldn’t cut the finished profile in one pass. For router table operations, you’ll also need to adjust the bit’s height above the table the equivalent of the usual depth-of-cut adjustment you make when the router is rightside up.

To adjust depth-of-cut on a fixed-base router, loosen the clamp in the router base and move the motor housing up or down until the bit extends just the right amount below the baseplate.

Plunge routers work differently. They come equipped with a mechanism that limits the depth of plunge a depth stop. You set the depth stop for each job; you’ll need to consult your router’s manual for precise instructions.

When you have set the depth of cut and locked it in, make at least one test cut on a piece of scrap wood. This dress rehearsal can prevent the ruin of valuable lumber. It’s also a sound safety check to see if you’re trying to remove too much material in a single pass.

Remember, never start a router with the bit in contact with the wood. And, unless you’re an expert with a router, always turn it on with the base set firmly on the work surface.

Now for a few final checks. You’ll need ear and eye protection. If you are routing with an edge guide or a piloted bit, your workpiece needs to be clamped so that it won’t shift when you’re cutting it. And it’s important to manage the slack in the power cord.

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You need to be able to go the full distance of the cut without stopping. Draping the cord over a shoulder is often a good strategy. If you’re using the router table, your test cuts will have told you whether you needed to set up featherboards and/or use hold-downs to provide valuable “third-hand” assistance.

Basics of Using a Router

Handheld Routing

Start the motor, then feed the bit into the wood, cutting from left to right.

Plunge Routing

Start the motor and lower the bit slowly into the work before you move the router. Rout deep slots or mortises in multiple passes, lowering the bit about 1/4 inch with each pass. When you’re finished, raise the bit clear of the work before you switch the router off. No matter what kind of router you have, always leave the base flat on the work until the bit stops spinning.

Router Table Routing

Feed the workpiece from right to left, using a steady, even feed rate. Apply pressure against the table and against the fence as you feed the stock into the bit. Use plastic or wooden push blocks to keep your hands well clear of the bit.

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