Router Woodworking Basics: How to Use a Router

1 rbphoto2-router woodworking Want to use a router, but don’t know where to start? Learn how to use a router with these router woodworking techniques and tips.

Boy, I use routers a lot. They can do so much. From adding a profile to an edge to cutting dovetail joints, a router is an incredibly versatile machine. But if you’ve never used one, routers can be intimidating. This article provides buying advice on how to use a router along with tips to help you get started.

2 rbphoto1

Photo 1: Fixed Base Routers typically provide easy bit changes and bit height adjustments

Router Types.

Routers can be divided into two categories: fixed base and plunge base. On a fixed base router, once the bit is in and the base is locked, the bit is in a ‘fixed’ position, meaning its depth is set and will stay set (Photo 1).

3 rbphoto2

Photo 2: Plunge Routers excel at providing distinct starting and stopping points in a cut, often required for mortise and dadoes.

On a plunge base router, the bit can be locked in the router, then plunged in and out of the material (Photo 2).

Since the base on a fixed base router can typically be removed, bit changes are generally easier on a fixed base router than on a plunge router. Many woodworkers find micro-adjusting bit height easier on a fixed base router than a plunge router, which makes fixed base routers a popular choice for use with dovetail jigs, router tables, and other tools where bit depth can be fussy.

The big advantage of plunge routers is that, since they can plunge in and out of the material, you can easily make cuts with distinct starting and stopping points. This is useful when making mortises and dadoes. I also use a plunge router for making adjustable shelf holes in cabinets, and find it works much better than a drill.

4 rbphoto3

Photo 3: A multi-base router kit consists of one motor that fits both a fixed base and plunge base.

If you’re not quite sure which type of router would be best for you, have a look at multi-base router kits which are available from many manufacturers (Photo 3). Since the kits include a fixed base and a plunge base, they provide the best of both worlds. This give you lots of bang for your woodworking buck.

5 rbphoto4

Photo 4: Variable speed is required for large diameter bits. The bigger the bit, the slower you can run the router.

Variable Speed

Variable speed is a must-have feature as you demand more of your router. Safety requires that you lower the router rpm (revolutions per minute) when working with large diameter bits (Photo 4). You absolutely cannot run large diameter router bits at full rpm. A router bit speed chart is included at the end of this article for your reference.

6 rbphoto6

Photo 5: Router bits can be purchased with a 1/4" shank, left, or 1/2"shank bits whenever you can.

Router Bit Shanks

Router bits are available in two shank sizes, 1/4″ and 1/2″ (Photo 5). Given the choice, buy the bit with the 1/2″ shank. There’s little, if any, price difference between the two. And the larger shank gives you two advantages. It helps stabilize the bit under cutting pressure so you get less chatter, which means a nicer cut (read less sanding). It also gives the collet (the chuck that holds the bit) more surface to grab, so there’s less chance of the bit coming loose.

7 rbphoto5 So when you’re router shopping you want to look for a machine that has both 1/4″ and 1/2″ collets. FYI, you may come across some router bits that have an 8-millimeter shank. These are used with a 1/2″ to 8-mm reducer inserted into a 1/2″ collet.

8 rbphoto7

Photo 6: Unplug the router and remove the base before changing bits. 2/3 of the bit shank should be inserted into the collet.

Installing Bits

The first step in changing router bits is making certain the router is unplugged. Additionally you’ll make your life easier, and bust fewer knuckles, if you remove the router base when installing and removing bits (Photo 6). When installing a bit in the router, set it so 2/3 of the shank is inside the collet, then tighten the collet.

How to Use a Router

9 rbphoto8

Photo 7: A router bad securely holds your work in place and allows you to rout all the way around the piece.

Secure Your Work

The last thing you want as you’re routing your material is to have to chase it across the shop. It needs to be secure to your bench. One solution is to clamp your material in place, but the clamp often gets in the way of the router and has to be repositioned. My preference is to use a router mat which provides an excellent non-skid surface (Photo 7). With your project on the mat you can work around all four edges without interference. You can find router mats at some home centers and woodworking specialty stores.

Here’s a tip. If it seems like your mat is losing its grip, rinse it under water to get the dust out of it. That usually helps restore some of its grab.

9 rbphoto9

Photo 8: Wear safety glasses and hearing protection whenever you're running a router.

Protect Yourself

Don’t even consider plugging the router in until you’ve got ear and eye protection on (Photo 8). Routers are loud enough to cause permanent damage to your hearing if you’re not protected. And you should, of course, always wear eye protection when using tools.

10 rbphoto10-routers woodworking

Photo 9: Rout the outside edge of a board in a counterclockwise direction.

Go In The Right Direction

In order to safely use a router, you’ve got to move it in the right direction. When routing the outside edge of a board, you should go counterclockwise (Photo 9). Going in the correct direction prevents the router from climb cutting and getting away from you.

11 rbphoto11-router woodworking

Photo 10: Rout the inside edge of a frame in a clockwise direction.

When routing the inside edge of a frame, move in a clockwise direction (Photo 10).

12 rbphoto12 - woodworking with routers

Photo 11: The correct sequence for routing all four edges of a board is to start on the end grain, then cut long grain, end grain, and long grain.

Start In The Right Spot

If you’re routing all four edges of a board, it’s important to make the cuts in the right sequence. Start on end grain (Photo 11). As the bit exits the end grain, it may slightly chip the adjacent edge. When you rout that edge you’ll automatically clean up any chipping.

Photos By Author

  • (will not be published)

50 Responses to “Router Woodworking Basics: How to Use a Router”
  1. roger wachal

    I purchased a B/D1-1/4 HP,Model 7613 at a yard sale ,along with router/Jig saw table model 76-401 .
    The router has been used,but the table has not.
    no book on router,.
    did I make a poor choice ?

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Roger. If these tools are in good shape they serve you well for modest use. You might never need to upgrade, and you’ll know if you do.

    • Doug LaBombard

      Roger, you probably have the router manual problem solved by now, but I have found many many appliance, tools and other manuals either free and downloadable on the web or on the company site. I know I have at least 7 that were downloaded. This was an inexpensive (free) solution that was quick and easy

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Blaine. There are a variety of dovetail and rabbet bits available. You need to know the dovetail angle that you desire, or that your jig requires, as well as the dimensions of your rabbet, in order to choose the right bits. Go to a good supplier such as a woodworking specialty store and they can guide you through the process of selecting the right bits that your projects require.

    • Customer Service

      Thanks for your question. Yes, a plunge router is a much better choice for sign making, and much easier for a beginner in particular.

  2. Robert

    Hello, I want to make a tray with a recessed area within the board (oak) and leave a 1/2″ “lip”. The mat is a good idea for all outside work but what find of a “jig” will work (to gauge) for what I want to do?

    Thanks Bob

  3. kirillos

    i am a beginer on woodworks as a hobist. You make great job. thank you.

    • Customer Service

      Hi Jose. If you are asking if you can have the router spin the bit in the opposite direction, no, I’ve never heard of this.

  4. Michele piatek

    Never used mine yet, this might help me do a better job on my wood pieces.

  5. Renzo Risotto

    Very interesting work. I think it would be great to add some films with examples of use and cases to the page. This is very important for the begginers. Have a nice day!

    • Customer Service

      Hi Renzo. Thank you for your feedback. I will forward your suggestions on. We appreciate your comments.
      Jean-WWGOA Video Membership

    • Customer Service

      Hello Loren,

      We apologize that you were not able to access the chart. The chart is also within the article further down the page.

      Becky WWOGA Video Membership

  6. Brent Constance

    i got a milwaukee 1 3/4 hp is it ok for a router table?i also have a rockler router table plate but can’t find to use for dovetail use or a plate for my router with a spot to use guides in it.

    • Customer Service

      Hi Brent. That router should be fine for use in a router table, assuming that it has a fixed base. Sometimes it can be tricky to match up a router with a plate, but I’d suggest taking both components to a Rockler store to get you situated. If you don’t have a Rockler store nearby, then you might want to just buy a blank router plate and drill it out to match your router’s base.

  7. Pete lewis

    How do you control the dust when working off the router table for example making 3/4” rabbits

    • Customer Service

      This can be difficult. I normally just where as dust mask in this situation, let the chips fly, and clean them up when I’m done. You could also look for a router that has integrated dust collection in the base and attach it to a shop vacuum. Dust collection is a big reason why I do as much router work as possible at the router table where I can better control dust, but of course sometimes hand held routing is necessary.

  8. Gael

    So if I have a stationary router (i.e. mounted pointing up I) should route the outside edge in the clockwise direction? Is this correct??

    • Customer Service

      Hi Gael. You want to feed your work in the opposite direction that the cutter is spinning so that the feed force provides opposition to the cutter force. With a table mounted router you would feed the work piece from right to left. When routing on the outside edge of a circular piece you would rotate the work piece in a counter-clockwise direction.

  9. Beverly Burton

    Great article. I am a female who likes to mke furniture and recycle and making things out of other things, for instance, I made a coffee table out of an old door. My husband bought me the smaller fixed based router foe christmas and I still have trouble keeping the router in my hands because they ate obviously smaller than a man’s. Any suggestions?

  10. Chuck

    I read a lot of beginner router articles but they all lack bit placement, where it should meet the would, height of the bit should be against the material, etc…

  11. John Skinner

    I’m new to routering, how do I go about doing lettering with my handheld, and what is the best bit to use. Thank you for any help you can give me.

    • Customer Service

      This is a judgment call. The convenience of cordless is aluring, especially with a trim router, but I generally stick with corded routers so that I do not have to buy new batteries or replace a router when the battery technology is updated. But if you use a hand-held router away from a bench a lot, particularly in on-site (out of shop) work, then a cordless router is a great option. Paul

    • Customer Service

      Hello Mike,

      This is a judgment call. The convenience of cordless is aluring, especially with a trim router, but I generally stick with corded routers so that I do not have to buy new batteries or replace a router when the battery technology is updated. But if you use a hand-held router away from a bench a lot, particularly in on-site (out of shop) work, then a cordless router is a great option.

      Hope this helps!

      Woodworkers Guild of America Video Membership

      We’d love to have you be a part of our community. We are convinced you will enjoy the benefits of becoming a member and having access to the best instructional how to videos and professional tips. We would like to offer you a special promotion for your first-year membership.