If you’re just getting into woodworking, you’ll be hearing all about routers—not the type we all rely on for WiFi, but instead, the kind that’s a handheld power tool used for shaping. A router is a motor that’s attached to an adjustable base, with a “collet” that accepts a variety of cutting bits.
These “router bits” come in an endless variety of shapes, which is part of what makes the router so useful. There are bits for “molding” edges in all sorts of ways so you can design picture frames, shiplap, wainscoting, or your own window trim. Other bits make doors, shutters, lettering, dished-out trays, or keyholes for hanging pictures.
Accessories like edge and bushing guides only increase your router’s versatility. You can also invert a router and attach it to a table, with the bit sticking upward and a fence guiding the workpiece. This stationary setup is ideal when it's easier to move the workpiece rather than the router.
Since a router is used in so many ways, one size does not fit all. In fact, most woodworkers, contractors, and DIYers own more than one. For starters, are you shopping for your very first router or adding to your collection? The second question: What do you plan to do with this tool?The Expert: During my 30 years as a woodworker—both professionally and as a DIYer—I spent 15 as an editor at Fine Woodworking magazine and another six as a contributor to a variety of home-building and woodworking magazines. I also remodeled three homes, built hundreds of projects, and wrote two books on the subject (check out Build Stuff with Wood: Make Awesome Projects with Basic Tools), and currently teach woodworking locally. Throughout my career, I’ve used and reviewed a wide range of routers, and these are the ones I recommend.
There are two types of router bases, a plunge base that can be adjusted on the fly, letting the router cut deep pockets and grooves in a series of shallow passes; and a fixed base, which can also be adjusted, but only between cuts with the motor switched off.
If this is your first router, then you should strongly consider buying a small or mid-sized combo kit, which includes a fixed base and plunge base with a router motor that fits both. All things equal, a fixed-base router is more compact and easier to handle while a plunge router is more versatile. A router kit gives you the best of both worlds for less.
Routers come in a range of sizes, from compact “trim” models that can be held in one hand to larger two-handed plunge routers that do it all. The advantages of larger routers: greater power and two sizes of “collets”— 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch. The 1/2-inch collet lets you hold larger bits, which are less prone to vibration when making deep cuts. Smaller routers, on the other hand, cost less and are a little easier to control, especially when riding on narrow edges.
If you already own a router or two, a trim router is a great next purchase. Also suitable for beginners, it’s the most nimble and compact of routers, and designed for easy and confident use with one hand for a variety of light tasks. I keep mine set up with a small roundover bit for quickly easing edges. Other woodworkers use theirs for template work and excavating inlay pockets with close control, while contractors use them for flush-trimming rough window openings, routing hinge mortises, and any other tasks where agility and ease are paramount.
Large plunge routers are the domain of hardcore woodworkers and pros. With 2-1/4- to 3-1/4-horsepower motors, these models can handle the biggest bits through the toughest woods, with zero vibration and super-smooth results.
Last, for use in a router lift, which holds a router motor upside down for table use, there are a variety of powerful router motors sold on their own, without bases. For a less-expensive approach to table routing, simply screw the base of a standard router to the underside of the table. Some routers work better for this than others.
And, like every other power tool, routers have begun cutting the cord, and there are an increasing number of battery-powered models.
I’ve tested and used most of the models recommended here, and for those I haven’t, I’ve combined my take on the most important features and specs with user reviews from reputable sources. I weighed both performance and price when making my picks, uncovering best values in each category.