Tool review: Do-it-all Routers
We'd all love to have a fleet of routers at our disposal, but few of us can afford that luxury. So we went on a quest for the ultimate router: one machine that does it all. After compiling a list of what's required for a do-everything router (below), we rounded up every router that meets those criteria--three dedicated plunge routers and six multibase kits--and put them through extensive testing. The good news: All nine routers we tested can perform each requirement well enough to be the only router you'll ever need, but a few do it much better than the rest.
1. Ample power to run any bit, even the largest panel-raisers.
2. A variable-speed motor with soft-start and electronic feedback for maintaining speed under load.
3. Good balance and features for handheld fixed-depth routing.
4. Smooth, easy-to-use plunge action and features.
5. Through-the-base bit-height adjustability for router-table use.
6. Helpful included accessories: edge guide, dust-collection attachments, multiple subbases with different-size openings, guide-bushing holder or adapter, subbase centering cone, and a carrying case or bag for storage.
Power and Speed
To compare the routers, we challenged each of them in these shop tasks using new bits in red oak:
• 1/2"-wide plunge mortises 1-1/2" deep;
• three full-depth profiles (two different cove-and-bead bits and a profile-and-groove bit from a rail-and-stile set) and a 7/16" x 1/2" rabbet with brisk hand-fed rates;
• and using a 3-1/2"-diameter raised-panel bit in a router table.
All the routers impressed us by plowing through the handheld tasks without bogging down, even when we fed them faster than we normally would. Next stop: the router table, where we divided the 1-1/2"-wide raised-panel profile into three equal passes. Once again, all the routers handled the 10-feet-per-minute feed rate. So we upped the ante for the next round, cutting the profile in two equal passes. This time, only three tools--all with test-topping 15-amp motors--could do it without bogging down.
Slow speeds work better for big bits, and most routers' low speeds bottom out at 8,000 or 10,000 rpm. But one router's lowest speed was 12,000 rpm. Although it did not create a problem in our tests, we still prefer slower speeds when routing woods prone to burning or tear-out.
Kudos to the manufacturers that show actual rpm markings on their variable-speed dials. Second best are those with a speed chart on the motor housing, shown at above right, that corresponds to numbers on the speed dial. Worst are those where you must refer to the owner's manual to decipher the numbered speed markings.
Once you dial in the correct speed, it's vital that the router maintain that speed during the cut. Using a phototachometer, we evaluated each model's ability to do that while routing raised panels. None dropped more than 1,500 rpm, with all but one varying only a few hundred rpm once into the cut. However, that machine consistently pulled 12 to 19 amps during those cuts, causing it to warm up an average of 3° with each pass, which could shorten the life of this router.
Big or small, fixed base or plunge, you'll appreciate a router that adjusts up and down quickly for fixed-depth routing. Among the fixed bases in the kits, we prefer a rack-and-pinion adjuster, shown top right, best because it has a quick release for coarse adjustments and a fine-adjustment knob.
Fixed bases on some models, as shown bottom right, engage one of three detents on the motor body. You then get a limited amount of up-and-down movement before you must switch to another detent. If you select the wrong detent and run out of fine-adjustment range, you'll have to move to the next detent and then thread the rod all the way to the other end.
Ease of handling proves as important as being able to quickly adjust the bit depth. We found two beefy 3-hp plunge routers bulky, top-heavy, and more tippy than the others, especially when routing along edges and corners. And only one Bosch has a handle-mounted power switch similar to those found on big plunge routers. With other kit routers you have to remove or adjust your grip on one handle to turn it on or off.
All of the tested routers plunged smoothly without side-to-side play. We prefer locks that you depress to plunge and return to locked when released, shown right, as opposed to those that stay in plunge mode, locking only when you push the lever. The Ridgid's lever is not spring-loaded, so you have to change your grip slightly to engage it.
Switching any of the three dedicated plunge routers in our test from handheld use to the router table and back typically requires more work than with the multibase kits. For kits, you can attach the fixed base permanently to the table and simply swap the motor into the plunge base for handheld work.
When installing any of the routers in a table, you want the access hole for the height-adjustment tool closer to the front of the table where the fence won't cover it. But sometimes an upfront height-adjustment access hole dictates that other router controls, such as the variable-speed dial, power switch, or base lock, be located toward the back of the table where it can be difficult to see or operate.
Although all the routers have through-the-table elevation capability--effectively, a built-in router lift--some perform this function better than others, letting you easily change bits above the table, thanks to integrated spindle locks, as shown at right. These engage and lock the spindle, letting you loosen the collet nut with one wrench above the table.
To change bits with the kit routers, you have to either lift the router and insert out of the table or remove the motor from the base. To change bit height in the fixed bases, you have to unlock the base before making changes; this requires reaching below the table. With the dedicated plunge routers and one kit's plunge base, you simply insert the adjustment tool through the table and turn.
Where to put your money
If you can buy only one router, make it a multibase kit. The powerful Bosch MRC23EVS proved to be a versatile, feature-packed router kit with lots of accessories, topping our six-category showdown and earning Top Tool honors.
If Bosch's $325 price tag keeps you at bay, consider the Ridgid R29302, a WOOD® magazine Top Value, for $200. Despite its motor being rated at only 11 amps, this router kit stunned us with its steady power, even during tough, continuous tasks.
Learn the results of our testing of the Bosch 1617EVSPK and MRC23EVS, Craftsman 28084, Freud FT3000VCE, Milwaukee 5616-24, Porter-Cable 895PK, and Triton MOF001C and TRA001 in the October 2010 issue of WOOD magazine, or download the review.