Most woodworkers consider a router an essential tool. So useful, in fact, that the majority own more than one.
Various routers
A full-size plunge router (at left) easily handles heavy cuts with large bits in hardwood. For less-demanding jobs, a midsize (fixed base shown), compact (plunge base shown), or trim router may be easier to use.

Most woodworkers consider a router an essential tool. So useful, in fact, that the majority own more than one. Whether you're buying your first router or adding another to your tool kit, it pays to consider these keys to getting one best suited to your needs.

Corded or cordless. The most hardworking routers come with power cords. But lithium-ion batteries and improved motor technology give today's cordless routers the runtime, torque, and speed necessary to complete most home workshop tasks. Added height and top weight may make some cordless models seem unwieldy, but portability might override that perception.

That said, for your first router, go with a corded model. Then look at the cordless ones as you add more routers or need the cord-free capability for a job.

Size. Routers fall into four categories: full-size, midsize, compact, and trim routers, above. When buying your first router, pick a midsize machine for general use. Woodworkers who make mostly small- and medium-size projects might prefer the lighter weight and reduced bulk of a compact router.

Power. Corded routers typically carry manufacturer horsepower ratings, making power comparisons easy. For tools without specified horsepower, a higher amperage rating generally corresponds to more power.

Battery voltage and amp-hours (Ah) ratings indicate motor power and runtime for cordless routers. Higher voltage usually equates to more power, higher Ah value to longer runtime. A spare battery and a quick charg​er minimize work delays.

 Base type. A router comprises two basic parts: the motor to spin the bit and a base to hold the motor vertically. The base can be one of two styles: fixed or plunge. Which to buy depends on your intended use.

A fixed base works well for edge-routing and cutting dadoes and grooves that extend the full length or width of a board. A plunge base lets you rout stopped cuts by lowering and raising the bit from the workpiece without lifting the tool base.

A D-handle fixed base, available for some routers, allows positive one-hand control. This helps in routing long grooves or dadoes, forming edges on large workpieces, and using some jigs.

To increase versatility, some makers' cordless routers fit into bases made for their corded models.

A combination kit that includes a motor plus interchangeable fixed and plunge bases often proves a good value for a first-buy general-purpose router. The motor easily swaps from one base to the other.

Depth adjustment. Look for smooth, easy-to-lock depth adjustments in a fixed-base router. A rack-and-pinion mechanism or vernier collar for fine adjustments makes precise depth setting easier .

A plunge base should move down smoothly and return to raised position positively. A plunge lock, usually operated by a short-motion lever, lets you lock the bit depth at any position within the plunge range. A turret with multiple stops permits routing deep grooves or dadoes in steps.

Collet. Full- and midsize routers commonly take bits with 12 " shanks, but usually come with a collet or collet insert that grips 14 " bits. When a router accepts both sizes, opt for a 12 " bit for greater stability and less chatter.

Changing bits goes more quickly on a machine that employs a single wrench and a built-in arbor lock instead of two wrenches.

More favorable features. Soft-start, which ramps up the router speed rather than slamming you with full torque and speed at startup, helps you keep the router under control. The more powerful the router, the more you need it.

Variable speed control helps you match motor speed to the bit size and workpiece to achieve cleaner, burn-free cuts. Some routers continuously vary speed across a range, some have fixed intermediate speeds.

Other worthwhile features include a work light that illuminates the bit area and a dust-collection port; both help you see what you're doing. Dust collection with a router, though, is pretty much hit-and-miss.

Accessorizing. If a router will mount in a table, pay attention to depth-adjustment features. A rack-and-pinion adjuster makes it easier to make fine adjustments when the router is mounted upside down. Some routers offer a provision to adjust bit depth through the baseplate with a hex wrench, a boon to table mounting. Or consider a separate router lift that fits your tool.

Make sure you can easily install guide bushings on a router that will see duty in a dovetail jig or other use that requires following a guide or template. Common two-piece guide bushings mount in a standard-size hole in the subbase of most routers. Some routers use brand-specific guide bushings or require adapters for common bushings.