Basic Guide to Using a Router

After a recent poll on my Facebook page, I was overwhelmed with how many people had so many questions about how to use a router. I’m not a router expert, but I wanted to put together this router guide with all the information that I’ve learned over the years to help others who had questions.

This post contains affiliate links. Also, I’m not an expert on routers. See policies page.

Router Guide: What is a Router?

Routers come in many shapes and sizes. I’ll cover the various types below, but, basically, a router is a power tool that uses a shaped cutter (or a bit) to make decorative edges, or grooves in wood.

Routers are a super versatile tool. And like any power tool, they pose a possible danger, especially if you aren’t sure how to use it. Be sure to read manufacturer’s instructions on your routers and get comfortable using them on small projects before tackling anything huge.

Router Guide: Why Do I Need One?

Routers are really handy to have. I don’t use mine on every project, but I have used them on several. They are great for not only adding some decorative touches to your projects, but they also can be used to cut slots, grooves, and dadoes for joinery methods, flatten table tops, carve, and smooth out rough or uneven edges when needed.

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Here are a few examples of how I’ve used my router-these are a just a few things you can use them for:

Add a decorative edge on a cutting board

Cut a perfect circle

Smooth uneven edges after laminating two boards

Cut dadoes to assemble shelves

Cut out hole for clock mechanism

Specialized router bits can also be helpful in making cabinet doors, cutting key hole slots, and cutting pieces out from templates.

Router Guide: What Kind Are There?

There are several types of routers and some of the terminology overlaps. But, there are three basic types of routers. They may come in different sizes and they may be called different names, but they generally fall into one of these categories.

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Let’s also cover the terms collet and shank before I dive into this. A collet is the metal sleeve on a router that you insert a router bit into. A shank is the part of a router bit that gets inserted into the router. (This is just like with drills and drill bits.) These typically come in 1/4″ and 1/2″ diameter sizes on routers.

Trim Routers

Trim routers are small routers that can typically be held with one hand like shown here. Sometimes they are called palm routers or hand routers. I’m currently using this corded Ridgid Trim Router in my shop. It also comes in a battery powered version if you want to ditch the cord.

Using a trim router to chamfer the edge of a walnut serving platter

Trim routers usually have 1/4″ collets for 1/4″ router bit shanks and are best used for small details like adding decorative edges shown here.

close up of chamfered edges of a cutting board

In my experience, they don’t do well removing a large amount of material at one time. I’ve used mine in a circle jig to make a thick, round table top, but I don’t recommend it. It’s just too small for making large cuts.

Fixed Base Router

TECHNICALLY, a trim router is also a fixed base router, but when I talk about fixed base routers, I typically think about mid and full sized versions. Trim routers are kind of an animal of their own.

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Fixed base routers are routers that continuously cut at the same depth. Now, the depth is adjustable between cuts, but unlike a plunge router (I’ll discuss below), you can’t lift and plunge while it’s cutting. They usually have two handles on each side so they can be held and controlled with two hands. And they are usually larger and more powerful than trim routers.

Router guide: Fixed Base Ridgid Router

They can come in TONS of sizes (as far as horsepower goes) and can be 1/4″ or 1/2″ collets. Personally, I’m using this Ridid 2 HP Fixed Base Router and it uses a 1/2″ collet and I LOVE it. The larger router cuts much thicker material than my small trim router without bogging down and is much easier to control with the two handles on each side.

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PS, the 1/2″ router that I’m using comes with a 1/4″ collet attachment so I can still use all my old 1/4″ router bits with it even though they are a different shank size.

1/4" attachment for router bit collet

Plunge Router

I don’t have a plunge router to show you pictures of, but basically, a plunge router is just a router that has a “springy looking base” that allows you to plunge the bit into the wood and lift it back up. This is useful for carving signs where you need to lift the bit between letters or designs you are carving. It’s handy to have the ability to plunge and some fixed base routers have a separate attachment you can purchase to give you both fixed and plunge base options.

Router Guide: Which is Best?

It all just depends on what you plan to use it for.

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If you just want to add some decorative edges to your projects and are on a budget, a trim router is probably your best option. It’s the cheapest option, but also has the least amount of power. It’s great to start out with and you can upgrade later.

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If you plan to use it to cut out circles, table tops, cut large dadoes, or you are going to be using it on a lot of thick material, I’d upgrade to a larger fixed base router. I got my fixed base router because my trim router just wasn’t cutting it (pun intended) to help me cut out circles in 2x material. The larger router is much easier to control, too, so I feel more comfortable using it.

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That said, if you think you may ever want to use the functionality of a plunge router, I’d recommend getting a fixed base router that has the add on option to use it as a plunge router as well. Like a 2-in-1.

Router Guide: How To Use a Router

That’s a tricky question to answer because routers are SO VERSATILE, so you may use them a little differently for each application. However, I’m covering the BASICS in this post, so first, we have to install the bit.

Router Bit Types

Routers can use A TON of different bits. Here are several different types you can browse through to see all the options. Some are for edges and they will have a little bearing at the bottom or the top. This bearing is designed to ride along the edge of the board while the cutter cuts a profile.

Close up of chamfer router bit in fixed base router--guide to using a router example

Some common decorative edge bits are chamfer, Roman Ogee, round over, and cove. You can see the chamfer along the bottom edge of the tray, the Roman Ogee around the edge of the door, and the round over on the cabinet door frame below.

And some router bits are for cutting grooves–like a straight bit, juice groove bit or a dovetail bit.

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Straight bits come in different sizes and are commonly used for cutting dadoes. I also use them when I cut out round table tops. V groove bits, round nose (or juice groove bits), and other decorative groove bits come in various sizes as well and are often used for carving designs like the juice groove shown below in this stove top cover.

Juice groove routed into stove top cover

Flush trim bits are another very common bit used in woodworking. These are handy for applications like where you glued two pieces together and the edges aren’t flush. I used a flush trim bit in this pumpkin tray project where I glued a piece onto the top and they didn’t match up perfectly. Instead of sanding for hours, I used a flush trim bit to clean up my edges.

Using a flush trim bit in router to clean edges on a glued up platter project

Installing the Router Bit

Once you decide which bit you want to use, follow manufacturer’s instructions to install it into your specific router. Typically, you simply slide it into the collet and use the included wrench (routers come with a wrench for this) to tighten the nut.

Tightening the nut on trim router to hold bit in place

Once you install the base back on, you can adjust the base up and down (mine has a turning wheel for extra precise adjustments) to set the correct cutting depth you want (see below for cutting depth details). PS ignore my “trying-to-see-out-of-my-dusty-glasses” face here.

Adjusting depth of flush trim bit in fixed base router

Routing Direction

Then it’s time to route. When routing an edge, router direction is very important. You should route opposite the direction that the bit is turning. So, when running the router along the outside edge of a board–for example around the outside edge of a picture frame–you should cut counterclockwise (or running from left to right).

Router Guide--routing outside edge of picture frame counterclockwise

When routing INSIDE a board (like this frame for example), you should route clockwise (so right to left).

Router Guide--routing inside edge of picture frame clockwise

Routing Depth

Your routing depth will vary depending on your application. The depth is adjusted by adjusting how far the router bit sticks out of the base. When routing a small decorative edge, you may be able to make one pass and cut your edge. But, if you are taking a lot of material off at a time or cutting through thick material (like cutting out a circle table top), it may be best to make several passes, going a little deeper each time.

Using router with circle jig to cut out round table top

It all depends on how sharp your bits are, how powerful your router is, and how comfortable you are using it. When using a router, I HIGHLY recommend doing a couple test pieces to make sure you’ve got your adjustments set how you want.

Shara Woodshop Diaries using fixed based router to chamfer edges of outdoor dining table boards

In this DIY bookshelf project, I used a router to cut dadoes to insert shelves. For that application, I only cut 1/4″ deep and I was able to cut it on one pass. Any deeper, though, and I would probably have needed to do multiple passes.

Using straight router bit to cut dado in bookshelf sides

Router Guide and Jigs

You’ll notice that in the image above, I’m using a straight edge to help cut a straight dado. When using a hand held router, it’s helpful to use a router guide or jig for more accurate cuts. Most routers come with some type of attachment that will run along the edge of a board and allow you to cut a certain distance from the edge. Or, you can simply clamp a straight edge as well. There are also many jigs that you can make or buy to add to the functionality of your router.

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A good example is a circle jig. You can purchase a circle jig to mount your router onto that will allow you to cut a perfect circle. OR, you can make one as well. There are also TONS of jigs and guides out there for helping cut dovetails, carve letters, etc.

Using trim router in circle jig to cut two tone clock in perfect circle

Router Guide: Router Tables

I can’t say much about router tables as I don’t personally have one. However, they can be a VERY useful tool to have–it’s on my wish list. Router tables are basically a table base where you can attach a router upside down so that the router bit sticks up out of the table. Like a table saw…but for a router. They have rip fences and can make edging small pieces and cutting dadoes quick and painless.

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I borrowed my Dad’s tiny, mobile router table for one project one time and kind of just winged it. I built a jig to hold a dowel rod so that I could route a slot to insert a 1×3 to make a modern dresser base. So I don’t have a lot of information to share. But, here is a link to a great guide to router tables.

mid century furniture base diy tutorial--slot cut in dowel rod on router table

Router Safety Tips

I’M NOT A SAFETY EXPERT. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for your specific router. I just have to make that clear.

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However, there are some basic safety measures you should take when using a router. Many people are afraid of routers…and for good reason. They can be dangerous. So here are a few tips to make using your router a more uneventful experience 🙂

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Keep your hands out of the path of the router.

If you are using a hand held router like I’ve shown in this post, do not hold your pieces with your hand. Clamp pieces to your workbench to route and keep your hands out of the way. If you are using a router with two handles, keep BOTH hands on it. The only router you should use with one hand is a trim router.

Cutting dado in serving tray with router and straight bit

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Make sure you are routing the correct direction

I covered this above 🙂

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Don’t cut too much too fast

If you are cutting away a lot of material, don’t cut too much too fast. Make multiple shallow passes if needed.

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Use sharp bits

Use high quality, sharp router bits. Crappy bits can chip, burn, bog down and cause kickback. Use sharp router bits for cleaner and safer cuts.

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Examine your board before routing

Examine the area you plan to route. Do not route if you see cracks, knots, or loose pieces. This can cause damage to your project, or, in worst cases, can fly off and cause danger to you.

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Turn router off when not in use

The scariest part of a router is that it’s not a trigger switch like a drill. You flip the switch and it’s on. And it stays on whether your hands are on it or not. If your router isn’t cutting, TURN IT OFF. Don’t lay it on your workbench running. Don’t walk around with it running.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The best lessons are learned by experience. If you want to learn how to use a router, the best way is to USE A ROUTER. Take it slow and get comfortable using it on some small projects or with some scraps. Routers are a very useful tool once you learn how to handle one.

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If you want some projects to use your router with, here are a few:

I hope this routing guide has been helpful and I’d love if you’d pin this for later.

Until next time, happy building 🙂

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