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April 16, 2014

Choosing A Router Table

How to Choose a Router Table is one of the most common questions woodworkers ask after buying a router. Once you’ve bought a router there are a number of accessories that most woodworkers buy, and the most useful of all of them is a Router Table. A quality router table increases the range of jobs you can perform with your router and allows you to easily take on advanced projects such as raised panels, use larger cutters that are too big to control freehand as well as making it easier and safer to do things like putting edge moldings on narrow workpieces.

Router tables all operate on the same principle with the router mounted upside down under the table top and the bit projecting through an opening in table top. A router table holds the router securely, leaving the woodworker free to keep both hands on the workpiece during the cut.

They fall into one of a number of basic types and there are a number of features you should be looking for whichever type you decide to buy.

Router Table Features

  • Large, Flat, Rigid Router Table Top
  • Removeable Router Baseplate for Easy Mounting & Adjustment
  • Accurate, Easy to Adjust Router Table Fence
  • Router Table Split Fence or One-Piece Fence

Large, Flat, Rigid Router Table Top

Kreg router table topThe quality of the table top is the most important factor, and the requirements are the same as for any other woodworking machine – it needs to be as flat as possible, completely rigid and large enough to provide sufficient work space for the job. If the table top does not fulfil these basic requirements you lose the benefits of putting your router in a router table in the first place, which are increased control and precision.

Any irregularities in the surface of the table top will be transferred to the stock as you feed it across the table top and through the cutter. This means that if you are doing precision work like router-cut joinery you can end up with joints that don’t fit.

The table top also needs to be rigid so that it doesn’t flex when you push apply pressure to the workpiece, pushing it down into the table and against the fence

Lastly, the larger the tabletop, the more stable the work surface that it provides. With a wide tabletop you have a larger area on which to rest the workpiece as it is fed onto the cutter and out the other side, which stops it from wobbling. This results in a better finish to the cut and is also much safer – trying to feed a long workpiece onto a small tabletop can be quite a struggle and means you are concentrating more on holding the workpiece steady than actually making the cut.

Cast Iron Router Table Tops
cast iron router table topCast iron is probably the best material for flatness, stability and durability as evidenced by its use in high end woodworking machines such as cabinet saws. Cast iron is also good for absorbing vibration making it less tiring to use, and its weight means that the whole router table stays put on the shop floor. This weight is also its major downside because the heavier the router table, the more difficult it is to move around. Cast iron is best for woodworkers who are likely to keep their router table permanently in the workshop and have enough space to not need to move it around. All Bench Dog router tables like the Bench Dog 40-001 and the Bench Dog 40-300 feature cast iron table tops.

Due to its weight, cast iron is not used as much as other materials. Most router table tops are made from either MDF or solid phenolic resin, which is less expensive and much lighter than cast iron, making them a good choice for portable router tables. You may need your router table to be portable either because you want to take it on-site or because you have limited space in the work shop and have to move all your woodworking machinery around as and when you need it.

MDF Router Table Tops
Because of its low cost and acceptable stability MDF is the most common material used for router table tops. To maintain rigidity and provide good workpiece support, it  should be at least 1’’ thick and  should be surfaced on both sides with a material that has low friction and is hardwearing. Many MDF table tops are surfaced with melamine, or with a proprietary surface – Kreg router table tops are topped by a micro-dot skin which makes it easier to slide the workpiece over the surface – the smoother you can feed the workpiece onto the cutter, the better the finish.

Alternatively, some MDF table tops are surfaced with HPL (high pressure laminate), which is much harder and stronger than melamine. HPL is a composite sheet that has been subjected to high temperature and pressure to form an irreversible chemical bond between the specific layers, and will remain flat and stable for longer.

Solid Phenolic Resin Router Table Tops
Other router tables are made from solid phenolic resin, one of the strongest, most stable and durable materials available for an industrial strength work surface. It’s naturally rigid and tough, and is impervious to moisture, with extremely high impact resistance.

Removeable Router Baseplate for Easy Mounting & Adjustment

Kreg router table insert plateWith the majority of quality router tables, the router is mounted on a removeable baseplate (mounting plate). The advantage of a removeable baseplate, compared to mounting the router directly to the tabletop, is that it makes it much easier to mount the router to begin with and then it simplyfies changing the router bit.

If you’re planning to use your router both in and out of the table, you’ll want to consider how much work is involved in getting the router mounted. With a base plate you remove the baseplate from the table with the router still attached which gives you much better access – the alternative is to fiddle around under the table which is difficult and greatly increases the chances of skinning your knuckles.

The base plate fits into a rabbeted opening in the table top, and obviously needs to be solid and substantial – there is not much point in having a rock solid table top and then fitting a base plate that isn’t up to the job of supporting the router and flexes. As a result the top quality base plates tend to be made of aluminum rather than phenolic.

Some manufacturers  supply a baseplate pre-drilled for the most popular routers whereas others like Kreg comes without pre-drilled mounting holes – you drill them yourself using the supplied template. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both – it’s more work for you to drill the holes but the end result is that you only have the one set of holes to match your router without a load of redundant holes, which offer more opportunity for dust and debris to accumulate and potentially interfere with the feeding of stock.

Having bought a perfectly flat router table top you will obviously want the base plate to sit completely flush with the surface, and each manufacturer tends to have their own base plate levelling system with differing degrees of adjustment. Basic leveling systems often only have a leveling screw at each corner adjusted from the underside of the table, whereas more sophisticated systems will have more points of contact.

Accurate, Easy to Adjust Router Table Fence

Kreg router table fenceOnce you’ve got a quality router table top and a nice flush base plate, the next component that you need to consider, and which has a huge impact on the level of precision that you can bring to your work, is the router table fence, and these vary quite considerably in their quality and features.

There are a number of important basic qualities that all router table fences should have – they need to be completely straight and rigid, easy to adjust and lock in position, and have dust extraction capabilities.

When you buy a more sophisticated after-market fence the main improvements tend to be in the ease of positioning and the degree of accuracy. The Kreg router table fences, for example, use a table saw style T-square fence which means that the fence is always suare to the table top and you only have to measure from one side.

The most advanced fences of all, made by Incra, use an incremental micro positioning system that allows you to make adjustments down to 1/1000″ accuracy. Not something you can do by hand.

The amount of adjustability that you need depends on what you want to do with your router table – if you only want to put edge profiles on your workpiece then you do not need the critical degree of accuracy that you need if you are using it to make dovetail joints which you can do with the Incra fences.

Router Table Split Fence or One-Piece Fence

As well as the general quality of the fence, there are two basic types of fence to consider – the “split” fence and the one-piece fence. A split fence has two independently adjustable halves, so that the in-feed side of the fence can be positioned at an offset to the out-feed side of the fence. The reason you would want two independently moving sides of the fence is so that you can offset the in-feed and out-feed sides of the fence when you arel removing wood from the entire width of the workpiece during a cut. If the two sides of the fence are not offset, the workpiece would not be supported on the out-feed side.

Router table split fenceThe split fence facility is very useful, but it has a drawback – whether or not the in-feed and out-feed side of the fence are offset or in-line, it’s is extremely important to have both sides in parallel alignment. With all but the most sophisticated split fence systems like the Incra LS17 Super System, getting the two halves in acceptable alignment can be tricky.

With a one piece fence, the alignment problem doesn’t exist. The fence is one solid, straight piece that covers both the in-feed and out-feed sides of the table. In situations where you need an offset, a one piece fence can be fitted  with a split “sub-fence”, (or “fence facing”) and you can shim the sub fence on the out-feed side of the table, to allow for the thickness of material removed and so support the workpiece on the outfeed.

 

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