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Getting the most from your Router
by Patrick Spielman

Patrick Spielman There's a natural tendency when discussing router bit performance to look only at the bit. After all, the bit is the tool that's actually doing the cutting, and it's the part of the system we'll eventually have to sharpen or replace.

It's been my experience however, that optimum routing performance actually is the product of a number of factors which I loosely group into three categories.

First, performance is determined by the tools we select, and this includes both the router bit and the router. Second, the way those tools are used is critical to the results we achieve. Third, the maintenance of the bits translates very quickly into their performance.

I. Tool Selection:

Choose your bits with care.

Bits are usually available in 1/4" & 1/2" shank. The larger shank diameter gives extra stiffness to the bit, reducing vibration and improving the quality of cut. Obviously you need a router with a 1/2" collet to use 1/2" shank bits, so here's a case where your choice of router is as important as your choice of bit.

"Bigger" is "better" when it comes to shank diameter, but that's not necessarily the case when we're dealing with cutting length. A longer bit has more tendency to deflect than a shorter bit, so always try to select bits with the shortest length that will do the job.

There are many other factors to consider in the choice of router bits (in fact, I devoted a full chapter to the subject in my book). Take a hard look at each bit before you buy. Check for a smooth finish on the body, shank and carbide edges. Sight along the edges of straight bits to be sure they're true. Look for voids in the braze holding the carbide to the steel body. And of course, use the old trick of "shaving" a fingernail(very carefully) to see if the edge is sharp.


Use a router with the appropriate size and horsepower for the job, and whenever possible, use a plunge router for plunge applications. If you're buying a new router, I recommend one with the longest collet possible, as it will grip more of the shank and tend to reduce vibration and noise. It's a good idea to avoid the use of reducing collets (collets that allow you to use 1/4" shank bits in 1/2" collet routers). These collets may accentuate any "run out" problems which are present in the router spindle.

II. Operation:

Don't try to cut too much!

Always plan to make multiple cuts when you need to remove a lot of stock. Some woodworkers suggest that multiple passes are required when the cross-section of stock to be removed is greater than a 3/8" square. Unfortunately, that formula may be a little hard to apply when you're routing an ogee profile, but keep in mind that forcing the bit into too large a cut is dangerous, hard on your tools and it will probably produce a bad finish.


There are two issues under this heading. The speed at which your bit rotates affects both the safety and quality of your work. Larger bits require slower router speeds. Many routers now have speed controls built-in. If your router doesn't give you a choice of speeds, consider buying a router speed control. In general, the following speeds are acceptable for most jobs:

Bit Diameter Maximum Speed
1" ................................. 24,000 RPM
1-1/4" to 2" ..................18,000 RPM
2-1/4" to 2-1/2" ........... 16,000 RPM
3" to 3-1/2" ................. 12,000 RPM

The second speed to consider is the rate at which you move the router along the workpiece (or feed the work past the router, if you're using a table-mounted router). One of the most common mistakes is to feed work too slowly. Moving too slowly allows heat to build up in the bit and results in ugly burn marks on your work. On the other hand, forcing the bit too quickly leaves a rough finish and can be detrimental to the bit, the router, and even your safety!

The proper feed rate depends on the size & sharpness of the bit, the router's horsepower, the material you're cutting and the depth of cut. At the proper feed rate you should notice some load on the router, but not so much that the machine seems to "bog down". Another indicator will be the waste produced by the cut. A good feed rate should produce thin shavings that fall softly to the floor. Feeding too slowly tends to produce very fine sawdust.
Note: fine dust can also indicate a dull bit, so keep an eye on waste.

Feed Direction:

Always cut against the direction of rotation of the bit. In other words, if you're moving your router around the outside edge of the workpiece, the router should move in a counterclockwise direction.


Even the most experienced woodworkers may benefit from practice cut when they're working with expensive material. Practice is even more beneficial when you're just starting out. Don't be afraid to take a few extra moments for a "dry run" - it will be time well spent.

III. Maintenance:

Take proper care of your tools and they'll serve you well. Here are some suggestions:


Keep heavy pitch and gum build-up off your bits. Use a pitch and gum remover or regular household oven cleaner.


My advice is to read the warranty carefully before sharpening, and if necessary, touch up the edge with a fine diamond hone for the same reason a carver touches up a knife on a leather strap.


The best router bits won't last long if they're dropped on the floor or left to rub shoulders with other tools. If your bits don't include a case, build or buy one.

Copyright © 1997, Jesada Tools™.
Any reproduction in whole or in part strictly prohibited.