The router table is an incredibly useful tool, which is surprisingly absent from a large number of workshops. While the router alone is an incredibly useful tool, allowing us to counter the edges of board for our projects and relief carve out the interior areas, shapes and lettering on a wide range of workpieces. Attaching that router to a router table adds more flexibility, especially with smaller workpieces. It turns the router into what is essentially a small shaper, allowing for a much wider range of edge moldings.
The trick, as with buying any other tool, is to find the right router table to meet your needs and fit your budget. These tables run the full gambit, from budget friendly to quite costly. But do you really get anything more for those high-dollar router tables? It helps to know, before starting to shop.
We can break router tables into two general categories; stand-alone units or those which are intended to be mounted to a tables saw. While both perform the same purpose, attaching it to your table saw can reduce the overall space required in your workshop.
Generally speaking, the router tables which attach to a table saw are built into a table extension made by the same manufacturer as the table saw. There are also a few models on the market which are considered “universal” and intended to mount to any table saw. Before buying one of these, make sure that it will work with your table saw.
Of course, you can build your own router table to attach to your table saw. Many people are now building a workbench to set their table saw into, extending the table and saving money over having to buy an expensive cabinet saw in order to have support for large pieces of plywood. This may be partially motivated by the proliferation of “portable” table saws for contractors. While powerful, they tend to have too small a table for a home workshop. Mounting it into a workbench solves that problem, while giving you someplace to mount your router as well.
One thing I’ve noticed from my own experience is that if you’re going to mount a router into a table, you want to own two routers. While it is possible to dismount your router from the table at any time, it’s a hassle. Having a second router eliminates that need, allowing you to keep one attached to the table, and using the other for larger projects. I have a fixed-base router attached to my table and a plunge router for freehand use.
What to Look for in a Router Table
If you’re in the market for a router table, you want to make sure you buy one that will meet your needs. Take it from me; a cheap router table will give you plenty of headaches. While any of the areas we’re going to talk about below can be a problem, my personal hassles were with the quality of the fence, which did not adjust easily and was hard to remove and install every time I needed to.
The table itself and the material that the table is made of are of critical importance. More than anything, there’s a need for the table to be as flat and rigid as possible. Router tables are used to cut both joinery and to create edge moldings on boards, both of which are precision work. Any deviation in the table’s flatness, whether due to flexing or warping, will result in joints that don’t fit and moldings which are uneven.
A weak table may flex just from the weight of the router, even without the pressure of holding a board down on it. Yet if the middle of the table sags from that weight, then none of the cuts will be accurate. It’s not like they will be consistently accurate either; they’ll be different at the ends and corners, than they are in the middle.
The absolute best tables are cast iron, just like for table saws. Cast iron has the durability to withstand even rough working conditions, while resisting damage. It is heavy enough to help dampen out vibration. A few tables are made of cast aluminum, rather than iron. But most router tables aren’t made of cast iron, but rather from MDF, with a few being made of phenolic resin.
While the lightest and least costly option, MDF is not a poor choice for a router table, because it is extremely flat and stable. But you want to be sure that the MDF top is at least one inch thick. Any thinner, and you can’t really trust it. You also need to be cautious that MDF router tables don’t become wet, as soaking up water will cause permanent damage.
The base plate is what the router itself is mounted to. Not all router tables have a base plate, as some of the cast ones will have the mounting holes directly in the table. But all phenolic and MDF router tables have to have a base plate to mount the router to.
The base plate is usually a ¼” thick piece of aluminum plate, predrilled for the mounting holes for several different routers. Some of the better router tables might have more than one plate available, so as to avoid weakening the plate with too many holes.
It is important that the plate fit perfectly into the router table, flush with the top. If it is higher than the table, your workpieces will catch on it when passing them through the router. On the other hand, if it is low, you’ll have the same sort of problem that you would have with a weak table, because the cutter bit will be low, compared to the rest of the table. Ideally, there will be adjustment screws so that you can fine-tune the height of the plate.
If you’re planning on using the same router in and out of the table, then the base plate is going to be important. How easy is it to mount the router to the plate? How easy is it to mount the plate into the table? If it turns out to be a hassle, you will end up annoyed every time you have to make a change.
Miter & T-Slots
Much of the work done on a router table involves router bits which have a bearing on them; but not all. There are times when you’ll be using a straight bit with a miter gauge, so as to cut a tenon or a dado. You might be thinning out a board to make a lap joint. You might need a feather board to keep a piece of material tight up against the fence.
All of these operations require that a router table have a good T-slot in it. T-slots have largely replaced the rectangular slots which were used previously, because they provide a more secure contact. Such slots may be cut on the table itself or the fence. A table which offers more slots will offer you more options for clamping and guiding your work.
For a fence to be effective, it must be extremely straight and solid. Ideally, it will be easy to position and lock in place as well. While many operations are done without a fence, when you do need a fence, you want a good one, so as to make the work easier.
There are two basic types of fences: solid and split. A solid fence is easier to work with, in that the infeed and outfeed sides of the fence are factory aligned, saving you that problem. But being fixed in a relationship to one another, you don’t have the ability to adjust how close they are to the bit. This means that in most cases, there will be a gap between the fence and bit, limiting the amount of support that the fence can provide, especially with smaller workpieces.
A split fence allows you to individually adjust the two sides so that they are offset from each other. This makes it possible to use the router table as a jointer, working with a long straight router bit. However, if you’re looking at a router table with a split fence, you want to be sure that it is made in such a way as to make the alignment of the two sides perfectly parallel.
One solution to this problem is a solid fence with a split portion. In other words, there is an insert into the outfeed side of the table, which can be pulled out from the fence, to provide support in those jointing operations. That inset is not needed for most edge molding operations, as the distance to the edge won’t change. But by definition, jointing will cause that to happen.
Always remember when working with a router, and especially when using a router table fence, that you need to run a test piece, before cutting your project parts. Even a router that looks like it is set up perfectly can be off a small fraction of an inch, which for a router can mean a big error.
Most router tables are benchtop units, but there are a few which come with a full stand. In either case, stability is important. You definitely don’t want your router table moving, while you are making a cut. I used to have my router table mounted onto a base with casters, which was disastrous. It would move when I was making a cut, causing me to ruin many boards.
If you are using a benchtop unit and it is not permanently mounted to a bench, fasten it in place with clamps while using it, to prevent it from moving. However, if you’re going to use it a lot, you’re better off mounting it permanently somewhere, such as in your bench extension for your table saw.
Some of the Best of the Bunch
It’s hard to choose the best in any tool category, as there are often a number of excellent choices. In many cases, what you end up with is the writer’s favorites, rather than the best. That’s okay, if the person writing about the item is experienced in using it; but when they aren’t, it’s hard to say what you might end up with.
In this case, I am an experienced woodworker who uses a router table on a fairly regular basis. The information I’m using to make these selections is based upon the criteria I’ve mentioned above. So it’s not just that these are my favorites; it’s that these router tables are the ones which I feel best meet those criteria.
Kreg precision Router Table System
Kreg is a specialty tool manufacturer, which has decided to try and come up with the best router table on the market. There is plenty to make this router table impressive; but their main attraction is their fence. The 36” aluminum fence is self-squaring, making it easier to use. The two faces (infeed and outfeed) are split and independently adjustable, allowing you to adjust them right up to the router bit, with almost zero clearance.
The table top for this unit is 1” thick MDF and measures 24”x 32”, giving you a large area to support your workpieces. The MDF is covered with high-pressure laminate that resists dents and damage. This tabletop is supported by steel-enforced struts to help keep it flat.
Even the stand is designed to be easy to use, being easily adjustable for heights from 31” to 39” and comes complete with levelers installed. The router table is highly customizable with accessories, such as a precision router lift.
Rockler High-pressure Laminate Router Table
Rockler makes an excellent free-standing router table for a more reasonable price. The table is made of 1” thick MDF, covered with laminate and measures 24”x 32”. T-slots in both the table top and the router fence allow you to add stops, clamps and featherboards, as well as using a miter gauge.
There are four different phenolic plates offered for this router table, as well as two different blank plates, which you can drill to match your router, if you have a router that doesn’t match up with any of the standard plates. The phenolic plate is low-friction, helping your workpiece to glide easily over the table without hanging up. An eight point leveling system allows you to fine-tune the height of the plate perfectly.
Bosch RA1181 Benchtop Router Table
If you’re looking for a benchtop router table, Bosch seems to have the best one around. Made with a cast aluminum table, you can be sure that the table top is smooth and level. There’s an aluminum plate to match, keeping the table top consistent. Being a benchtop unit, it still has a respectable 27” x 27” table.
The fence on this particular router table is faced with MDF, backed up with an aluminum channel. So you get the strength and rigidity of the aluminum, along with the smoother surface that the MDF provides. It comes with two featherboards, which will mount on the T-slot in the fence of the one in the table. A 15-amp power switch is included, so you don’t have to reach for the switch on your router.