Looking for a dream router table? Here's a few tips.

i think I've mentioned my router obsession before, but I don't think I've talked about router tables.  The short story is that I don't like most prefabbed router tables.  Why?  Well, for starters they are too expensive.  I mean, if you wanted to spend $600+ to shape edges you might as well go for a shaper.  So many of today's router table manufacturers seem to be obsessed with router lifts and dials and other gimmicks.  For years I made intricate and fine-detailed joints that made observers jealous; all the while my router table was a discarded sink-cut-out with a smoothly-planed 2 X 4.

I've never liked a miter slot on a router table, and I really would care less if there's a plate to support the router.  No, that's not true.  If given the choice I would prefer NOT to have a router plate.

Now before you click the back button on your browser let me tell you a little more about my love of routers and router tables.  Currently (As of 2/3/11) I own 14 routers.  I have trim routers, fixed base routers, plunge routers, a router arm, a horizontal router and several shop-made router tables.  I have more money tied-up in router bits than most woodworkers have in their tablesaw!  I don't say this to brag, but to make the point that I know a little something about routers.

Don't get me wrong, I like some of the features of commercial router tables:

An easily adjustable fence.  I look for a fence with two fixing points, and it is imperative that it can pivot on one fixed point.  This is the reason that a miter slot is useless on a router table.  If I need to make a 1/32" adjustment on the position of the fence, I should be able to loosen one knob and pivot the fence slightly to move it into the correct location.  If it must be kept parallel to a miter slot them I would have to loosen BOTH fixing knobs and accurately move the fence evenly on both ends of the table.

Convenient and effective dust collection and containment.  I prefer an enclosed base on a router table, but that doesn't mean it has to be a heavy cabinet.  One of the best router tables I made had a simple particle board box as it's base with two holes drilled through it that provided a smug fit for a standard ShopVac hose.  I used to keep one port open and the other was connected to the vac, and let me tell ya, that thing SUCKED!  Depending on what type of routing you are doing depends on the best dust collection arrangement.  Edge routing will toss the chips to the rear of the cutter; so dust collection in the fence is a must.  If instead you are routing "inboard", your dust will get tossed ahead of the cutter and get sucked into the base by the bit and the motor.  I don't worry about the dust that gets tossed out ahead of the cutter; except to compensate for this by raising any stop blocks off the surface of the table where these chips might gather and throw-off my stop setting.

If there's a router plate it must be rock solid and flat!  I recently used a Ryobi router table that was quite impressive, except that it had a thin plastic table insert that could never be made level and slowly developed a concave shape that effected my joinery.  Imagine plowing a sliding dovetail in the post of a three-leg Shaker candle stand table.  The dovetail bit starts into the wood at the low center of the plate, but as the bit continues into it's cut the leading edge begins to ride up and out of the dished router plate.  This makes the dovetail slot shallow at the end of the cut, and therefore the properly dovetailed legs will have a gap where the shoulder of the dovetail at the top of the leg is set too shallow into the post.  Yuck.

The table insert plate must be either smooth aluminum or a thick, non-warping plastic like phenolic resin.  It should have a snug fit in the table with almost no gap between the table and the plate, and the more adjustment points beneath the table to level the plate the better.  Because I know I'll be lifting the plate in and out to change bits I prefer not to bolt the plate down.  The weight of the router motor and plate should keep it in place, and the only way it's going to lift out on it's own is during a cut; and because I'll be pressing down on it with a piece of wood, this is highly unlikely. But if the plate is loose in the table in may twist and shift in relation to the fence, so the tight fit is critical.

On a related note, you're going to want an insert with inserts of it's own.  Huh?  You know what I mean!  That cut-out in the middle of the table where the bits poke through needs to be as tight to the bit as you can make it; so that means you need to be able to quickly swap them out.  On my last project I used three different diameter bits, and as luck would have it I used three different inserts. 

Unless it's a feature of the router itself, I don't consider a router lift a must-have accessory.   They are outrageously to the cost of a router table, and every time you swap bits (all the time) you'll have to re-set the dial or depth gauge.  I'd rather just get the router back into the table and use a Incra Gauge to tweak it to the proper height.  I seriously do this in less than ten seconds and didn't have to spend $200 that I could invest in bits.

I can't believe how much I've grown to depend on this, but I MUST have an auxiliary switch.  One of my favorite routers is the fixed-base Porter-Cable 690 series (I have 6 of them), which rotates on it's base as you adjust the bit height.  That means that you never know where the switch will wind-up!  By plugging the router motor into a table-mounted switch there's no question where to flip that sucker off if something feels wrong.

So where is all this going?  I recently conducted a series of classes at my work where I needed a router table.  Rather than dragging one of my personal router tables in from my shop I decided to purchase one.  I visited three woodworking stores and shopped several online specialty outlets before deciding on a router table that turned out the be a real winner.  The router table that I purchased is the JessEm Benchtop "Rout-R-Table" which I bought at Woodcraft.

I had over 50 people routing grooves on the edges of Baltic birch ply and plowing stop slot-mortises.   I stopped counting when the tenth person complimented me on the router table.  While not a large table, this tool is perfect for portable use (I took it back and forth from my person shop and my employer's shop several times over two weeks) and will store snugly under a workbench or in a base cabinet.  The base of the table is made of solid steel tubing; and it has a slick ballistic nylon enclosure that captured all the below-table dust without a dust collector attached to it.  Not that we couldn't attached a vac to it, we just left it on the fence port and before we knew it we made the observation that the "base bag" was trapping all the bottom dust.  Very cool.

The fence is everything I was looking for.  Two firm locking points with tall knobs.  While the body of the fence is anodized aluminum, the two adjustable and sacrificial fence faces are laminated MDF.  The dust port worked perfectly, though we did have to use a roll of "silver dust hose adapter tape" to attache the odd metric hose from our stupid European dust collector.  100mm?  Really?  What's up with that?

Anyway, click the link above to see this neat router table at Woodcraft.

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