When it comes to versatility, a router is hard to beat. As a shaping tool, a router table can turn an ordinary board into a piece of custom molding or make a basic bookcase look like a refined piece of furniture. In addition, you can use a ruoter table to make dozens of joints or even cut boards to size.
But using a router as a handheld tool only scratches the surface of its capabilities. This is the only portable tool that works equally well, if not better, as a stationary tool. Flip it upside down and mount it under a router table and you have a machine that offers improved control when routing small workpieces, features a built-in fence and provides a solid platform for even the most aggressive bits.
There are two styles of router tables: floor-standing and benchtop. Floor-standing models can typically handle a larger router and provide a larger and more stable work surface, but they take up floor space, which may make them inconvenient or unfeasible for a small basement or garage shop. A benchtop router table is the solution for many woodworkers.
Benchtop router tables are small enough to tuck under a workbench, store on a deep shelf or even stow in the backseat of a car for transportation to a job site. But don’t let the smaller size fool you -- premium benchtop router tables match floor-standing models feature for feature.
A benchtop router table costs between $50 and $250. It’s typically a one-time investment because most tables will adapt to many different routers. But if you want to save money, you can build a custom router table that suits your needs and space.
Setting up a router table
Before you use a router table for the first time, it’s crucial that you make sure it is set up for accurate and safe operation. The two most important reference surfaces on a router table are the table and the fence.
The table must be dead flat across its entire surface. Place a long metal straightedge across the surface from front to back, side to side and diagonally to check the table’s flatness.
The easiest way to flatten the table is to insert shims underneath where the table meets the framework. You can make shims from double strips of cardboard, thin plastic or aluminum from a soda can. Slip a shim into low areas to help level them with higher areas, and check your modifications with a straightedge. If the table sags severely (more than about 1/16 in.), you may need to fasten cross-braces to the underside or to the surrounding framing to reinforce and flatten it.
Once the tabletop is flat, you must adjust the insert plate flush with the top (download the pdf version of this article - complete with photos). Most router tables use a system of screws threaded through the insert plate or screws located under the plate for leveling.
Flattening the tabletop is a correction you’ll usually have to make only once, when the table is new. But you’ll probably have to level the insert plate more frequently. Vibration from the router tends to back the screws out of their holes, especially on metal insert plates. One way to prevent this is to apply a drop of automotive thread-locking compound to the threads.
The other critical reference surface is the fence. For normal routing, a fence should be flat from end to end, so check the faces with a straightedge. Shim the faces as necessary to make them flat and flush with each other. Some fences feature micro-adjustment mechanisms that allow you to move each face forward and back individually. A fence could also have a slight defect on the contact surfaces behind the faces. Check the contact surfaces closely and file off any bumps you find. If the fence is out of line and the body is made of cast material, the casting may have a defective twist. The best recourse is to return the fence to the manufacturer for an exchange.
It’s also important that the fence facings meet the table surface at a right angle. This is especially critical when you’re routing workpieces on edge against the fence. The best fix for an out-of-square fence (if you can’t return it to the manufacturer) is to shim behind the facings. You might also be able to plane or sand the facings slightly to make the fence square.
Using a router table
To use a table-mounted router, you need to install the bit, set the bit height, set the fence position, install any necessary accessories (featherboards, guides or guards) and then turn on the router and make the cut. Use featherboards and pushsticks whenever possible to help control the workpiece and to keep your hands a safe distance from the bit.
The bit and fence positions depend on the type of bit you are using and the type of cut you plan to make. You can change the depth of a cut by raising or lowering the bit or by setting the bit to full height and moving the fence. For most edge profiling, it is best to set the bit to its final height and move the fence. If you are making inset cuts such as dados, grooves or mortises, you must raise the bit and leave the fence stationary.
When cutting, balance your weight evenly on both feet and feed the workpiece from the right (infeed) side of the table to the left (outfeed) side. This presents the workpiece to the bit against its counterclockwise rotation, forcing the workpiece against the fence and providing helpful resistance as you push. Feeding from left to right usually creates a “climb-cutting” situation in which the bit can grab and pull the workpiece out from the fence instead of pushing against it.
Position your left hand at least 6 in. to the right of the bit to hold the workpiece against the fence like a featherboard. Feed the workpiece slowly and steadily into the bit with your right hand. When the end of the workpiece reaches the right edge of the router table, shift your right hand to the right outside corner of a workpiece that is wider than 6 in., or switch to a push stick or push pad if the piece is narrower. When your right hand reaches your stationary left hand, keep the wood moving and reposition your left hand along the edge of the workpiece on the outfeed side of the table to finish the cut.
There are nearly as many different techniques for using a router table as there are router bits. You will learn to use new methods, jigs and setups as you face new challenges. Books, videos, magazines and the Internet are all good sources for additional information on router techniques.
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