What Size Router Should you Buy First?

Welcome to my shop. This time we’re talking about routers and what size router you should get for your shop, which is a question I get a lot from beginner woodworkers. Routers are a very versatile and useful tool to have in the shop, but there are a lot of different sizes. Beginner woodworkers might be thinking “Should I just go with the biggest router? Can I get by with something a little smaller? What do I actually need in my shop?” That is what we’re going to cover today, and hopefully I can give you some guidance about what size router you need in your shop.

Triton is a sponsor of the channel, so my routers are orange, but the things we’ll be talking about today are going to be pretty applicable to any brand. There are basically three different categories of routers, based on the horsepower rating of the router. They will be rated one, two, and three, and it will be plus or minus a quarter horsepower in either direction. 

Starting on the small end of things, these guys are usually marketed as either a “compact router” or a “trim router.” They’re very small and compact and very easy to handle, so that makes them great for smaller, handheld-type jobs. Now depending on the router manufacturer, you may be able to get routers that have interchangeable bases, with the ability to switch between a plunge base and a fixed base. 

Just as a bit of an aside, let’s talk about the difference between a plunge base and a fixed base. The plunge base is going to be a lot more versatile. The router can actually be plunged in and out of the cut, which makes doing a lot of operations easier because the bit can come in and out of the workpiece as you start or stop a cut. But it does come at the cost of just being a larger overall thing to hold onto. 

The fixed bases hold the router bit at a fixed distance from the base as you’re using it. You adjust your setting once, and that’s where the bit sits. That fixed base is going to be a lot more compact and easier to use. If you’re doing a lot of routing, and you need one free hand to hold the workpiece, the fixed base can be used one-handed. With the plunge base, you’re probably going to want to use two hands with that. These overarching themes of fixed versus plunge base are going to hold true for the different sizes of routers as well. 

So, going back to the compact router, this type of router is going to come in handy for lighter-duty routing tasks, such as simple edge profiling, round overs, chamfers, etc. Maybe even doing some inlay work, because these are very easy to maneuver and you can freehand inlay things very easily with a small compact router. 

The biggest limiting factor with the compact routers is the bit size that they’re going to accept. They are pretty much limited to just a quarter-inch collet bit. That means you’re going to have to have only quarter-inch bits in here, which can be a little limiting as you start to expand your woodworking world. You can get a lot of the different common profiles in quarter-inch shanks, but as the bit size increases, it has a higher likelihood of breaking compared to the same bit size on a larger shank. I broke a lot of bits back in the day when I only had a quarter-inch collet to run. 

So that’s the compact router. It is very easy to handle, very easy to maneuver, great for handheld and one-handed routing, and it can do some larger tasks, although not as effectively as some of the bigger routers that can run the bigger bits. 

Next, let’s move up to the two-horsepower class of routers. This one here is two-and-a-quarter, and the biggest difference between a compact router to a two-horse router is the collet size. Now you’re into the world of the half-inch collets, so you can accept the larger and more robust bits. With those larger bits, you also have a bigger motor to spin and drive those bits and make those cuts. 

That is going to come at a little bit of a trade-off in size, because the two-horse router is quite a bit bigger than a compact router. So it takes up a little more space in the shop, and it is a little more bulky and heavy to move around. If you’re doing a lot of fine detail work, it might not be the best fit, because you may end up getting fatigued, and you also lose the advantage of being able to use the router one-handed. 

This size of router has more accessories, like fences, edge guides, extended base plates, and other things you can buy to make it a little more versatile and a little more useful. As far as handheld use, this size is still very flexible and easy to maneuver and maintain. You don’t feel like you’re going to get some kind of upper body workout trying to use this thing in a shop, which is really nice. 

That leads us to the three-horsepower class of router. As you can see, you’re incrementally jumping up in physical size and also weight. This size router is going to be significantly heavier than your two-horsepower router. Now, you do gain that extra horsepower of the motor, so you’ll be able to spin larger bits or take bigger chunks out of pieces of wood. If you want to do some panel-raising or you want to do some heavy-hogging waste removal, the three-horse router is not going to slow down. Both the two and the three horse routers can spin big bits, but the difference is that a three-horse router can get the work done in a single pass. 

The biggest advantage with the three horse router is the increased range in the cutter depth, because it can plunge to a greater distance than the two-horsepower one will. So if you don’t have a super long bit and you need to get down to the bottom of a hole, the three-horsepower one could probably get down there for you versus the two-horsepower router, which wouldn’t. 

With all that being said, let me give you some of my own personal opinions on what size router you should get. So if you’re getting into woodworking and you’re doing the craftier type of woodworking, like cutting boards, charcuterie boards, serving trays, and things like that, then a compact router is going to be a fantastic fit for you. The ability to do your routing one-handed while holding onto your workpiece is going to be a big advantage for you. You can also do a lot of smaller stuff with this as you grow as a woodworker. If you want to do some inlay into your work or you want to do slightly larger edge profiles, you can do that with the compact router just fine. If you start getting into furniture and you want to start doing some mortises with the router, you can spin that quarter-inch bit to make your mortises. 

Now, if you’re getting into woodworking more on the furniture side, I would suggest the two horsepower router. This is going to allow you to do basically everything you could possibly want and still be small and compact enough to do some detail work as well. If you want to make your own moldings for your furniture, if you want to spin a half-inch spiral bit to make mortises, or if you want to hog out bulk material, you can do that with the two horsepower router. As you start getting into the bigger, beefier things and you’re moving a lot more stock, you’ll have to take more passes than if you had the bigger router, but that’s not usually a common occurrence. 

I would save the three-horse router to put in the router table because you don’t necessarily have to worry about holding it and maneuvering it that way. You have all the power you would need if you want to get more into like race panels, and you’re spinning those big old bits that you really can’t do handheld. 

In the perfect world, you have all three for all the different use cases, but as you start getting into woodworking, picking one place to start is a good way to go. The two-horse is the one that I use the most, and it’s the size of router that I started with. 

So that’s the very basics of the different categories of routers. There are a ton of things you can do with routers, lots of jigs and techniques and little tricks and things. The router world is a whole different, giant world in and of itself. So hopefully, you got your answers here if you’re trying to figure out where to go with your “pathway to router domination.” Or at least you know where to start.

That is going to do it for this one! Thank you, as always, for joining. I greatly appreciate it. If you have any questions or comments on routers or anything else here in the shop, please feel free to leave me a comment. As always, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have and until next time, happy woodworking!

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