By George Vondriska and Ken Collier

The new generation of general-purpose routers really shines!

A mid-size, fixed-base router is the workhorse of most shops. It's easy to handle and powerful enough for just about any task. Seasoned woodworkers find themselves picking one up every day, and for first-time router users it's almost always the best choice. We tested 17 models, and found, to our surprise, that some of our old favorites have been dethroned by a new generation of high-tech machines.

Mid-Size Fixed-Base Routers


By "mid-size," we mean tools in the 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hp range. "Fixed-base" means that they don't have plunge capability, although the Porter Cable 690, our Best Buy choice, can be bought in a package that has both a fixed and a plunge base - a real deal.



Almost all of these routers can handle both 1/4-in. and 1/2-in. shank bits. They typically have the classic twin handles, although several have optional D-handles. Many models are extremely convenient for use in router tables.


Because these tools are used frequently, and in a wide variety of circumstances, flexibility and convenience are particularly important. The more tasks the machine can handle, and the better it feels to you as you do them, the better. And because these are basic tools, we looked for a high level of construction quality. This is not a tool to economize on.

Removable Base
Some routers have a base that can be removed from the motor. This has several advantages. It makes changing bits much easier, because you have complete access to the chuck. It also means you can upgrade your machine with additional bases, generally for less than $50. For example, you can leave a base permanently attached to your router table, so when the time comes to use it, you simply insert the motor. Or, you can use a D-handle or plunge base with the same motor. Or, have one base permanently set up on a special jig, for operations such as mortising and flush-trimming.

The best arrangement for a removable base is one where the motor can't drop out when the router is hung upside down in a router table (see chart, page 74).

Variable Speed
Advances in electronic motor control have allowed manufacturers to offer routers with variable speed, without significant loss in power. These routers can handle larger diameter bits, like king-size round-over bits and panel cutters, that should be run at a slower speed for safety. The circuitry also gives the router a "soft start," gradually bringing the motor up to full speed. This eliminates the irritating tendency of the machine to jerk in your hands as it starts up.

Variable speed is a very useful feature for the small-shop woodworker, one that greatly increases the versatility of the router. It's been available on big and more expensive routers for years, and now Bosch and Makita have added it to their mid-size routers. It is the one significant feature missing from several classic routers that we have used and loved for many years. These new variable-speed routers are better.

Big Hole in the Base
The hole in the plastic base of the router controls how wide a bit will fit through. Some machines have such small openings that even a 3/8-in. router bit, with its 1-1/4 in. diameter, will not fit through. And if, in desperation, you cut through the plastic to enlarge it, you can lose the ability of the base to accept template guide bushings. We prefer machines that are designed to accept wide bits, although you can, without much trouble, make auxiliary baseplates with larger openings. For router table use, the plastic baseplate is removed, so this isn't an issue.

Versatile Collet Chuck
Routers are really pretty simple: a motor and a collet chuck for holding the bit. So, that chuck better be good. We greatly prefer chucks with removable collets that can handle both 1/4-in.- and 1/2-in. shank bits (and even the rarely encountered 3/8-in. and 8mm shanks). You should always use 1/2-in. shank bits when you have a choice; they are stiffer and less likely to break.

All the routers have a nominal horsepower ratings (see chart, page 74), although you should take the numbers with a grain of salt. Each manufacturer uses a slightly different testing method when testing horsepower. You can use the amperage rating as an indication of power, but differences in motor efficiency make it less than precise.
In our shop tests of all these routers, we found the horsepower and amperage together to be a reliable index of how well the routers resisted bogging down with aggressive cuts. The Makita RD series and the Bosch 1617EVS and 1618EVS stood out in our qualitative testing for real-life power.

VARIABLE SPEED is the new and important feature of routers from Bosch and Makita. It allows you to use large-diameter bits safely by cutting down the speed. Power is not significantly affected.

A REMOVABLE MOTOR is one feature we particularly value. It makes changing bits much easier, especially when the router is used in a router table. You can also get a second base and leave it in your router table permanently.

A LARGE BASE OPENING, such as this one on the Bosch 1617, allows you to use the widest variety of bits. Some routers, for example, will not accept this 3/8-in. rabbeting bit without using an auxiliary base.

THE DEPTH-OF-CUT ADJUSTMENT should allow very small changes and be very easy to use, especially in a router table, when you're working upside down. This one is the Bosch 1617 EVS.

POWER in this class ranges from 1-1/2 to 2-1/4 hp. The routers at the upper end of this range can handle aggressive cuts like this one, in thick hardwood. For frequent heavy cuts a 3-hp router is preferred.


Template Guide Bushings

Guide bushings are the metal sleeves that can be locked into the base of the router for cutting with a pattern, making mortises with a jig and using a dovetail jig. They are essential accessories for your mid-size router.
All of the routers in this group accept guide bushings, but the Porter Cable two-piece guide bushings (see photo, at right) are very easy to use and have become a common home center item. Several manufacturers' machines accept the Porter Cable bushings, and this is a positive feature. Unfortunately, the opening in the router base needed to accept these bushings is fairly small (1-3/16-in.) so you'll need an auxiliary base for use with larger bits. The Bosch 1617EVS stands out in this area because it has a large base opening, and an adapter (#RA1100, $15) which allows it to accept Porter Cable guide bushings.

Noise Level

Routers are noisy tools, and their high-pitched racket is particularly irritating (and dangerous!). One manufacturer, Makita, has addressed this problem, and their new line of routers is significantly more pleasant to use than the others. We measured decibel level, but that alone doesn't capture the difference in this machine (see chart, page 74). The range of pitches on the new Makita routers sounds lower and less grating ? the way other routers sound when you have hearing protection on. You still need to wear hearing protection with the new Makita machines, and when you do, using these routers is downright pleasant.

Fine Depth-of-Cut Adjustments

Some machines make it easy to make very fine depth-of-cut adjustments. This is crucial for some operations, like using rail-and-stile cutters in a router table.

There are many different depth control arrangements on these machines, so we approached this feature by having a group of independent testers, a mix of seasoned and brand-new woodworkers, handle the machines and rate them. The results are in the chart on page 74.


These mid-size routers can be the most versatile machines in your shop. A good selection of accessories will make this happen: Extra bases (fixed-handle, plunge, D-handle); easy-to-use template guide bushings; solid and easy-to-adjust fences; and dust collection. Only the Porter Cable 690 hits a home run in this department, and we wish that other manufacturers would follow suit.

Minor Convenience Features

There are a few features which, though hardly essential, add to the convenience and good "feel" of the tool. And because you handle a mid-size router a lot, they do make a difference.

One we like is a lever lock on the motor housing. Most machines have a wing nut that you turn to lock the motor height. The lever lock is positive, easy and fast.

Switching position is another small matter, but one that affects convenience. Some machines have the switch in a constant position in relation to the handles. You always know where it is, which is convenient for some operations when you want to keep your eyes on the bit while you turn the router off. And most, but not all, routers have self-releasing collets. These help keep bits from getting stuck in the chuck, an irritating problem.


ACCESSORIES ARE IMPORTANT for a tool as versatile as a mid-size router. The Porter Cable 690, for instance, is uniquely versatile; it can be used with any of three bases, plus an effective dust collection subbase.

Routers are certainly versatile, but nobody would call them pleasant to operate. The new Makita routers, however, are significantly quieter and less shrill. With hearing protection on (it's still recommended) using this router can actually be pleasant.

These are a must-have accessory. Some of the better bushings, however, like this two-part Porter Cable system, require a small base opening. You will need an auxiliary base to use even medium-size bits like a 3/8-in. rabbeting bit. The Bosch 1617EVS router (below) gives you the best of both worlds with a large base opening and an adapter ($15) that allows you to quickly attach the readily available Porter Cable bushings.

CONVENIENCE FEATURES, though they don't affect performance, are important in a heavily used tool like this. SELF-RELEASING COLLETS, a relatively new convenience feature, help prevent bits from getting stuck in the chuck. And LEVER LOCKS are a handy improvement to the traditional wing-nut knuckle banger.



Appealing as their price is, we do not recommend the two smaller Craftsman routers, because they do not accept 1/2-in. shank bits. The Ryobi routers are good machines for hand held use, with large holes in their bases, but the motor does not separate from the base, which makes them much less convenient for router table use.

The Milwaukee and DeWalt machines are tried-and-true routers that have


given many of us years of excellent service. However, the DeWalt has a fairly coarse depth-of-cut adjustment and the Milwaukee, though it has a reputation for endurance in production settings, is fairly expensive, and lacks features that matter in the small shop. Neither the DeWalt nor the Milwaukee have variable speed, for example, which we consider an important feature.
Our three recommended routers are:

  Editors' Choice: Bosch 1617 EVS

This router epitomizes the new breed of mid-size routers. It has electronic variable speed, lots of power, soft start, a large hole in the baseplate, comfortable handles (wood, bless them!) and a lever lock for the motor. The magnesium housing makes this router one of the lightest and easiest to handle in the bunch. The well-engineered micro-adjust device for depth-of-cut makes this router extremely good for router table use. All in all, a great router. The price is around $209.

Best Buy: Porter Cable 690

The Porter Cable 690 is another traditional design that has proven itself in use. It lacks variable speed, and the small opening in the base, which will not accept even some common bits like a 3/8-in. rabbeting bit, is a pain. However, the price is good ($160) and this machine stands out because of the optional plunge base ($89). In fact, one of the best deals on mid-size routers is the combination package that Porter Cable offers; one 690 motor, one fixed base and one plunge base for around $209. There is also the dust collection accessory ($45) which we use with great success in our own shops, and is unique to the Porter Cable 690.

  Editors' Choice: Makita RF 1101

This is the other mid-size router with electronic variable speed, and it also has lots of power and the convenience of a lever lock. On the downside, it has that darn small hole in the base. However, it's the low noise level that we love about this machine. You have to hear it to appreciate it.
The price for this quiet routing is $210.