Until recently, new plunge routers came out every year, but
fixed-base models seemed frozen in time. Most tool companies
made fixed-base routers, but there wasn't much innovation
because Porter-Cable completely dominated the market. As a
result, tradespeople who wanted fixed-base tools had to settle
for old designs and technology, while those who wanted cool new
machines bought plunge routers.
This started to change a few years ago. Bosch and Makita
introduced new fixed-base routers in 2000. DeWalt and Milwaukee
brought some out in 2002. And Porter-Cable recently updated
some of the features on its fixed-base models. Plunge routers
may have more features, but fixed-base tools are lighter,
cheaper, and less subject to damage because they have fewer
For this article, I tried pro-grade fixed-base routers from
Bosch, DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee, and Porter-Cable. The motors
for these tools can be removed and used in multiple bases, so I
also checked out D-handle and plunge versions.
Unlike most power tools, routers are still rated by horsepower
(hp). But they're also rated by amps. Until recently, the
average fixed-base router had a 1 1/2- or 1 3/4-hp motor. Most
of the newer models have 21/4-hp motors. To me, routers between
1 1/2 and 2 1/4 hp are midsize tools. Anything over 3 hp is
The difference between 1 3/4 and 2 1/4 hp sounds more
significant than it is. If you compare the tools by amp rating,
you're looking at the difference between 11 amps and 12 amps.
When I used the routers, the 2 1/4-hp models did not feel
significantly more powerful than the 1 3/4-hp tools. And it
wouldn't have mattered to me if they did, because 1 3/4 hp is
plenty of power for the vast majority of hand-held operations.
This includes flush trimming, milling dados, and shaping and
rabetting edges. I wouldn't use a 1 3/4-hp machine to drive
large cope and stick bits, but that's an amateur woodworking
operation, not something most tradespeople ever do.
I also tried a couple of big 15-amp routers from Porter-Cable
and Milwaukee. Both tools are significantly more powerful than
11- and 12-amp models. Milwaukee's router is brand new, but
Porter-Cable's Speedmatic has been around forever. Anyone who
has worked in a cabinet shop has probably seen a 15-amp
Speedmatic mounted in a table and used like a shaper. This
machine has the power and durability to do production milling,
but it's heavy and hard to use by hand. That said, big routers
are the tools of choice for tough jobs like fabricating
solid-surface material. The Speedmatic used to be the only game
in town, but Milwaukee's 15-amp router is a legitimate
contender. It has an array of features that includes
interchangeable grips and a knob-controlled height
Size and Weight
In general, I prefer smaller, lighter tools because they're
more maneuverable and easier to lift than big, heavy ones. But
size and weight are not as critical for routers as they are for
tools like recip saws and drill-drivers. Most routing is done
on flat, stable surfaces. A router is not the kind of tool that
you operate from the top of a stepladder or while hanging off
the side of a building.
Most of the tools I tested weigh between 8 and 9 pounds with
the standard fixed base. They're a pound or two heavier with a
D-handle or plunge base.
One of the most significant developments in router design has
been the introduction of variable-speed controls. Plunge
routers have been available with this feature for years, but
it's kind of new for fixed-base models.
The main reason to vary the speed is to slow the motor down to
safely run oversized bits. Typically, oversized is anything
over 1 1/8 inches in diameter. That may not sound very big, but
I own 100-plus bits, and only a few are larger than that. Most
oversized bits are designed for woodworking and furniture
making. The only ones I've ever used on site are a 3/4-inch
roundover and a 1 1/8-inch bearing-over flush-trimming bit. I
own two variable-speed routers, and I almost never use them at
less than top speed.
Most of the tools I tested are available with either fixed or
variable-speed controls. In most cases, variable-speed versions
have slightly higher power ratings. Milwaukee's 1 3/4-hp
BodyGrip router is available only as a single-speed tool, but
the manufacturer will soon introduce a 2 1/4-hp variable-speed
Soft-start. The best thing
about variable-speed routers is that they come with soft-start.
This feature causes them to accelerate smoothly to their final
speed. Without this feature, starting torque causes routers to
jerk when you turn them on. Think of it as the difference
between accelerating a truck slowly and gunning the engine and
popping it into gear. Soft-start reduces the starting torque so
that you hardly notice it. This makes it easier to control the
router and reduces wear and tear on the motor.
The strength of the jolt is related to the weight of the motor
and the size of the bit. In my experience, starting torque is a
minor issue for 11- and 12-amp routers. It shouldn't pose a
safety problem as long as you have a good grip on the machine.
But it's a serious issue for larger tools. I've used a lot of
15-amp routers that don't have soft-start, and hanging on to
them can be like wrestling an alligator. It wasn't a problem
with the 15-amp routers I tested because they both have this
Most of the tools I tested are available as single-speed or
variable-speed models. I wouldn't go out of my way to get
variable-speed, but I would insist on soft-start.
Plunge routers aren't necessarily popular because they plunge
but because they have superior depth-control mechanisms. The
best thing about the current crop of fixed-base routers is how
much easier it is to make fine adjustments to depth.
With the Makita and Porter-Cable routers, bits are raised and
lowered by releasing a lever-activated clamp and twisting the
motor within the base. It's a straightforward way to adjust
depth of cut, but there are a couple of problems. The motor
won't stay in place on its own when the clamp is loose, so you
have to hold it in position while you refasten the clamp.
Another problem is that turning the motor changes the position
of the cord and the switch. The cord is more likely to get in
the way and you may have to hunt for the switch.
Porter-Cable updated its
venerable 690 router by increasing horsepower and
giving it variable-speed controls and a lever-activated
DeWalt's router looks like it should work the same way as
the Makita and Porter-Cable, but the motor actually moves
straight up and down. You change settings by releasing a lever
and turning a large depth-adjuster ring. An adjustable scale
indicates how far the bit will move when you turn the ring. The
scale is graduated to 1/64 inch, but the marks are widely
spaced and easy to read. Porter-Cable's scale is similar to
DeWalt's and is just as easy to read and use. Makita has a
scale, but it's hard to read because it's entirely
DeWalt's motor looks like it
should twist within the base, but it actually moves
straight up and down. You move it by releasing the
clamp and turning the depth-adjuster ring that's just
above the yellow scale.
The mechanisms on the Bosch and the Milwaukee are similar to
those on some plunge routers. Both tools rely on
lever-activated clamps and knob-operated lifting screws.
Turning the knobs raises and lowers the motor with a high
degree of precision and control. You can jiggle these tools
when the clamp is loose, and it will not affect the depth
The knob-activated screw on
Milwaukee's routers makes it easy to make fine
adjustments to the depth of cut. A spring-loaded
release on the base allows you to quickly remove and
install the motor.
Milwaukee's motor is raised by turning a stout, coarsely
threaded screw. You can use a knob to turn the screw from
above, or you can use a 3/8-inch socket to access it through a
hole in the base. This makes it easy to use the tool in a
router table because you can adjust the depth of cut from above
Bosch relies on a dual-action mechanism. Big adjustments are
made using a spring-loaded dog to engage slots in the motor
housing. Fine adjustments are made by turning a knob on a
tightly threaded screw.
Bosch routers use a
spring-loaded dog to make big changes and a
knob-activated screw to make fine adjustments to the
depth of cut.
The Bosch and Milwaukee tools have scales to show how far
the bit moves when you turn the knobs. The scales are clearly
marked and allow you to make adjustments that are finer than
you can measure with a machinist's ruler. For example, a dollar
bill is about 1/100 inch thick, and the Bosch scale is
graduated to 1/256 inch.
Most routers have the same knob-shaped grips they had 100
years ago, when a router was a hand-held plane. Makita and
Bosch still use turned wooden knobs, and Porter-Cable uses hard
shiny plastic. DeWalt and Milwaukee use molded plastic with a
textured surface. I prefer the molded grips because they're
more comfortable to grasp and the texture makes them easier to
hold on to.
Ideally, the on/off switch would be right on the grip, but
it's on the motor of fixed-base routers because the motor comes
out of the base. Some fixed-base routers have rocker switches,
and others have toggles. It doesn't matter what kind it is as
long as it's easy to reach. In most cases, reaching the switch
from the grip is a stretch. But it's especially difficult with
the Porter-Cable and Makita tools. Porter-Cable's motor rotates
in the base, so the switch is always in a different place.
Makita's switch is on top of the motor, where it's easy to find
but impossible to reach from the grip.
Milwaukee's 13/4-hp router has a unique molded surface and a
Velcro strap on the side of the base. If you grab the side of
the housing and cinch down on the strap, it's like you're
wearing the tool on your hand. The strap makes it easier to
rout one-handed because you're less likely to drop the
The unique molded housing and
Velcro strap on Milwaukee's BodyGrip router allow you
to fasten the tool to your hand for one-handed
Spindle locks allow you to operate the collet with a single
wrench. This is a good feature to have on a plunge router,
because it's hard to get a pair of wrenches between the plunge
legs. DeWalt put a spindle lock on its variable-speed model,
which is nice when you use the plunge base. But it doesn't add
utility to the standard model because it's easier to use two
wrenches when the motor is out of the base.
Most motors are easy to remove. The Makita and Porter-Cable
motors spin right out of the base. DeWalt's motor is held in
place by a pair of spring-loaded latches and Milwaukee's by a
spring-loaded release that engages the lifting screw. The Bosch
motor is somewhat difficult to remove because it fits snugly
within the base and must be twisted during the last inch of
All the routers I tested come with 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch
collets except Porter-Cable's 15-amp model, which comes with
only a 1/2-inch collet.
A removable motor makes it easier to change bits and allows
you to use multiple bases. You can use more than one kind of
base, or you can leave one in a table and save one for freehand
use. Most fixed-base routers are sold individually or in kits
with a standard base, plunge base, motor, and case. It's
cheaper than buying two machines, and the kits usually cost
less than dedicated plunge routers.
Plunge bases. A plunge base
is a handy accessory for tasks like mortising door and cabinet
hardware. But if you do a lot of plunge work, it's better to
buy a dedicated model because it will be available with a
sophisticated depth-control mechanism and a grip-mounted
switch. Every company except Milwaukee makes an auxiliary
Makita's base looks like a modified version of Porter-Cable's.
Both have a self-activating plunge lock and a nut that limits
the upward travel of the motor. Both bases plunge smoothly, but
the return spring on Porter-Cable's rasps in the housing.
The Bosch and DeWalt plunge bases are much more refined.
Bosch's base has comfortable T-shaped grips, a smooth plunge
action, and a self-activating plunge lock. There's a
fine-adjuster screw on the bottom of the depth-stop rod, but
it's stiff and hard to turn.
DeWalt's plunge base is the best of the bunch. It has a
manually activated plunge lock and smooth plunge action. The
simple depth-stop rod fits firmly in the base and is equipped
with a fine-adjustment screw that's easy to turn. This base
also has integral dust collection. Chips can be extracted
through the base and up through an oversized plunge
The fine-adjustment screw on
the depth-stop rod makes DeWalt's auxiliary plunge base
easier to use than others.
D-handle base. A D-handle
router has a circular-sawstyle handle in back and a
knob-shaped grip on the front. A trigger-style switch allows
you to activate the motor without shifting your grip. This type
of router is a specialty tool, great for routing edges but
awkward for other applications.
D-grip models have a short cord between the motor and the grip
and a power cord that comes out the bottom of the grip. This
means you can't typically use a standard motor in a D-handle
base because the motor cord will be too long. But that's not
the case with DeWalt's router, which comes with detachable
cords. This allows you to use the same motor in any base and
makes it easier to replace a damaged cord.
There's nothing unusual about any of the D-handle bases. They
all have locking triggers and forward grips that can be removed
and repositioned for left- or right-hand use.
Fixed-base routers can usually be fitted with a variety of
sub-bases. Most routers take Porter-Cablestyle bushings,
and for that, they need a sub-base with a small center hole. If
you want to use large-diameter bits, you'll need one with a
large center hole. Bosch's router comes with a single sub-base
with a 2-inch hole. Bushings are held in place by a separate
guide adaptor. The DeWalt and Makita routers come with two
sub-bases, one for bushings and one with a larger hole. The
Porter-Cable and Milwaukee tools each come with a single
For large-diameter bits, you
need a sub-base with a big center hole. DeWalt uses
clear plastic sub-bases to make it easier to see the
Alignment systems. A few
years back, Bosch introduced a system for adjusting the
sub-base to make it perfectly concentric with the collet. The
idea is to boost precision when you use a bushing or run the
base against a fence. DeWalt recently introduced a similar
system. Both systems rely on cone-shaped centering devices that
you attach to the collet of the machine. DeWalt's device comes
with the router; the Bosch device costs extra.
To use Porter-Cablestyle
bushings, you need a sub-base with a small center
Personally, I wouldn't go out of my way to get this feature.
I've never used a router where the base was off enough to cause
problems. And if the sub-base is designed to be adjusted, then
you can't put it on properly without using the alignment
Every one of the routers I tested is a smooth-running, solid
machine. But if I had to buy a midsize router today, I'd
probably get the Bosch or the Milwaukee. I like Bosch's tool
because the depth-control mechanism is extremely precise as
well as quick and easy to use. The standard sub-base has a
large center hole, and there's no need to swap to a smaller
size, because bushings attach with a snap-in holder. I like
Milwaukee's router because the depth- control mechanism is on
par with Bosch's and the motor can be removed with the push of
a button. Plus, the molded gripping surface and the strap make
the Milwaukee tool easy to use one-handed.
I also like DeWalt's router. The depth-control mechanism is
simple and precise, and the motor is nearly as easy to remove
as Milwaukee's. It's not my favorite stand-alone machine, but I
like the kit version because DeWalt's plunge base is better
than the competition's.
If I were in the market for a big, 15-amp router, I'd pick the
Milwaukee for hand-held use and the Porter-Cable for table use.
The Milwaukee is relatively light and is equipped with
user-friendly features like a lever-activated base clamp, a
screw-driven height adjuster, and a quick-release motor. The
Porter-Cable is a big, heavy machine with somewhat dated
features. But it has a track record of being able to stand up
under continuous heavy-duty use.