By Gary Katz and Daniel Parish

Publication Date: May/June 2003

Router conversion kits are the latest evolution in router design and utility. By using a detachable, exchangeable motor that can be transferred in and out of either a plunge-base or a fixed-base configuration, tool manufacturers provide two routers in one package.

Since we specialize in high-end finish work with lots of production and custom door hanging thrown in, we use routers all the time, both in a table and handheld. Our first thought when we saw these tools was that we'd be able to have one router motor doing double duty by mounting the fixed base to a router table for all paneling and molding-type work and using the plunge base for cutting radii, hinge mortises, and dadoes. All we'd have to do is swap out the motor to keep cutting. These kits also look great for remodelers who don't use routers as much as we do, because they can provide the utility of having the kind of routers needed without breaking the bank.

Test Criteria

We tested the Bosch 1617EVSPK, DeWalt DW618PK, Makita RF1101KIT, and the Porter-Cable 693LRPK plunge-base/fixed-base router conversion kits. We tested them in both plunge- and fixed-base configurations using an assortment of new, identical bits in material from oak to alder to MDF. We tested for power, depth adjustment, bit change, dust control, and ergonomic features. We evaluated plunge action, and depth adjustments in the plunge mode. We also examined the carrying cases and the accessories that come with each tool. We paid careful attention to ease of conversion, too, which we think is a critical feature. For routers like this to find a home on our sites, it's important they convert quickly, be easy to operate, and work flawlessly.

Power, Noise, and Vibration

We tested the tools for three months, both in the shop and on site, using an assortment of router bits and materials. To really get a flavor for power, we cut 3/4-inch dadoes in hardwood with a straight cutter. Each tool performed admirably, with no big differences in power, noise, or vibration between them and no noticeable power loss during the dado test. In the past, routers vibrated so much your hands would tingle at the end of the day and were so loud your ears would ring. We were happy to see manufacturers' noise- and vibration-reducing advancements in these routers -- it really shows.

Switching Bases

The idea of conversion kits adding versatility to the router category depends on the ease with which you can switch between the plunge- and fixed-base systems. We found DeWalt's kit to be the simplest to convert: Release the locking lever, then press both side buttons, and the motor slides straight out of its base.

The Bosch and Makita motors thread into their bases and work nicely. The Bosch has a locking lever on both bases. The Makita has a locking lever on the fixed base but not the plunge base where the motor seats securely and dependably into the base without using a lever.

The Porter-Cable fixed-base unit uses a locking lever similar to the Bosch and Makita setups. The plunge base, however, is different: You slide the motor straight into the base and have to secure it with a small Allen screw, which takes longer than the tool-less designs.

Depth Adjustment, Plunge-Base

There are two methods for controlling cut depth with these tools in the plunge configuration: depth gauges and upper-travel limiting knobs (none of these routers is equipped with a true micro-fine adjustment that you'd find on a high-end plunge router).

. The depth gauge on a plunge router is really a combination of two elements -- the depth rod and turret stops -- which combine to determine and limit the cut depth. The depth rod adjusts the intial cut depth; the turret controls a series of subsequent cut depths, required in any multi-step operation like cutting dadoes or mortises.

Bosch and DeWalt equip their depth rods with depth-adjustment knobs that enable you to set rough depths and then dial in the exact cut depths with the adjustable knobs. Good idea, but we found them difficult to operate. Bosch's depth-adjustment knob was hard to turn because there isn't much space around it for your fingers. The DeWalt depth-adjustment knob was even more problematic: It's located on the end of the depth rod, where it contacts the turret stops and might be accidentally rotated by the movement of the turret, potentially changing cut depth.

Upper-Travel Limiting Knobs. The Porter-Cable and Makita tools have upper-travel limiting knobs on their plunge bases. These knobs are useful when the tools are mounted in router tables, because the knobs act somewhat like micro-fine adjustments. Rotating them raises or lowers the bits accurately; however, for handheld plunge-routing functions, an engaged upper-travel limiting knob can stop the motor from rising high enough to extract the bit entirely from the workpiece. In other words, the bit stays partially exposed below the base plate and could strike the work piece or template while removing the tool.

While the Bosch, DeWalt, and Porter-Cable depth rods are smooth, Makita's is threaded. The threads facilitate good fine adjustments above or below the table -- one knob revolution equals 1/16 inch -- but substantial depth changes, say 1/2 inch, are tedious. Porter-Cable has no fine adjustment on its depth rod.

Depth Adjustment, Fixed-Base

In the fixed-base configuration, the Bosch unit uses a true one-step micro-fine adjustment knob, and it works very well. According to Bosch, it's accurate to 1/256 inch. DeWalt's depth-adjustment is a ring that surrounds the motor.

It's different but works equally well. The company says it's accurate to 1/64 inch. While we didn't measure accuracy with a micrometer, we were able to dependably set a measurement on each tool, say 3/8 inch, change the setting, then go back to 3/8 inch with no problems.

On the Porter-Cable and Makita routers, you make depth measurements and adjustments by first lining up a ring gauge, marked in 1/64-inch increments, with a hash mark on the motor housing. Then you rotate the mark on the motor to your desired depth. This system has been around for years and works well enough, but the two-step process is not as efficient as the Bosch and DeWalt systems.

Plunge Action

There's more to a plunge router than just the ability to quickly change cut depth. You also have to maintain cut depth with easy-to-reach locking levers. In addition, the motor must travel smoothly throughout the plunge action, and the depth-stop system and gauges must operate quickly and accurately.

Plunge Action Locking Levers. Because plunge cuts often are made with the router running, the plunge-locking mechanism must be within comfortable reach of the handles so you don't have to grope for it while operating and controlling the tool. The Bosch, Makita, and Porter-Cable plunge bases each use a spring-loaded locking lever, which works nicely. Releasing the lever automatically locks the motor in position for a constant and dependable cut depth. DeWalt's lever is not spring loaded and must be locked manually at each depth change. After routing a few miles of material with each tool, we still had a hard time getting used to this design, especially when we didn't lock the lever securely enough and the cut depth suddenly changed.

Motor Travel. Rough plunge action can allow the bit to bite too deeply or retract too much, which can damage the work piece. The smoothness of a router's plunge action is mainly influenced by the strength of the return spring. If the spring is too strong, the plunge action will be rough, if the spring is too weak, it can be difficult to draw the bit smoothly out of the work piece. The Porter-Cable's return spring is too strong and requires too much plunge pressure, making smooth plunge cuts difficult. The Makita's return spring is a little too weak and doesn't always draw the motor and bit completely out of the work. The return springs on both the DeWalt and Bosch routers work well.

Features

Bit Change. If you're like us, you change router bits frequently for shaping beads, chamfers, dadoes, and rabbets. It's a lot faster to change bits on a tool that requires only one wrench to loosen the collet. Only the DeWalt router has a spindle lock on the collet that makes this possible. The other three tools use two opposing nuts on their collets, which requires two wrenches to switch bits. They work fine, but they're not as fast or easy to use as the DeWalt model.

Dust Control. Given the health effects of dust from some types of materials on jobsites these days, it's important to control dust whenever you can. Makita ships its plunge router with a plastic dust-port adapter that fits both bases, but DeWalt manufactures its tool with an integral, or "through the column," dust-collection system. The system includes a hose adapter and a specially designed router base, which really works. You don't need a special collar or fitting and can attach your vacuum hose right to the router itself. Bosch and Porter-Cable don't include dust collection options with their conversion kits.

Variable Speed and Soft Start

The Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita tools all have variable-speed and soft-start features. The Porter-Cable is single-speed and has no soft-start circuitry. For our work, variable-speed and soft-start motors are useful -- if not critical. Large bits like those used for shaping raised panels should be run at slower speeds, which we can control with the variable-speed feature. Soft-start motors are easier on your wrists and result in fewer "hard-start" mishaps with your work. All three units with soft start and variable speeds worked equally well in this regard.

Ergonomics

Plunge Configuration. In the plunge-base configuration, we found the Bosch router the most comfortable tool in the group. The large handles are easy to hold and the unit has a low center of gravity, enabling it to really hug the work. The Makita, Porter-Cable, and DeWalt tools are more top-heavy, each requiring a little additional hand pressure for a real sense of security on the work piece.

Fixed-Base Configuration. In the fixed-base configuration, DeWalt's router is a standout. It has a small, short motor and low center of gravity. Bosch is a close runner-up, with a wide base and large wooden knobs. The Porter-Cable and Makita feel a bit top heavy.

Switches and Levers. On the Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita units, all of the switches and levers are within easy reach. The Porter-Cable's side-mounted power switch is hard to find, though, largely because you adjust cut depth by rotating the motor. This relocates the switch with every adjustment, sometimes putting it out of sight, so you have to hunt for it.

The Makita motor swivels, too, but the power switch is located on top. You can reach the switch, but if you set the router upside down (as we do all the time with flat-topped routers) it's possible to accidentally engage the switch if you hit something like the corner of your work table and turn the tool on, which happened during testing. The Bosch and DeWalt switches are always in the same position because the motors don't rotate to control cut depth; they're near the handle and easy to reach.

Carrying Case

A good tool case is important for carrying the tool, wrenches, bits, and accessories. Porter-Cable's is the smallest of the bunch; it stores easily, but has little room for bits and accessories. DeWalt's case is the opposite: It's much too big. The Bosch case is a nice, medium size with ample bit storage. Makita's case is the best, with slots and spots for wrenches, bits, and accessories. Also, its lid doesn't fly open if the latches aren't fully secured.

Accessories and Template Guides

Base Plates. Though users' needs vary, there are some accessories we all require: extra base plates, template guides, and router guides and fences. Every router should have an extra base plate with a large hole for beading bits and slot cutters, otherwise you'll have to make your own. Makita and DeWalt include these. The DeWalt also includes a base plate centering device, a dust hose adapter, and a detachable cord. The Bosch and Porter-Cable don't come with extra base plates or accessories.

Template Guides. A template guide, an important accessory, fastens to the base of the router and surrounds the bit like a collar. With a template guide, a router can follow the edge of a template without cutting it. They're great for repetitive chores like mortising for door hardware and dadoing. Since template guides require frequent change-out, easy-to-change guides are a must. Only the Bosch model's guide is tool-less; all of the other tools require wrenches to change the template guides.

Fences. Only Makita ships its unit with a fence. While not top end, it works, especially for fluting and remodeling door jams.

Winners

It's important to point out after conducting this test that we feel you get a medium-grade plunge router and a fine fixed-base tool when you buy one of these kits. However, they're more than enough tool for plenty of jobsites, especially remodeling applications where contractors' needs really change by the job. The fixed-base features combined with plunge-base capability and low price are hard to overlook for a contractor who needs a little less precision and adjustability from a router than the crews on our jobs.

We also learned that picking an entire system is a difficult chore. Some tools really shine in certain configurations while they could use improvements in others. The kit that we think does the most things well is Bosch's 1617EVSPK. Its fixed base has a true micro-fine adjustment, the quick-change template guide adapter fits both bases, and its plunge base feels the most like a true plunge router, not a conversion kit.

Next we like the DeWalt. It's got some features that really stand out: a fixed base with a low center of gravity that really hugs the work, easy and accurate depth adjustment, and one-wrench bit-change. The Makita is a nice, powerful unit with a good motor exchange.

Porter-Cable's router kit follows the other three.

Gary Katz

is a finish carpenter and writer from Reseda, Calif., and demonstrates construction techniques at Hanley-Wood's JLCLive! construction shows. Daniel Parishis a finish carpenter from Simi Valley, Calif.

Tools of the Trade has arranged with the companies in this test to donate their tools to Habitat for Humanity.

Thanks to Freud for supplying the router bits for this test.

This article is reprinted courtesy of Tools of the Trade