By Gary Katz and Daniel
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
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
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.
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
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
. 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
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
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 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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
This article is reprinted
courtesy of Tools of the Trade