Early on in what has become my box making career, I realized that I could make simple boxes with just my table saw, but to make more complex and ornate designs, I would need a router. Not only a router, but a router table to go with it. I just can’t imagine making boxes without a router and router table. There are so many advantages in box making and woodworking in general to owning a router. With different router bits, you can fashion decorative and eye-appealing edges, joints and designs on your boxes. When making the smallest wooden boxes with their small parts and their box trims it is easier to perform joining and detailing with a good router and table combination, not to mention safer.
The wood router is used as a multi-purpose tool. The numerous router bits that you have available allow you to make various joints such as box and dovetail joints as well as mortise and tenons, cut dados and slots, trim pattern cuts, make various edgings and moldings… And, much more. You can buy an assortment of jigs to aid you in performing different operations or make them more precise. Plus, you can make your own jigs to your own specifications and needs.
I mentioned the router table above. In making wooden boxes, routers are generally used in combination with a router table to become a real useful piece of woodworking equipment. I’ll talk about router tables in more detail below. First, we need to discuss the different types of routers you have available for your wood shop. If you’re just starting out or can only afford one router, keep in mind that the router you want in your wood shop has to meet your needs and demands upon it. There are many things to consider when purchasing a router. Before you get hung up on sizes, prices, and features, step back and decide what you want your new router to do. In other words, focus on what operations you will be needing your router to perform in your shop. Just try to be realistic about your needs and keep in mind your own skills.
Fixed Base Routers
A fixed base router is just that, a router attached to a base that has no up or down movement, and thus fixed. Depending upon your needs, these come in three size groups. The smallest are called trim routers but are also known as compact routers, laminate routers, and palm routers. These generally have 1 – 1 1/2 horsepower capabilities. Some models are strictly fixed speed where others are variable speed.
They’re small and slim, fit comfortably in the palm of one hand and is easily maneuvered on the work area. Trim routers are ideal for cutting hinge mortises, small dadoes, even fine joinery, as well as the edging and edge trimming they are most known for. Trim routers are small, compact, easy to manipulate and great for small jobs.
I should note that they only take 1/4” shank router bits.
Mid-sized fixed base routers differ from trim routers in size and design. They range from 1 3/4 – 2 1/4 horsepower. Added horsepower means a larger motor and larger size. But this also means larger load capacity which translates to larger sized bits and bigger projects. Their larger size means they’re less maneuverable. Thus, the base has attached grips for guiding the router across the workspace. These are generally mounted low to keep the center of gravity when guiding the router low and it takes two hands to operate these machines.
With some models, the on/off switch is in one of the grips.
Mid-sized routers are the workhorses of the routers. If you want just one router to do most every kind of routing task in your woodworking shop, this is the router you’re after. It can be used by itself or mounted in a router table. They have the horsepower to do just about everything you can throw at them. They can do moderate to large profiling cuts, dovetailing and mortising, all the other cuts you need to perform. You will find them with either 1/4” or 1/2” collets. I prefer the 1/2” collet as they sell adapters for the 1/4” and 3/8” bits.
Then there is the full sized routers. They are larger in size. Again, the difference is in horsepower and motor size. They range from 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 horsepower. Their size makes them the least maneuverable of the routers. Woodworkers find their best use in router tables where they can power the largest of profile bits.
Fixed base routers can be set to a full range of cutting depths, and speeds to accommodate bit sizes. They can’t, however, plunge into the wood nor make graduated cuts easily. For this, you need another type of router.
Plunge base routers, (or simply plunge routers), have the router motor mounted between two posts with springs, allowing them to move up and down, thus plunging into the wood. You can vary your cutting depth easily and without turning the tool off by simply unlocking a lever or knob and raising or lowering the motor housing. Equipped with a stepped depth gauge, the cut can be lowered quickly to a set depth for making mortises and the
like. Plunge routers make routing more versatile. But, this is at an expense. The higher center of gravity caused by having the handle grips higher on the machine to allow for the plunging action makes the router more unstable and awkward when in use and the larger base make them less than ideal for small or narrow projects.
Interchangeable Base or Combo Kit Routers
The best of both worlds in the case of routers is to buy a combo kit or interchangeable base router package. These provide both a fixed base and a plunge base with a router motor that is
interchangeable between the two. Most combo routers come in a range of 2 1/2 –3 1/2 horsepower. I purchased the Skil router combo that you see on the right. I use the fixed base to attach the router to my table and the plunge base for general hand routing (although a nice compact router would be a nice addition to the shop). I think that’s how most woodworking shop owners use their combo router kit.
You can find routers with interchangeable bases in various sizes from compact through full size. For the money, they are a bargain if you want to do different types of routing and a router table too.
To Make Wooden Boxes, You’ll Need a Router Table
I find that a router table is a must companion to your router if you’re going to make wooden boxes or do any kind of fine woodworking. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I the old days, woodworkers simply drilled a hole in a board or a table top and mounted the router upside down where the bit could protrude through the hole. This led to formal hole inserts in the table top that could be removed and replaced with another insert with a different size hole to accommodate the router bit being used.
And, these progressed to the precision router tables that we see today.
All router tables have a fence. These also can be simple and homemade. For some cuts, a flat, straight-edged piece of lumber clamped to the table is all that’s needed. For other cuts, a straight-edged board with a half-circle cut in the middle is needed to wrap partially around the bit. Fences with a variable opening aid with this by allowing adjustment to the size of the opening to accommodate small to large diameter bits. These fences can be fitted with dust collection ports. Precision router table tops with fences fitted with micro-adjusting jigs for increased accuracy can also be found. It’s all up to your needs and what you want to spend.
You have your choices between table top models for small shops and saving space and floor models. Bench top tables will have smaller table tops. I don’t worry so much about this with wooden box making, but if you’re doing other woodworking, this may be a consideration. Each of these can be of open design or enclose the router in a cabinet which allows for better dust collection.
There are router table benches which give you more work area on the top and more storage area for bits and related tools underneath. Others have adapted router tables to be mounted on their table saw. This is also a space saver in a shop. I think you can see that you can be as simple or extravagant as you want. The important thing is that a router table makes your work more accurate and precise.
With making boxes this is especially important. These are small projects compared to making cabinets and furniture. I’ve found that the smaller you go, the more precise and accurate you have to be. Being off less than a 64th of an inch at the beginning of an 8 inch wide run of 1/8 inch box joint cuts make an unusable joint by the time you’ve made the last cut. I’ve found that I don’t use my router and table as much as my table saw, but I wouldn’t be without them in my wooden box making efforts.