On the History and Uses of the Router

egyptrouter

Of all the many tools we humans use towards the maintenance of civilization, which one should we give the most credit: the wheel, the steam engine, gunpowder, the fondue pot or . . . the router?

Those few people who know the obscure history of the router attribute its genesis to the pyramid bewitched ancient Egyptians. In fact the router was developed by the Greeks during the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It was the pharaohs that gave us the plunge router. The Ancient Romans, copy cats that they were, merely developed variable speed control and flush-trim bits.

Missing in many recently published editions, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick contains an entire chapter devoted to the tool,

But it is a ponderous task; no ordinary letter-sorter in the Post Office is equal to it. To grope down into the bottom of the garage after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, moldings, and very dado of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should grasp the handles of this fearsome machine! The awful tauntings in Job might well appal me. ‘Will it (the router) make a covenant with thee? Behold the hope of it is vain!’ But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with routers with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try.

And even those who know the router’s history may not be aware of its usefulness. The router is a complete woodshop in one tool: it can shape, cut and sculpt. It’s a table saw, chisel and plane in one powerful device. In addition to its use in woodworking, the router plays an important role in fields as varied as amateur dentistry and modal logic. With a router you can literally save the world, cure disease and halt the spread of the watered down rock Nashville dares to call “country.”

You’re probably guessing that I made up most of that intro. But I’ll stick by the part about a router being an entire woodshop in one tool. I’ve used mine mostly for making baseboard molding for our old house. What I did not appreciate, until recently, is that you can do some impressive joinery with a router. Federico Tobon’s discussion of jigs on the Opposable Thumbs Podcast inspired me to increase my familiarity with my router. Of all the power tools in my small shop, the router is probably the one that most needs a jig. It’s also, perhaps, one of the more difficult tools to learn how to use. There are subtleties of feed direction, handling and bit choice that aren’t covered in the short manuals they come with.

Around our humble bungalow, I’ve launched a home remodeling holy war on malfunctioning drawers and bad Ikea furniture. Since it’s impossible to find skilled people to work on a house this small, this means a lot of the jobs I’ve got to do myself. That’s where the router comes in. If it won’t save the world, it might just save our house.

dovetails

Here’s a few things I’ve learned about routers by way of doing everything wrong:

  • Get a good router. Many years ago I got a cheap one at Sears and had to replace it almost immediately. I’ve been very happy with much higher quality Porter Cable router.
  • Make or buy jigs. I picked up a Porter Cable edge guide that I can’t believe I managed to live without for ten years. The edge guide makes the tool much easier to use.
  • Get educated. I took a router dovetail jig class at the Pasadena Rockler this past weekend. Nobody else showed up so the class turned into a really informative four hour private lesson on the use of the Porter Cable Dovetail Jig. The instructor, David, guided me through the creation of the through and half-blind dovetail joints you can see above.
  • Don’t forget safety. The thing spins at 27,500 rpm and it takes quite a while for it to come to a stop. And don’t forget to turn the power off when making adjustments. The one minor flaw in my old Porter Cable is the power switch. It’s simultaneously difficult to switch off and easy to accidentally switch on. I’ve heard that the new model’s switch is easier to use.

Now, on to a summer of drawer and furniture making!

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6 Comments

  1. The router is awesome! It looked very specialized to me when I first encountered but with time I’ve come to realize it can do a lot of things.
    It works quite well for cutting large circles (https://youtu.be/29l1Bg4fcn8).
    Not that you need large circles very often.

    Speaking of safety something I like to do is to keep the collet wrench zip tied to the power cord. That way I’m always forced to unplug it when changing the bit. Not sure where I picked up this technique, I’ve seen other’s do it with the angle grinder wrench too.

  2. ‘…and halt the spread of the watered down rock Nashville dares to call “country.”’ Lol – I’m all for this! Wish a router really could do it. Thank heaven for Nashville musicians like Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.

    • Sorry Kyle–I should have added a definition. It’s kind of a drill on steroids. But instead of just a normal drill bit, a router uses bits of different shapes. So it’s a kind of electrified chisel and plane all in one package. With a router you can cut grooves, mortises and even letters. You can use it hand held or mounted in a table. There are also computer controlled routers.

    • Thanks! And I wasn’t being entirely glib. :) Some of us are still in the baby -steps-down-the-hallway phase of DIY.

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