Each of us has his own list of preferences and therefore, our own conceptions of how to go about finding the best router table within our budget. That said, there is a always a bare minimum that each table has to adhere to in order to be a value for money proposition and equally importantly, to ensure that cutting wood is not a life or limb threatening operation. Further, since many woodworkers are people looking to sell their handiwork, waste of wood through poor cuts, jamming and so on, can lead to severe monetary losses. Hence, while we shall leave the finer points to your discretion, we can provide a list of the key features of the best router table to help you make an educated decision.
Table of Contents
Table Surface and Fence
1. Table Surface – Rigid and Durable
Expert woodworkers know that the rigidity of the surface is as important for getting maximum benefits of using a router table as the fence or the router itself. This is because if the surface is not rigid, heavy pieces of wood would bend it, thereby causing the fence, base plate and router bit to lose alignment with the surface. This would lead in awkward cuts and in some cases, no cut at all.
Second to rigidity is the durability of the surface. If a surface gets easily scratched and dented, wood would have to negotiate all the bumps and ruts on its way to the base plate and this would make cutting a much harder task.
Keeping these in mind, some users suggest that an iron tabletop is one of the key features of the best router table. However, iron tends to make the table heavy and unduly expensive. More value for money alternatives include MDF and Phenolic. Both these products are known for being highly durable and capable of sustaining high pressure blows (from falling pieces of wood, etc.) without sustaining dents or damage.
MDF surfaces generally come with a layer of high durability laminate to provide the smooth surface required for optimal functionality. Phenolic on the other had does not require such lamination as the surface itself is hard yet smooth.
Whether you go for MDF or phenolic-surfaced router tables, it is important to note that the material must be at least 1” thick in order to be durable.
2. Fence – Thin and Perfectly Shaped
Woodworkers learning how to build a router table most often build their own fence, even if they purchase other parts of the table (or the table itself) from the market. This is because the fence is nothing more than one or two pieces of wood connected – or sometimes kept separate – that ensures that the cutting piece moves in a straight line.
To this end, it is vital that the fence be of perfect dimensions. As a rule of thumb, most fences in the market have a height of 4” and a depth of 4-5”.The length of the fence of course would be the same as the table’s breadth. These dimensions, furthermore, must be strict and uniform since a misshapen fence will cause the wood to move in a diagonal, thus producing a non-uniform cut.
Further, as the dimensions suggest, the fence must also be quite thin compared to the space available on the table. This is because minute adjustments are best made using thin pieces of fence and moreover, a thin fence would allow for placing of spare wood, safety equipment and other units on the side of the table that is not being used.
Router Mounting Plate and Height Adjustments
Not to be confused with the base plate that sits on the top of the table, the mounting plate is basically a structure used to hold the router on the underside of the table. Most mounting plates come with either the table or the router itself. Now while most routers will fit into the average mounting plate, the compatibility of the table and plate cannot be taken for granted.
Ideally, the mounting plate must attach to the table without there being any space between the top surface of the plate and the table. Any space could be a sign of loose connectors and this may cause the plate to fall off due to the vibrations caused by the functioning of the router.
Further, as we mentioned while discussing how to maintain a router table, it is always good to have a mechanism that allows the height of the router to be adjusted without having to access the underside. Usually, this comes in the form of an additional hole through which a screwdriver can be inserted to raise and lower the cutting bit.
Table Height and Stability
One of the key features of the best router table is sufficient height, since an excessively low or excessively high table would force users to bend or arch their backs during operation. The good news is that even if the unit you are considering does not come with adequate height, you can raise or lower the height by replacing the stands or adding small pieces of wood between the stands (especially if they are made of wood themselves) and the table surface.
Note, however, that equally important is the question of stability. A wobbly table can never produce good cuts and can even lead to grave injuries. Prior to purchase (or construction), make sure that the legs are of equal height and are able to bear the weights involved. Due to such requirements, experts often suggest that units that are attachments to other woodworking tables, or those that come with folding legs, are not ideal for heavy cutting. Dedicated metal or hardboard legs, on the other hand, can provide the stability you are looking for, even if they take up more space and are on the costlier side.
While going through the above list of key features of the best router table, one may be struck by the absence of features like ideal bit size, base plate size and so on. We have omitted these because their choice depends on the current needs of the user and prescribing an ideal unit would be tantamount to restricting the creativity of the woodworker. Indeed, once you have made your purchase and have become familiar with the dynamics of the router table in general, you are free to make as many modifications to the above list as you like. Such modifications, however, must never compromise precision, durability and safety and it is our hope that this guide will help woodworking amateurs achieve these facets of woodworking regardless of the complexity of the task they are undertaking.