If you are getting into woodworking, then you are certainly considering getting yourself a router. With not only many different brands and models out there but also two distinct types of the tool out there, it can get difficult to choose the right one for you.
In this article, I will help you choose between a fixed-base and a plunge router. First, I’ll take a look at what each of them is, then I’ll take you through their differences, and finally, I’ll guide you through the selection process.
Fixed-Base and Plunge Routers: What Are They?
A fixed-base router works by specifying and locking-in (fixing) the depth of the rout. Whatever depth you lock it into is the depth you’ll get for the length of the groove.
A plunge router, on the other hand, allows you to have variable depths. You will push down on the router to plunge it downwards or pull it back up more. A gear controls the up and down motion. There is a stop rod that your gear turret will bottom out on. That’s how you specify the maximum plunge depth.
Fixed-Base vs. Plunge Router: What Are the Differences?
As mentioned, the big difference is the variability of plunge depth while cutting. But there are other differences worth mentioning as well.
Fixed-base routers have a ball bearing in them so you can smoothly glide them along your work surface.
Unfortunately, plunge routers do not. This means that if you want to cut with a plunge router, you’ll need some type of fence as a guide. This results in a little more setup time for your job and more focus while you’re running the tool required.
There are two attributing features when it comes to the accuracy of routers.
The first is how accurately you can set up the plunge depth for your cut. With a fixed-base, it is a very precise setup that allows for a fine-tuned depth. Plunge routers don’t have that luxury. The best you can do is plunge until the stop rod is engaged with the turret. Doing this is not as precise and doesn’t stop the router from chattering up and down while you’re going along.
The next feature is the lack of a ball bearing on the plunge router. Again, you’re relying on a fence to guide your cut. This means a lot of room for error.
Ultimately, a fixed router is a more accurate tool compared to a plunge router.
Start and Stop Cut
With a fixed-base router, you are cutting a fixed depth the entire time. There is no ability to lead into a cut and taper out of a cut. You have a hard cut the whole time. For this reason, the aesthetics suffer a little bit since there’s no ability to have a start or stop cut for your project.
Meanwhile, the plunge router can lead into and out of a cut nicely. This could mean better overall visuals for your project – especially if you’re working in the middle of a plank.
The next big difference is the repeatability of your cut. Since the fixed-base router requires you to start cutting the second you hit the trigger, you need to make sure your placement is right each time you start routing.
On the other hand, the plunge router allows for a repeatable cut. The router doesn’t cut the wood until you depress the router, make contact, and pull the trigger. In other words, you can spend time to line up your cut before starting.
For this matchup, versatility is an area that has a ton of space between the two tools.
The fixed-base router is the preferred tool only if you can predict a lot of similar and specific work.
The plunge router lends itself to different types of projects. The ability to vary plunge depth, create start and stop cuts, and repeatability make the plunge router a much more versatile tool.
Size and Sound
The final key difference is the size and sound difference between the two tools.
Due to the simplicity of a fixed-base router, they are a lot smaller. They also weigh less and are less likely to tip over. Beyond that, they typically have less power than a plunge router, making them quieter as well.
The plunge router is bigger, louder, heavier, and more powerful than its fixed counterpart. They are also known to be easier to tip since they are so top-heavy.
Which of the Two Should You Use?
If the aesthetics are the main purpose of your project, consider a plunge router. It can lead into a cut and lead out of a cut nicely. This, of course, means a better-looking final product.
If your project includes features like mortices or flutes, the only option is a plunge router. A fixed-base router doesn’t have the ability to cut the dynamic depths that you need for these applications.
As a general line of advice, if this is your first router, it’s wise to start with a plunge router. They are more powerful and more versatile so they can tackle more projects. On top of that, they can be upgraded to emulate a fixed-base router, so you aren’t missing out.
Can Plunge Routers Be Converted into Fixed-Base Routers?
This is an interesting question. And, as you can tell by the way I ended the previous section, the answer is yes.
A plunge router can be converted into a fixed-base router in one of two ways.
First, you can lock the turret onto the stop rod at whatever depth you want.
This will fix the cut to your depth. You should understand that by doing this there is no ability to fine-tune the depth and there’s a lot of guessing involved. Beyond that, there still isn’t a ball bearing. You’d still need a fence to guide your job.
This method falls a little short in terms of converting a plunge into a fixed-base router.
The second, and preferred, method is to use a kit. By using this plunge router and fixed-base adapter kit, you can better set the depth of cut and even get an upgrade which includes a guide. This upgrade will closer emulate a fixed router.
At their core, both fixed-base and plunge routers are very similar tools. However, while fixed-base routers offer greater precision and might be easier to use, plunge routers allow for cuts of varying depth and for easing in and out of cuts.
If you are just getting your first router, it might make sense to get a kit. What it will include is a fixed-base router and an adapter that can turn it into a plunge router. That way, you can get the best of both worlds without having to spend the money it would cost to get two separate power tools.