The largest, most powerful routers you can buy are in the 3- to 3-1/4-hp class. If the motors were any larger, you couldn't run them on standard residential circuits. The most versatile of these machines are plunge routers. Their ability to plunge a bit into wood while the tool's base stays safely planted makes them essential for blind dadoes or any cutouts in the middle of a workpiece. Their plunge action also makes them the right tool for milling deep grooves or large edge profiles, because you can quickly cut with a series of smaller incremental passes, plunging the router slightly further down each time without changing the final depth setting. Finally, plunge routers cut deeper than fixed-base routers, so they are ideal for use in router tables; some even have special features to make them easier to adjust while upside down in a router table.
We tested 10 tools from nine different brands. From our lists of dozens of specifications, measurements, observations, and other test data, we had to condense our results to the most relevant points to determine which tool was better than the next and why.
Our performance evaluations focused on the smoothness and accuracy of each tool's plunge operation. One test checked the plunge travel with one side of the router base overhanging the work surface–a position that made some of the tools rack on their columns on the way down. How well each router performed in this test and whether it could be plunged using only one handle depended on two elements of the plunge-mechanism design: the tolerance and quality of the column bushings, and whether or not each column had its own spring.
Accuracy is important, too; any play in the motor shaft is doubled in a routed groove as the bit mills both sides inaccurately and causes vibration. If a router's head wiggles side to side on its columns when the plunge lock lever is secured, the bit can angle in its cut when one handle is pushed harder than the other. The only cure is locking the stop rod on the other side of the head to stabilize it–and this would need to be done for every pass.
Another important consideration with these large production machines is power. We tested raw power by racing the routers through MDF, using identical new 1-inch-diameter bits to plow a 24-inch-long, 5/8-inch-deep groove while guiding the tools along a straightedge. Each router was tested by multiple users and assigned relative scores. When we looked at the results, we discovered that the scores were remarkably consistent for each tool, regardless of the tester.
Next, each guy retested the fastest three routers and we tallied again.
The results were the same.
Differences between the fastest and slowest routers were dramatic. Trials that took the fastest tool about two seconds to complete took the slowest eight or nine. And for tools that stalled out easily, each pass was a frustrating cycle of push, stall, wait, push, stall, wait that seemed to take forever.
While it's true that continual use in this fashion might qualify as abuse, keep in mind that many pros are out there making deeper and wider cuts in harder materials and with bits that aren't always brand new. And a router that ends up doing shaper duty in a router table will have its mettle tested by feed speeds that are always trying to outrun dreaded bit-burning.
Features common to each of these routers include soft-start and electronic constant speed control. The 15-amp motors hold a little power in reserve so they can keep a constant speed when the load increases. As with any milling process, it's all about feeds and speeds, so keeping the rpm steady helps ensure smooth results.
Because the motors can summon reserve power to keep their speed up, you cannot rely on hearing a lowered motor sound to help determine your proper cutting rate. If the pitch of the motor really drops, you need to back off before this excess current draw causes damage.
The soft-start feature keeps these powerful motors from twisting violently in your hands as the current goes instantly from nothing to full-on.
Our overall favorite is the Festool. It's comfortable to use and has unstoppable power and tons of useful features. It also has the best plunging feel and the best plunge-depth locking knob–which, like the trigger switch and speed dial, can be operated without a hand leaving either handle.
Second place goes to the Makita. At one-third the price of the Festool, this router is likely to win over many buyers with a budget. It's the runner-up in both power and plunge smoothness and has the best body-mounted switch and a very quick motor brake.
Freud's FT3000 comes in at a solid third with its mix of smooth plunging action, great power, and nice convenience features like through-the-base adjustments for router-table use.
Leading the rest of the pack is the Freud FT2200, thanks to good features, adequate power, and a very affordable price. Hitachi follows; it has a few clumsy traits, but its high power and low price place it firmly in midrange. Next comes Porter-Cable. This heavy beast is a bit outdated and suffers from a lack of features and surprisingly low power when pushed.
The lower range is occupied by tools that can get the job done–but with a few too many compromises along the way. Although well-made, the Triton is very uncomfortable; it has good potential for use in a router table. Accuracy issues plague the Bosch and the Rockwell, and the DeWalt comes in last because it's clumsy, uncomfortable, and slow.
Milwaukee has no 3+ horsepower plunge router, so we checked out the company's largest fixed-base router to compare the utility of fixed and plunge-base models. Giant rubber-coated handles attached directly to the base give the Milwaukee unit a low center of gravity and enhance the user's sense of control; testers said they'd use a router like this if they didn't need the plunge function. We were impressed with the tool's rock-solid height adjustment, industrial-sized collet nut, and sturdy wrenches. And the height can be adjusted through the base for router-table use. The large bail-style body lock has a sturdier feel than most of the column locks on the plunge routers, but with this tool–or any fixed-base router–you don't get the deeper bit travel of plunge routers that ride on tall columns. In short, you gain a steadier feel and a lower center of gravity with a fixed-base router, but you lose depth and versatility.
3-1/2 max horsepower / 15 amps
8,000-22,000 rpm range / 11.8 pounds
Good power–but stalled easily
Price:$349. milwaukeetool.com. 800-729-3878.