Whether you are a full-time woodworker or just a casual enthusiast, the chances are good that you’ve heard of a woodworking router. You may have even used a small handheld router in the workshop, carving out a pattern in a cabinet door, or routing out holes for locks and hinges.
Whatever your experience level, this guide is here to give you all the information you need to make you more familiar with one of the most versatile woodworking tools available today.
What is a woodworking router?
The old English word, “to rout,” literally means to carve out or to gouge out. Routers are all about making holes, digging or drilling out material, and leaving an empty space behind. Routers have long been a favorite of furniture and cabinet makers, particularly craftsmen who use joinery – fastening two or more pieces of wood together without using screws. Often that was done by creating interlocking patterns on the two pieces of wood, or by using dowels or wooden rods to connect them. In both cases, routers were used to create the slots or holes.
The first powered routers were handheld models, and you can still find them widely available today. While considerably less powerful than the CNC router, woodworkers rely on the handheld models for much of the everyday routing and cutting common in woodshops.
Handheld routers look a bit different from most other tools you’ll find in a workshop. Most routers consist of two handles on either side of a flat plane. Protruding down from the center of the plane is a single cutting bit or tool.
The rotation of that bit is always perpendicular to the flat plane, allowing a craftsman to cut straight, even holes in the workpiece. Routers are often commonly used for edge work, rounding off sharp corners and creating a more decorative finish.
How does a CNC router work?
CNC routers operate on the same general principles as handheld routers, with the workpiece mounted on a plane, and the cutting tool suspended above it. With free movement along the X, Y, and Z-axis, the router can cut into the workpiece at precise points.
Those points are determined by the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) program on your CNC router. CNC uses those X, Y, and Z-axis to create a Cartesian coordinate system; the instructions the operator gives the router are based on that system.
Those instructions are typically expressed in G-code, the machine language used in virtually all CNC devices. G-code issues commands based on the coordinate system; the first line of code in a CNC program might tell the router where to move the tool, when to turn on, how far to lower the drill, and how quickly the router should move.
Frequently, the first command in the CNC program begins with a “G” prefix; G20 or G21 instructs the machine to use the English or metric measurement system; G01 tells the machine to move the toolhead in a line. That tendency to begin with “G” eventually gave the CNC programming language its common name – g-code.
CNC allows routers to be far more precise and accurate than otherwise. Each program, once created, can be run as many times as needed and produce identical results.
What can you make with a CNC router?
Besides the accuracy, the biggest appeal of a CNC router is the fact that each program can be repeated. If you are using a router to create a raised flower motif on a set of cabinet doors, each door can be made absolutely identical. Better yet, the only part of the process that requires the operator to be present is the programming and the physical loading of the workpiece. The programming only needs to be done once, meaning that an entire series of workpieces can be cut with minimal direct human intervention.
What can be made with a CNC router? Here’s a short list:
“Joe’s Ancient Antiques” – the old-timey wooden sign hanging above the antique store door. Maybe it is an old sign – or maybe it’s a modern, CNC-carved shingle designed to look old.
- Engraved plaques
CNC routers can cut metal, although it often requires special bits and careful techniques. Nevertheless, you can use a CNC router to engrave names and dates on plaques or to carefully cut out the engraved plate itself.
Why do furniture manufacturers use CNC routers? Every part can be exactly the same, and every pre-cut hole and slot manufactured to precisely the same depth. No more worrying about uneven table legs or misshapen corners; CNC routers make the entire process more uniform.
The same advantages apply to cabinetry, with the added benefit of all the decorative elements routers can include. Ornate cabinet doors, carved insets – all can be programmed on a CNC router, delivering a timeless, hand carved look at a fraction of the time and cost.
Use a CNC router to create precise wooden forms for a different project entirely; forms for your woodstrip canoe, or to create a set of sawhorses at precisely the same height. You can also use a CNC router with more unusual materials, like foam, to create molds for epoxy resin or plaster – anything that needs to be poured and then set.
Learn to use a router
The best way to learn any CNC machine is to practice on one. Look for internships, join hobbyist clubs and Facebook groups, or even apply for a job at a machine shop or woodworking shop.
Barring that, you can find a number of resources online; YouTube instructional videos for people preferring a self-taught approach, or full-fledged “Intro to CNC” course available from a number of online academies.
CNC routers are widely considered one of the most versatile of the woodworking tools. They can be used to section large, flat panels that might otherwise be difficult to maneuver, or solely used to apply the finishing touches to highly decorative panels. In both cases, the entire process is streamlined and made far more accurate through CNC technology.