How to Use a Router: For Beginner Woodworkers

Learn how to use a router with this easy-to-follow guide and video. Learn to select the right bit, set up the router, and make cuts safely and efficiently.

Woman using a router to make a recess in wood

If there is one tool tutorial that is the most requested and the least talked about, it is the router. A few weeks ago, I asked my Instagram audience which tool they would like me to talk about, and the answer was an overwhelming “router.”

I love this because, from my experience trying to learn how to use a router – a detailed tutorial on routers is VERY much needed. I spent a lot of time researching and piecing together the information as I learned to use my router, and I am bringing it all to you!

My goal for you at the end of this tutorial is to know your router and start making the first cuts.

Video Tutorial

Watch the full video tutorial below. As always, a full written tutorial and details follow below.

What Does a Router Do?

A router is a power tool used to trim, shape, or cut wood. It is primarily designed to hollow out or “route” an area in wood. Routers are commonly used to create smooth and precise cuts, allowing for intricate designs, shapes, and edges in the material.

The most common applications of routers are:

  • Creating decorative edges like round-overs, ogees, or chamfers to the edges.
  • Making recesses or inlays in woodwork.
  • Following a template to create multiple identical shapes or designs in wood.
  • Cutting joints, like dovetails, mortise, and tenons etc.

Types of Routers

There are primarily two types of routers:

  1. Fixed Base Router: This type is set to a specific cutting depth and remains consistent throughout use. It is ideal for edge cuts and those requiring straight-line precision.
  2. Plunge Router: This allows you to ‘plunge’ the cutting bit into the material, making it suitable for making cuts in the middle of the material, not just the edges.

Routers usually have two handles that need to be held during operation.

fixed base, plunge base and trim routers on a workbench with text labels

Compact Trim Router

Trim routers or compact routers are a type of fixed base routers. They are smaller and more lightweight, making them highly maneuverable and great for small-scale, detailed work. They are also a great starter router for beginner woodworkers. They are small and hence can be used with one hand.

In this article, we are specifically talking about a trim router. The basic concepts remain the same as larger routers, which I will cover in a later tutorial.

Parts of a Router

I use a Dewalt trim router. I will point out the features and parts of this router. If you have a different brand, the parts may look or operate differently, but their function remains the same. Please refer to your user manual to get acquainted with the parts of your router.

Parts of a router labeled
  • Base
    • The base provides stability and guidance during operation. It’s typically made of clear plastic for better visibility.
  • Motor
    • The motor is the heart of the router. In trim routers, the motors are usually less powerful than those in larger routers but are adequate for precision tasks. The power is usually measured in horsepower (HP) or amps.
  • Collet
    • The collet is a sleeve that holds the router bit in place. It’s essential to choose the correct collet size to match the shank of the router bits you plan to use. Standard sizes are 1/4-inch and 1/8-inch for trim routers. A spindle lock button will help hold the spindle in place while changing the bit.
  • Speed Control
    • Many trim routers come with variable speed control, allowing you to adjust the speed based on the project. This is important for working with different materials and achieving the best cut-quality.
  • Depth Adjustment
    • It determines how deep the router bit cuts into the material, making it a crucial setting to get the results you want. It is usually a combination of a clamping mechanism and a set screw.
  • On/Off Switch
    • The power switch should be conveniently located to turn on and off the router quickly. Some trim routers also include a lock button for changing bits safely.

Router Safety

As with any other power tool, you always want to start by reading the instruction manual and getting familiar with your router.

  • Ensure you don’t have any loose hair, jewelry, or clothing.
  • Use hearing protection, airway protection, and eye protection.
  • Choose a flat, stable surface in a well-lit and spacious area.
  • Always clamp the material you’re working on to keep it stable.
  • Do not force the router. Allow the tool to do the work.
  • Use a sharp bit. If it isn’t sharp, it will not be efficient. The router can get stuck and send the bit flying.
  • Pay special attention to the direction. More on that below.
  • Keep your hands out of the router’s path!

Router Direction

Router direction is extremely important not only for the best results but also for safe operation.

The router should be run opposite to the bit’s rotation. When the bit rotates, the cutting edge should meet the wood at the start of each rotation. If the direction is incorrect, the back of the cutting edge will meet the wood at the start of the rotation, making it hard for the router to make a clean and safe cut.

The bit rotation is usually from left to right. Therefore:

  • When routing an inside edge – push the router in a clockwise direction (right to left).
  • When routing an outside edge – push the router in a counterclockwise direction (left to right).

The graphics here are a great illustration of the routing direction.

How to Use a Router

Proper setup is extremely important for getting successful results. During setup, you want to ensure the router is unplugged or the battery is removed.

Step 1: Choose the Bit

There are many types of router bits available. Be sure to pick the right bit based on the material, type of design, and the shank of the router. Read about the types of bits and their application.

Step 2: Install the Bit

  • Hold the spindle lock button.
  • Insert the bit into the collet. It should be inserted deep enough to be secure but not so deep that the shank touches the bottom of the collet.
  • Tighten the collet with the appropriate wrench. Ensure it’s snug, but don’t over-tighten, as this could damage the collet or the bit.
woman installing a bit into the router

Step 3: Set the Routing Depth or Bit Height

  • Adjust the depth of the cut according to your project requirements. You can do this by opening the clamp and setting the depth. For routers with a depth adjustment knob, turn the knob until you reach the desired depth. Be sure to consult the manual to see exactly how to make the adjustments for your brand of router.
checking the height of the router bit and adjusting the router depth

Tip: Double-check the depth using a ruler or gauge to make sure the setting is accurate.

The depth of routing will vary by application. If you need to take off a lot of material at a time, you may want to make several passes, going in a little deeper with each pass. In general, I do not like to go more than 1/8 – 1/4″ deep at a time. Ultimately, this will depend on the quality of the bit and the power of your router.

Step 4: Adjust the Router Speed

  • If your router has variable speed settings, adjust the speed according to the bit size and material type.

Generally, larger bits require lower speeds, while smaller bits can be used at higher speeds. Check the manufacturer’s guidelines for recommended speed settings.

Step 5: Secure the Board

  • Firmly clamp the material to a stable work surface to prevent movement during routing. Make sure that the clamps are not in the path of the router.
plywood clamped to a workbench and woman getting ready to use a router

Step 6: Router Guide/Jigs

Depending on your application and router bit, you may or may not need a guide. Some router bits, like the flush trim bit or rabbeting bit, come with a bearing that runs along the workpiece and helps you make a guided cut. However, if you are making straight lines or trying to cut a circle, you want to make sure to use a jig. You can purchase these or build your own.

IMPORTANT: Once the router is set up, I highly recommend making some test passes on a scrap board before using it on your workpiece.

Step 7: Run the Router

  • Hold the router firmly. With a trim router, you can use only one hand. Be sure to keep the other hand out of the router’s path.
  • Start the cut and move the router smoothly and steadily along the path.
  • Avoid forcing the router. Let the bit do the cutting.
woman running the router to make a groove in plywood

Common Router Applications

There are MANY applications of a compact router. It can be an indispensable tool in the workshop. I don’t use it very often for every project, but nothing beats a router when I need to make specific cuts.


This is probably the application of a router that first comes to mind. You can create all kinds of steps, round overs, and decorative profiles on workpieces.

roman ogee decorative profile on wood

Creating a rabbet or a step is one of the most common applications for which I use a router. For example, making the step for the glass to sit in this bar cabinet.

Adding a rabbet with a router

Flush Trimming

Flush trimming is the process of trimming out material to match a template. For example, if you have a board cut to a specific shape, you can use that as a template and a flush trim bit to cut out a second board to match it identically.

flush trimming a cutting board edge with a router

The flush trim bit usually has a bearing on the top or bottom of a straight-cut bit. the bearing runs along the template, and the bit cuts away the board.


Grooves can be made for various applications – adding inlay to projects or joinery. A straight edge bit is commonly used for making a groove for inlays. This bit can also be used to cut out a circle with a circle jig.

Woman cutting out a circle using a router and a circle jig

Specialized bits like dovetails, mortise tenons, etc., help make joinery.

Can a Trim Router Be Used as a Plunge Router?

Generally, trim routers are not designed for plunge cutting like dedicated plunge routers. They are primarily used for edge routing and small-scale detail work. However, you can use the trim router to start in the middle of a workpiece by making a small starter hole using a drill for the router bit to sit in. You can then lower the bit by 1/8″ in consecutive passes.

Why Is the Router Burning Wood?

If your router is burning wood, it may be because of a dull or damaged bit, incorrect speed setting, overworking the bit, or improper bit type for the wood. All of these can lead to increased friction and hence can cause wood charring. Always make sure that the bit is clean and sharp, and allow sufficient time for it to cool down between passes.

Even though the router may seem like a complicated and intimidating tool, once you get started, it actually gets easier and easier to use. I highly recommend practicing and making test cuts and projects to get confident using it.

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Anika's goal is to inspire and empower beginners with woodworking, DIY, home improvement, and home decor ideas.
She wants everyone to unlock their creative potential and experience the feeling that comes with making something. Nothing feels better better than seeing something and saying "I can make that!"

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  1. Thanks Anika for this. I have really struggled using my router at home, and I have gone through so many offcuts trying to practise and failing dismally. Now I may actually be able to create and finish! a full piece without throwing it in the bin!!

    1. Anika Gandhi says:

      So glad you found it helpful. Let me know if you have any questions as you use it.

  2. You’re videos the best! You provide Insightful, detailed, tutorials and tips which are a tremendous help and confidence-building…for this rookie (me)!

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