80% of all routing can be done on the router table; some guys do “it” all on the table, others are convinced the hand router is all they need. To be sure, there are times when one method is preferred over the other. Templet fixturing, for example, is a lot more difficult to render for the router table than the hand router, especially when safety and quality of cut are factored in.
Whatever the case, it makes good practical sense to have at least one router table.
In my view, a woodworker should make his own. You’ll have it your way, you’ll learn about woodworking, you’ll get smarter, but you won’t save any money. Notwithstanding, the easiest way to make a router table is with a router table! Oddly, in routerdom, it often takes the very jig you’d like to make to make that jig; the router table is no exception.
Routing is as personal as your shoes. Each craftsman has his own priorities in router table design. Nevertheless, there are 3 common elements that make up most tables, the stand, top, and fence. Add the router, its installation and the electrics and you have a complicated structure.
The stand is your support for the top, motor and fence. It will house your electrics, perhaps provide the attachment for your (through the cutter hole) chip collection channels or ducting, store a few accessories, and supply some mass to keep the booger from slipping away from you. Make it the right height for your comfort. Would I build a cabinet with drawers, storage and such as my stand? No more than I would for my cast iron planer. Keep it simple; this is an every day tool not a storage box.
The top is critical and can be quite complicated if an insert or router lift is part of it. The router table has, in my estimation, evolved beyond its practical and engineering safety limits. 2″ to 4″ cutters, previously found only in the shaper table are now commonly used with 110 volt router tables. As such the top has become a complex element and one that is often over-featured at the expense of precision, flatness and utility.
I restrict my routing to cutters < 2.25″ so my table top is simple, cheap, thin (5/8″ MDF), has a small cutter hole and no insert. It remains flat and deflection-free, bolted to 6 dovetailed beams in the top of the stand. The router casting (from a PC 7518) has been bolted to the slab and adds a measure of stiffness/flatness right in the center where it’s needed most. What’s right for you? Only you can answer that. A 1,2 or 3 layered ply or fiberboard top, clad in plastic laminate, trimmed with maple, window-excavated, rabbeted for an aluminum insert/lift, and fitted with concentric cutter hole rings is not an uncommon sight. This teck has kept it simple so far but I have complicated the fence.
The fence is to the table as the steering wheel is to a car. Without either you’re out of control. The fence is your control surface and manages the east-west depth of cut. The router up/down mechanism regulates the north/south cutter bite. There is a lot of variability in fence design and features. A clamped down stick will do. A more complicated piece like my 2-stage micro-adjustable fence will accommodate a 0 to 2-1/4″ cutter diameter range, adjust to the nearest .001″, offset (verb) for full thickness cuts, police its own mess, and travel 2″ in a straight line on its micro-adjust lead screw. A setup and calibration cut from ground zero takes only seconds. A .003″ to .005″ finish cut to clean off any burns is also an instant setup change.
What to look for in a fence: Repeatability, zero-deflection, straightness, ability to square it up to the table top, chip collection, cutter width accommodation, quick easy clamp to table, easy adjust to and from the cutter, to name the more important features.
If your time budget, skills, and resources are limited, a purchase of an inexpensive router table may be the best move. It may not be perfect, few are, but most are substantial enough to get you started. With the first table you can learn what its limitations are and what you need for the table you should build. I cannot recommend a table; there are at least a dozen and they are constantly being modified, cheapened or upgraded. To be sure, they are good value. You’d be hard pressed to make a table as good for less. Choose a table within your budget, expect to make one from that. Either sell it off when you have your table made or keep it for stage routing, (routing that removes the bulk of material but doesn’t do the finish cuts).