Plunge Router vs Fixed Based – Which Should You Buy?

Fixed router on a wooden surface

Routers are some of the best woodworking tools and can make your job a lot easier. There are a few common misconceptions that many woodworkers have concerning the differences between plunge and fixed routers.

Some will claim that one type is definitely better than the other.

This isn't true. Instead, both router types are simply better at different types of woodworking tasks and jobs than others. Let's take a look at the major differences between plunge routers for fixed routers and see what the deal is.

What is a Plunge Router?

Plunge routers are woodworking routers that have a plunging design. They allow you to set a maximum depth beforehand and control that depth by hand. Placing both hands on either side of the router, you’ll press down towards your workpiece to make your initial cut.

The router is stopped by a stopper bar that impacts a small turret near the router base. The length of the stopper rod is what you adjust to set your maximum depth. This prevents the bit from plunging deeper than you need.

Once inserted, plunge routers then maneuver through the workpiece horizontally like a fixed router. You can also dip plunge routers in and out of a workpiece for artistic or practical purposes.

Blue plunge router on wood

Plunge routers are mobile whereas fixed routers have bits that remain in one position throughout the routing process. You must physically push the plunge router into your home or backyard workpiece, then cut and pull it up to remove the bit.

This requires more physical exertion than fixed routers. Many of them have spring-loaded arms on either side of their chassis. These arms are what the woodworker uses to make the “plunging” movements.

Plunge routers use the same bits as fixed routers and many models allow for switching them between one another, especially if they’re from the same manufacturer. 

Plunge Router Advantages

  • The biggest advantage that plunge routers have is that they can make cuts directly in the middle of a workpiece much like a great scroll sawon an intarsia project. Fixed routers aren’t able to accurately or safely cut into the middle of a workpiece since their cutting bits are already set to a specific depth.
  • Plunge routers can simply be placed right atop the desired location, set to a depth of your desire, and pushed into the workpiece. This allows for a lot of versatility and creativity, as well as some added movement control.
  • Woodworkers who appreciate total control will appreciate the extra options granted by a plunge router. You can make both edge cuts and cuts inside a workpiece using the same tool. This functionality allows you to complete the workpiece more quickly if it requires both types of cuts.
  • Plunge routers aren’t limited to being used in the middle of a workpiece, either. You can also use plunge routers on the edge of workpieces, such as for profiling. However, keep in mind that this profiling will be less accurate than that offered by a fixed router, since fixed routers can have their depths set more precisely on many models and due to their greater overall stability.

Plunge Router Disadvantages

  • Plunge routers tend to be a little more expensive than fixed routers and are often more suited for adept woodworking hands. Beginners will find the extra control to be overwhelming most of the time.
  • In addition, plunge routers are usually larger and heavier than fixed routers. They require a little more physical strength to effectively use. Only those that are confident they can handle everything that comes with a plunge router should consider purchasing one.
  • The extra control granted by a plunge router opens up the opportunity for mistakes in the middle of your work piece, so special care should be taken to ensure that you don’t set your plunging bit too deep initially.
  • A smart idea is to begin with a shallow depth for examination of an initial cut, then increase the depth when you’re sure about the proper setting.
  • You absolutely require a steady hand to effectively use a plunge router. Fixed routers are steadier and more stable and thus are less susceptible to making minor flaws in a given work piece.
A blue Bosch plunge router
  • This means that you should not use a plunge router for woodworking jobs that require a high level of precision or accuracy, particularly when it comes to edge work. This is particularly important when multiple pieces need the same amount of precision, such as when you are completing multiple identical pieces at the same time.
  • This has nothing to do with the skill of the operator and everything to do with human fallibility. Simply put, human muscles aren’t perfect, and you will make more tiny mistakes with the manual depth control offered by a plunge router.

What to Look for in a Plunge Router

When selecting a plunge router, it’s important to find one that has ergonomic handles since you’ll be using these frequently to achieve your desired depth and cuts. While handles are important for fixed routers, too, comfortable ones are extra important for plunge routers.

Some plunge routers can be turned into a fixed router. These models will come with a locking mechanism that let you set a specific depth regardless of the pressure you place on the tool. This can be advantageous if you need both types of routing for a given ​workpiece.

Keep the overall size in mind when selecting a plunge router for your woodworking. Plunge routers are almost always a little larger than fixed routers, although that doesn’t mean you have to get a gigantic one, either.

In addition, getting a router with an on/off switch on the handles is always convenient. You can keep both hands on the router as it’s running and shut if off safely this way.

Blue Bosch plunge router on a wooden surface

When to Use Plunge Routers

Any time that you need to work on the top of a board or any chopped up wooden surface, you should use a plunge router. This type of router will afford you more precision and control over the depth of your cut.

You will be faster and more efficient than having to awkwardly maneuver the workpiece around to let it be cut by a fixed router’s set bit. Such a process would also take more time than using a plunge router.

Plunge routers are great for use with wood signage. You can simply trace the desired letters are symbols into the wooden workpiece surface, then use the versatility and maneuverability of the plunge router to cut out the sign at the depth you desire.

Advanced woodworkers will get a lot more mileage out of plunge routers than beginners. Beginners can still make good use out of a plunge router since there’s no better way to practice than to do your best and make mistakes on easier projects.

Plunge routers are also excellent choices instead of a fixed router if you are not sure what kind of woodworking you’ll be doing. Technically speaking, you can do everything a fixed router can with a plunge router, although your accuracy will inevitably be a little less perfect.

Still, fixed routers can’t compete with the versatility of a plunge router. 

What is a Fixed Router?

Fixed routers, as opposed to plunge routers, have bits that have set depths. The fixed position of the depth of the cutting bit means that accuracy will be incredibly high at that particular setting. Keep in mind that this depth can be changed in between cuts, of course; you don’t buy a fixed router at one particular depth for its entire lifespan.

But you can alter the depth of a plunge router cut by lifting or pushing down the bit yourself. Fixed routers do not allow this; only between cuts can you shut the router off and make the adjustment.

You lose out on a lot of versatility and creative control at the same time. However, the set depth of the cutting bit means that you will never accidentally drill too deeply into a workpiece and ruin the board entirely.

Fixed routers can use the same bits as plunge routers.

Fixed Router Advantages

  • You will be able to rely on a fixed router to give you the same results each time, and you don’t have to rely on the steadiness of your arms or hands as much. There is a machine dependability presents with a fixed router that is missing in the plunge router.
  • Fixed routers are typically smaller and lighter than plunge routers. This makes them even easier to use than plunge routers in some respects. You can do more work for an extended period of time using a fixed router then when using a heavier plunge router.
  • Fixed routers are also easier to move from worksite to worksite. If you frequently need to route different pieces of wood in different locations, it will be easier to lug a fixed router around then it would be to lug a plunge router around.
  • Many fixed routers either come with or are match-able with a table mount. This allows you to place the fixed router on a solid mount and position it for a lot of fast, precise work, making cuts at the exact same depth time and time again.
  • A fixed router on a good mount is in a prime position to do assembly-line routing. You can feed tons of workpieces into the router and get the same results each time. It’s perfect for mass-producing finished workpieces provided that you want them all to look alike.
Fixed router on a wooden surface
  • Fixed routers are often better for edge work, although plunge routers can still accomplish this to some extent. Fixed routers can more easily shape the edges of a workpiece within extremely precise and accurate margins. This is even easier if you use a table mount for added stability.
  • This is because most fixed router models have more depth settings than plunge routers. These will be marked for easy locking as opposed to the unmarked bars on most plunge router models.
  • Beginners to woodworking will find fixed routers a little easier to master, although arguably a plunge router is better for teaching skillful woodworking since it’s easier to make mistakes with the latter.

Fixed Router Disadvantages

  • However, fixed routers do have some downsides. Primarily, fixed routers don’t give you much creative control over the workpiece.
  • In addition, fixed routers sometimes have difficulty reaching the center of a board or other workpiece since their bits can’t be drawn upward before being set to their desired depth. They’d have to enter the center of a workpiece without the base of the router settled on the table.
  • Fixed router depths also have to be manually adjusted each time you want to make a change, whereas plunge routers technically have a “depth range” where your only limitation is the maximum depth you’ve imposed before cutting.
  • This is time-consuming and can be frustrating when working with a piece that needs a lot of cuts at variable depths and angles like a top rated miter saw on the market.

What to Look for in a Fixed Router

​When finding a good fixed router, look for one that is lightweight and easy to maneuver. This will diminish the disadvantage that is has compared to a plunge router’s maneuverability.

Also try to find one that has a table mount to save yourself some money. This will help you do a lot of precision work very quickly, since you can rely on the stability of a cutting table.

Finally, a great thing to find in a fixed router is a trigger near or on the handles, just like with plunge routers. This allows you to keep both hands on the router while it’s running and still shut it off without letting go.

Eqiual plam fixed router

When to Use Fixed Routers

Fixed routers are best used for workpieces that demand a high level of accuracy and precision at one specific depth. They are specialized tools that are great for efficient work that’s all the same, such as workpieces that need to be mass-produced in a short amount of time.

For instance, joinery or woodworking that relies on the ultra-precise fitting of various wooden pieces will benefit from the use of a fixed router. With work like this, you don’t want to depend on human accuracy to ensure that everything fits together.

Fixed routers are also superior when you are doing a lot of tedious work that all has to be the same. 

When cutting dovetail joints, for example, you’ll want to rely on a fixed router since you can accomplish the necessary routing with minimal effort and with no mistakes provided you pick the correct depth beforehand.

In a similar fashion, large jobs that require a ton of routing will probably require a fixed router to be done on time. For large-scale tasks, you can even use several fixed routers with different fixed depths of their cutting bits to accomplish all kinds of work in an extremely short amount of time.

One router can be set to a higher depth, for example, while another is set to a low depth. Both tools can be used, one after the other, to accomplish two types of identical cuts in short order.

Beginners who haven’t done anything with woodworking before would benefit from practicing with a fixed router before moving on to a plunge router. Fixed routers are great for demonstrating the principles of routing and showing how to move the tool smoothly across a surface.

Plunge vs. Fixed Routers

As you can see, plunge and fixed routers both have their place. Each type has instances where they are superior and should be the clear choice if you want the best results from your current woodworking project.

Let’s pit them head-to-head to really get an idea for their similarities and differences.

Similarities

Plunge routers and fixed routers are both used by woodworkers to drill into a wooden piece and “rout” a length of wood from within the overall board, plank, or table. Both rely on a cutting bit that relies on machine power to cut into and through a wooden surface.

Both also benefit from having a high horsepower rating for the tool’s motor. In general, you want to find a router that has horsepower more than 2HP. This will give the cutting bit enough power to push through most wooden surfaces without too much difficulty.

Both types can use the same bits for routing.

Differences

Now let's take a look at the major differences between both types of router.

  • Plunge routers are inserted into wood at vertical angles for an initial cut, then moved horizontally for the rest of the cut. The depth of the cutting bit is defined by setting a stopping rod within a certain distance from a turret. Within this range, users can push or pull the routing bit up or down.
  • Fixed routers are used in horizontal angles to cut into the sides of workpieces. The depths of these cutting bits are preset and must be adjusted for each modification to your cutting. Fixed router depths can often be set to more precise measurements than plunge router settings.
  • Plunge routers allow for variable depth of cuts and drilling at the whim of the user. They are excellent for allowing for creativity or for cutting into the center of a workpiece.
  • Fixed routers will often come with a table base. Or they might be able to be attached to one without difficulty. This allows fixed routers to maintain more stability and accuracy when compared against plunge routers.
  • Plunge routers are also usually heavier than fixed routers and require more physical work to get results. They can be used for center and edge work although they have the potential to be a little less precise. Plunge routers are best used for variable woodworking tasks or for wooden signs.
  • Fixed routers are generally lighter than plunge routers and require less physical work to accomplish their cutting. They are easier to move from worksite to worksite but are less adaptable and are better suited for time-consuming or precision work.

Major Distinguishing Factors of Both

​Fixed router cutting bits are set to a specific depth for each session and must manually be adjusted if you want a different depth for a particular part of a workpiece.

Plunge router cutting bits don’t have a set depth and instead rely on your arms pushing or pulling to make their initial vertical cuts. This gives you more versatility in the kind of cuts you can make.

It also opens you up to more mistakes. 

Fixed routers are usually lighter and easier to handle yet cannot easily reach the middle of a workpiece without some fancy maneuvering. Plunge routers are usually heavier and harder to handle and can reach the middle of workpieces relatively easily.

Equal palm fixed router

Major Points Summary

Plunge Routers

  • ​Better for experienced woodworkers
  • ​Allow for creativity
  • ​Best for cutting into the center of workpieces
  • Best for creative jobs

Fixed Routers

  • ​Better for beginners
  • ​Allow for ultimate precision
  • ​Better for joining work
  • Best for jobs that demand accuracy or for many identical pieces

What to Look for in All Routers

​Let’s examine the key factors to consider when selecting a router for your work.

Horsepower

Horsepower, sometimes also referred to as work strength, essentially describes how much force the cutting bit of your router brings to bear on the wood. Higher horsepower means that your router will have an easier time cutting through thicker pieces of wood.

As mentioned above, look to get a router that has horsepower above 2HP for optimal results no matter what wood you are working with. Anything less and you may have difficulty when it comes to tougher workpieces.

Variable Speed

Most routers have variable speed settings that you can use to modify your current cut or workpiece. Variable speeds are also better suited for different sizes of cutting bits.

For instance, if you use a small cutting bit, you’ll want to set your router at mid to high speed so that you achieve optimal routing results. On the other hand, if you use large cutting bits you will need to run your router at a slower speed so that you are working safely.

Variable speed settings are usually installed as a dial on the router’s base. Twisting this one way or the other allows you to easily adjust the speed of your cutting bit without having to do it manually with a wrench.

Soft Start Option

Many excellent routers of both the plunge and fixed variety will have a soft start feature. All this does is force is your motor to start up gradually rather than all at once.

This has a couple of excellent benefits:

  • ​It doesn’t startle you or your fellow workers
  • ​It doesn’t accidentally make the router jerk out of your hands
  • ​It promotes safety and gives your fellow workers a warning before you start the router
  • It keeps your hands comfortable

There’s no reason for a modern router to not have a soft start feature included in its design.

Size

The size of your router will drastically impact its overall performance and ease-of-use. Larger routers will be more unwieldy and harder to transport from location to location.

You should always try to find the smallest possible router that will still provide enough horsepower for your needs. Smaller routers are easier to transport and can be maneuvered without as much physical exertion.

This is particularly important for plunge routers, although they tend to be larger than fixed routers anyway.

If you can get a plunge router that isn’t very big or very heavy, you’ll have an easier time taking advantage of its versatility and creative potential than if it was difficult for you to move around all the time.

Electronic Feedback Circuitry

Finally, this is another modern feature inherent in many plunge or fixed router models. EFC is some enhanced circuitry that balances the cutting bit load with the output torque.

Essentially, it prevents your routers motor from overexerting itself or shorting out if the cutting bit is too heavy for its horsepower.

This will prevent any sudden starts or stops or leaps and speed as a result of sudden friction change in the workpiece. Any experienced woodworker knows that a sudden jump in speed can result in terrible slashing cuts through a good workpiece, ruining a lot of work.

Bosch palm fixed router on a wooden surface

Electronic feedback circuitry prevents accidents like this and helps you maintain even lines across a workpiece even if it has variable depth and thickness.

Once you experience electronic feedback circuitry for yourself, you won’t want a router that doesn’t have it as part of its design.

Combination Routers

Another type of router, the combination type, is starting to become more and more common. These routers rely on switchable bases that let you swap between fixed or plunge router handles and apparatuses as you require.

This allows you to effectively have access to both types of routing in one power tool. However, keep in mind that these combination routers are generally more expensive than either of the other two types.

They are well worth the cost, although they may not be the best investment if you find yourself only doing woodworking jobs that require one or the other.

Final Verdict

In the end, there is no one champion when it comes to router type. Combination routers are certainly a great deal if you need both types frequently. On the other hand, it’s clear that plunge and fixed routers are both specialized for particular woodworking tasks.

When used correctly, plunge and fixed routers are excellent tools that do exactly what they are supposed to. Simply consider the task ahead of you and choose the right power tool and you won’t be disappointed.

Thanks for reading!