Router Table Add-ons

With a router lift, precision fence, and some customizing, a router table can "kinda-sorta" stand in as a poor man's shaper. November 26, 2006

Does anyone have experience with any of the various router lifts out there? What's everyone using? What are some of the features I should look for? Or should I just keep using my shaper? The shaper is getting old, so I'm looking to replace it with another shaper or a routerlift setup.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor L:
What's a router lift?

From contributor J:
Look at FWW winter 2005/2006.

From the original questioner:
It's just what it sounds like. It lifts your router so you can change the bit or adjust the bit without tweaking your back and neck every time. You rabbet it into your router table and there's a crank on top.

From contributor K:
If I had a choice between a lift and a shaper, I wouldn't even consider the router table route at all. However, I'm just a poor boy from a poor family, and I have used the masterlift. I believe that is what it is called. The problem is that the lift is set up to where your router is mounted to a plate that is mounted to gears. The gears are adjusted by a little rubber belt. With all the little plastic parts in the lifts, it has a tendency to rattle stuff loose. I believe it was a Jessman. Anyway, routers also don't seem to last that long and you need at least a 3hp to run solid panels. Keep the money and invest in a 3hp or bigger shaper.

From contributor D:
We have a Bench Dog cast iron lift in a solid table that houses a large PC router, hundreds of bits, tools and accessories for the shop made fences and pivots, guards, etc. It is on wheels and weighs in at about 200#, with a p-lam top that is about 30" x 40". Solid as can be. We added a push/off, pull/on bar to switch it on/off from 3 sides. It is set up so we can roll it up to one of the shapers and swing a feeder over it and route with power feed. Even with 3 shapers in the shop, it gets used quite a bit, especially for curved work.

From contributor G:
There are about 3 - 4 fairly good router lifts on the market, two of which were mentioned herein, Benchdog and JessEm Masterlift. Tauton FWW has reviewed router lifts within the last year or so, as did Wood Magazine. For a couple bucks you can buy either of the reviews and download it for your perusal.

I've used three different units. I like and continue to use the JessEm MasterLift with a dedicated PC Speedmatic in it. My experience has been a bit different than another view expressed herein, actually quite favorable. The MastRLift is built like a tank, easy to use (is not fussy at all), and it is quite precise.

My experience has been that getting a really beefy, solid table top, a decent router fence whose ergonomics work for you, a remote switch mounted outside the table, and an uncomplicated lift make a winning combination.

Features to look for:
Can you easily change bits about the table?
Lift table inserts. If you do precision work and need to be able to replicate it reliably, get enough insets to make you own zero clearance inserts for those bits that you use a lot.
Simple/easy procedure to zero the bit.
Adjustable to your precision requirements, say in 1/128th increments - particularly if you do cabinet doors.

Lastly, I agree with the prior view that a decent shaper may be a better choice depending on your circumstances. However, it seems that many guys build their own router tables, almost like some woodworker rite of passage. I probably did it bass-akwards - I built my table (stand, top, lift, and fence) around the router that really worked for me, that PC Speedmatic I mentioned.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all that info. There's a new lift by Woodpecker called PRL (precision router lift). Ever hear of it? It's supposed to be better than the Jess-em. The PRL is made especially for the 3 1/4 horse piece. It accepts other routers with an adaptor. Anyway, it has a speed lift mechanism where you can lift the router all the way out to change the bit with 1/4 turn of the crank. Check it out and let me know how it stacks up.

From contributor D:
One thing I think all router tables, and most routers, can benefit from is the (Eliminator? Accelerator? or similar named) aftermarket collet that takes bits with an Allen screw lock. This eliminates the two wrench, risk your knuckles, tight against the table, change the bit dance. You can use a ball-type Allen wrench with a t-handle and change the bits in seconds. The bits are held securely and don't threaten to shift like they do in the stock collets. This collet, a solid lift in a good table, proper fences and guards can elevate the router to a professional level piece of equipment.

From contributor T:
Some personal opinions on the router lift. Up until a couple of years ago, I dreamed of having 3 shapers all set up for the usual cuts needed for 5 piece doors. There was not space in the shop for them, nor money. So, I started looking at the router lifts. I ended up with the Precision Router Lift, a PC 3 1/4 horse router and Jointechs Smart Router Fence system. Built a 32 x 42" cabinet with a fold down extension table and put it on casters. Best money and time I ever spent.

I hated setting up the 3 HP Powermatic shaper for rail and stile cuts. With the router lift and fence, setup is fast, accurate and repeatable. Now the shaper is left with the raised panel cutter set up and the router is used for all other machining. I don't think the router table and lift would be nearly as satisfactory without the precision fence, however.

Now, if given the choice of 3 shapers or 1 shaper and the router setup, it would be no contest. The shaper with power feeder is still preferred for raised panels, but for all other functions, the router setup wins hands down for me. I also have a 1/4 HP power feeder on the router table that almost completely eliminates tearouts on woods such as hickory when climb feeding.

It saves me lots of time, not a few cuss words, and my wife says I'm in a pleasant mood more often now. I believe anyone using this setup for a week would be extremely reluctant to give it up, but then I've been wrong before.

From contributor G:
Contributor D's comment about the speed change collet is right on - especially if you use your equipment for production work. Speed is profit.

Contributor T's view about the shaper versus router is likewise valid, and I'd like to add an observation. If you do enough raised panel doors, you may find it vexing to be repeatedly swapping out the bits. You may even get ticked enough to have two or more dedicated router tables, each set up/configured and tuned to their own dedicated function so you don't spend time fiddling with the adjustments.

What I appreciate about a shaper is its table - machined flat, cast iron or steel. A table that can be tweaked carefully to be exactly perpendicular to the centerline of the shaper arbor/head.

For me (I'm a pain in the keester for detail and quality), my table is built around my fence. The lift and the fence are everything. Again, for me, the precision fence makes the difference. I probably experimented with about ten of 'em before deciding that none had all of the specific features that I wanted. I admit that I'm picky, but I tried a bunch and none of them really suited what I needed them to do. So I went back to experimenting. I found the versatility and precision that I needed came from a fence/sub-fence combination. In a number of ways, a router, router table, and fence are like a jointer with a vertical cutterhead. I finally found a fence that I tricked out and made numerous adjustments to. I use a Freud SH-5, actually parts of it, as my sub-fence. It has a good micro-adjustable in-feed fence whose action can be adjusted to be exactly perpendicular to the bit centerline over its entire travel. These two features, micro-adjustable in-feed fence and trueness of its travel, were key. Its stock aluminum sub-fence plates I removed and replaced with much larger (longer, taller, thicker, and stiffer) steel plates that I had a machine shop make for me. I had them tapped for mounting to the Freud sub-fence, and drilled and tapped for having the fence mounted to them. I likewise discarded the stock melamine coated MDF fence sections, and replaced them with larger phenolic fence sections that I had made. The fences were machined to accept T-Trac inserts on both sides. I then mounted the sub fence on a machined aluminum plate/sled. It's Teflon-coated on its underside and mounts in the table's T-trac slots.

Result? Poor man's shaper fence on a router table. Massive, rugged, extremely stiff, easily adjustable, and with long in-feed and out-feed fences.

I did some other things with a near-hemispherical clear plastic bit guard, some Kreg fence stops, things to get near zero-clearance around the bit to reduce tear-out, and an adjustable "featherboard vise" that strictly limits the movement of the stock in the horizontal and vertical planes at the router bit (mis-cut stock devours profit).

Yeah, I know it sounds nuts. But boy does it work for me. A couple of fellow wood butchers (or so some magazine editorial calls us) who have seen/used this setup, really like it and have pressed me to write about it. To date I've built three of them for others.

Bottom line: I started with my lift and router, added a big beefy stand, an oversize table, and many discarded fences later, settled on this contraption of a fence that I built. It does have one thing that I'm still tinkering with. The DC hood/bit guard. Tear-out is related to several factors including clearance between the bit and the fence. Less clearance yields reduced tear-out, but lousy chip and dust collection. I'm still dinking around with a hood design worthy of consideration by B. Pentz.

As for the PRL, I've used it a couple times in another guy's shop. Seemed okay and worked quite well for me. But I am no authority on it. At the time I got to play with it, I had already found/built that which worked very well for me, so I wasn't looking and consequently didn't spend much time with it.

I've heard a rumor that over at Heckman Furniture (not far from where I live) they are experimenting with a CNC machine fitted with carousel of different bit profile cutterheads mated to pneumatic lift with a digital controller with preset stops. No more tinkering to get the exact fit... for about $35K.

Contributor T's words, "fast, accurate, and repeatable." Speed and minimized waste are good for profit, and I gather, less cuss words, and a happier marriage? Me, my focus is easily repeatable, consistent, minimal-fuss high quality. I did garner one tip herein, and I'm gonna have another, more serious look at the PRL.

From contributor T:
Your router fence sounds very interesting. I've been really pleased with the Jointech, but then it is the only one that I have any experience with. I've built a couple of sleds out of 3/8" aluminum plate for doing the cope cuts and also for holding short stock for stick cuts. The beauty of the router lift is I zero the bit to the table top, run it up to the height desired and then set the fence to touch the sled. I keep a small sample piece with the dimensions (i.e. 1.312) so the cut can be duplicated exactly without any trial and error cuts. Takes perhaps 30 seconds or so. How long does it take to set up a shaper for this procedure? My shaper would get used much more if I had the same lift and fence adjustments on it.

You sound like a talented guy. How about a system for the shaper with micro adjustments of the fence and arbor? An LED readout would be nice also.