What router bits to buy is one of the more common questions that come up on discussion forums. As with many popular topics, there are usually as many different opinions about which bits to own as there are members who reply. It’s largely subjective, but this blog will at least touch on the pros and cons of some of the strategies, and a few of the basic “dos & don’ts”…then you can decide for yourself what’s best for you. Note that these are just the ramblings of an average amateur woodworker….professional usage will vary. Unlike with saw blades, I have not spent numerous hours trying to remove the variables and comparing router bits in head to head controlled experiments….I just buy them and use them like most folks.
With very few exceptions, solid carbide or carbide tipped bits will outperform steel or high speed steel bits, and will have many times longer edge life. The only steel bits I own are spiral straight bits, but carbide would be better… albeit more expensive. Also, ½” shank bits are typically recommended over ¼” shank bits whenever feasible if you’re router accepts them….they’re less prone to breakage, have more mass, and tend to have less chatter, which can lead to a cleaner cut. It’s important to recognize that not all carbide bits are created equal. Since a router bit can spin in excess of 20K rpms, and have been known to shed carbide tips at high speed – for safety sake, it’s best to avoid the lowest quality segment of the market. This is not the place to pinch every last penny you can from the equation. My advice is to avoid the off-name lowest cost bits, and stick with more proven performers whenever you can. If you haven’t heard of it, or the masses from the woodworking forums aren’t familiar with them, proceed with caution…there’s no shortage of good suppliers of well proven router bits, and no need to take an unnecessary risk to save a couple of bucks.
Common Profiles – The available profiles for router bits are nearly endless. Which profiles we use most will depend largely on preference, and the types of things they’ll be used for. You’ll eventually realize that the majority of profiles break down to a handful of basic elements that are varied in size and sequence to create unique contours. The most commonly used profiles are the roundover, chamfer, rabbet, ogee, cove, core box (round nose), dovetail, straight, straight pattern, straight spiral, or straight trim bits, and v-bit. These are profiles that nearly all of us will use, and are a safe bet to buy from the start…many basic pre-assembled sets will include most or all those profiles, or you can buy them individually as needed. There are a variety of radius sizes for every bit that has a curved profile, a variety of angles for chamfer and dovetails, and a variety of cutting diameters and lengths for straight bits. A variety of size choices can be convenient, and is best tailored to suit your needs as you evolve your own style. By varying the diameter of the guide bearing, roundover and thumbnail bits can add a bead element to the profile. You can change the depth of cut of a rabbeting bit by varying the diameter of the guide bearing also. Note that bits with a guide bearing are intended to follow a suitable edge or template to guide the bit….straight or curved, as long as the edge is large enough for the bearing to follow. Obviously the bits will translate whatever shape they’re following, so be sure the edge is smooth and is the shape you want. Bits without bearings will generally use a fence or jig of some sort to guide the router, as they can be difficult to control free hand.
Other Useful Profiles – A table edge or “thumbnail” bit is a profile that I rarely see included in a pre-assembled set, but is one that I’ve used on many occasions for furniture building….it basically provides one quarter of an ellipse, and can be a useful addition to your collection if you plan to build furniture that’ll have that type of edge. If you plan to build raised panels, you’ll want to add a raised panel door profile or two to your collection. You’ll probably also want a rail and style bit set to compliment your panel raising profile. Many raised panel bit sets are available with a panel cutter and rail and style cutters, but each can be purchased separately to suit your needs. A bullnose profile or two can be useful also, but is often best purchased when there’s a need, so that you can get exactly the profile you want.
Ogee Panel Raiser:
Purchasing Philosophies – The two main purchasing strategies are 1) to buy the bit profiles one at a time as needed for a given project, 2) buy a pre-assembled general purpose set that’ll have a large assortment of profiles available when you want them. Buying bits as needed ensures that you only buy what you’ll use, but also tends to cost more per bit, and can be less convenient if you didn’t plan ahead. The upside is that you’ll avoid paying for bits you won’t use. A pre-assembled set tends to reduce the cost per bit, but you can end up paying for many near-duplicate profiles, and/or obscure profiles that you may never use. With any given multi-profile set, take a good look at how many unique profiles there are…and more importantly, how many profiles are included that you’re interested in. It’s also possible to end up with dozens of low quality bits with a total cash outlay that exceeds the cost of a few well chosen bits. Be sure to carefully evaluate the quality and usefulness of the bits before you make the decision to purchase a set. Note that not all manufacturers offer basic general purpose sets.
I’m not a particularly strong advocate of either of those two extremes, as both have fairly significant drawbacks. Instead, I prefer to morph the upsides of both, in order to minimize the downside of both, and get the most for my money. I’m more of a fan of buying a small set (roughly 6-20 bits) of the most commonly used profiles to get started….use the remainder of your budget to acquire specialty profiles as needed, or of profiles you’d like to add to your collection… though I’d suggest limiting the number of profiles you add just because you think they look cool (those have a high risk of becoming the ones you never use….DAMHIKT!). You can also buy sets that include various sizes of essentially the same profile…a set of straight bits of varying diameters, or a set of roundover or cove bits with different radii. There are also specialty sets of dovetail bits, chamfer bits, bullnose bits, plywood bits, and rabbeting bits (the rabbeting bits generally consist of one bit with multiple bearing sizes), and others. As mentioned earlier, a panel raising set can become a much valued part of your bit collection….but they can be expensive, so plan your bit budget well, or wait until the need justifies the expense.
A “subjective” general guide to brands (…my opinion) –
“Good” – MLCS, Woodline, Wood River, Porter Cable, Grizzly (green), Stone Mountain, Hickory, and others represent a decent level of quality, often at good prices. They’re often not much more expensive than the run of the mill, lesser known, lower quality bits, and can give good service for beginners who may be tough on bits, low volume, and non-critical applications. Cuts can be very good with these bits, but I wouldn’t expect them to perform as new for as long as more expensive bits. The carbide tends to be a bit softer, is sharpened to a lesser degree, bearings and steel may not be as high quality, and brazing and overall manufacturing techniques will be less robust than those of the top tier bits. Brands like Skil, Ryobi, Harbor Freight, Craftsman, and others could also arguably fit into this category, but my past experiences with other cutters from these brands has not been good…since there are several other well proven alternatives listed, I’d lean toward those. Some of the Craftsman cutters could be made by Freud, so if you spot one made in Italy, it could be a good bet at the right price….same is true of some Milwaukee bits. Good quality basic sets start in the range of $40.
“Better” – Bosch, CMT, Katana, Price Cutter, Rockler, Amana A.G.E, and Lee Valley, amongst others, represent what I consider to be a step up from the average “good” bits listed above, but tend to perform and cost less than the top tier bits s shown below. It’s a good compromise if you want improved performance and longevity from your bits, or wince at the cost of the premium bits, and/or don’t require the very best available. Grizzly (purple) is another possible candidate for this category too, but I have limited experience with them, and other trusted sources have mentioned that the quality can be hit or miss…I’d be uncomfortable paying more than a bargain price for them.
“Best” – Whiteside, Infinity, Eagle America (made by Whiteside), and Freud Quadra –Cut are the best I’ve used to date …better carbide, better steel, better bearings, better manufacturing, better sharpening, better design, etc., means a better cut, less vibration, and longer life (along with higher cost). The more critical the cut, or the more often the bit will be used, the better the justification for choosing top shelf. Many will consider Amana Tool, Somerfeld, and others to be in this category too, but I haven’t been exposed to all of them. My limited experience with Bosch and CMT bits was favorable, but not exceptional….I’d buy them again on sale, but when the price approaches that of Whiteside or Infinity, I opt for the latter. Basic top tier sets start in the range of $100.
For really green newbies, it’s hard to go wrong with something like the 15 pc MLCS set for $42 shipped. Learning to use a router can contribute more abuse to the bits and shorten their service life….its not a bad strategy to learn on decent quality safe bits that are very reasonably priced. Replace the burned and damaged bits with better quality once you’ve mastered basic techniques. This was my first set…it served me well for 3-4 years, then I starting replacing with higher quality bits.
What would I buy today if I were starting from scratch?
1. With a realistic budget and looking for “near top quality performance” without breaking the bank, I’d start with a basic set from Infinity or Whiteside for ~ $100 (~ $87 if you’re selective) ….all top flight cutters with excellent performance and longevity, and that are worth resharpening if ever needed. Then I’d add a couple of basic profiles that aren’t included in those sets…namely an ogee (or cove) and a thumbnail edge bit (add ~ $35-$75 cost).
2. I’d also add a good panel raising set... Freud’s 2+2 technology offers a slick advantage in cut quality with their 4-cutter system that works well IMO. I see the 3-1/2” ogee panel raising bit for < $80 shipped. I’d mate that with a Katana rail and style set for ~ $85, and would have an excellent panel raising set for $165.
3. At the current pricing of ~ $20 (plus s/h), I’d be willing to take a shot on the Grizzly purple 6 pc ½” shank roundover set. Current incentives offer a 20% discount with a purchase of 3 router bit items, which provide a cost effective chance to add something like a plywood bit set for $14, and a dovetail set for $19, or whatever appeals to you from their selections (all minus 20% plus s/h). It’s not hard to rack up $350-$400 of bits. With the selection above, I’m pretty well set with mainly premium bits that I’ll use for the things I do most. Removing the panel raiser from the equation shaves off a sizeable chunk if you can’t swing it all at once. Be patient and watch for sales, clearance, and closeout deals to save even more on top brands. Add bits as need…you’re collection will likely grow nicely over time with each new project.