Router table lifts make your life simpler. They automate (almost), some of the most cumbersome and repetitive tasks that you will perform in your woodworking studio. To add to this, they bring precision where it matters the most, height adjustments.
You can change your router bit depth from the table top without crouching on all-fours. That too in micro-increments as small as 1/64”. Even that is just scraping the surface of what these amazing tools can do.
It’s no wonder that it’s gone from a vanity feature to a must-have in every serious woodworker’s tool kit. But if you are still working with your old garage sale plunge router and wondering how a router table lift works, then you are at the right place.
Here’s a brief guide that explains the nitty-gritties of router table lifts. By the end of this blog post, you’ll be armed with enough information to determine whether a router lift is worth the price.
What is a Router Table Lift and How Does it Work?
In simple terms, a router lift is a table mounting plate. There’s one difference though. In a lift, the router is nested in a movable carriage as opposed to being fixed permanently. Imagine an elevator that can bring your router up and move it down. That’s the best way to sum up what a lift is.
It features a removable crank handle that can be attached to the plate and rotated, to raise or lower the entire router, that too with extreme precision. A height adjustment dial is generally attached to the crank, or built into the plate itself. This lets you dial in the height in miniscule increments, which depend on the make and model. But typically, it’s 1/64”. Some models even allow you to make easy adjustments as fine as 1/1000”. Now you know why some lifts come with steep price tags.
Some router lifts allow you to zero out the height gauge, which makes it a cakewalk to set the bit to the same height every time. This is godsend for repetitive routing tasks.
What are the advantages of a router lift?
There are two primary reasons why a router lift is a must buy.
- It makes it convenient to change bit height. You can do it from above the table.
- Secondly, you can crank the collet in no time to replace the bit.
Let’s look at those tasks in detail.
Changing the router bit
Conventional routers feature a fixed mounting plate, which makes it very difficult to change router bits. The router is practically positioned below the table. Depending on whether you have a swanky table with an enclosed cabinet, or a self-made one, the space under it might be limited.
You’ve got to get down on all-fours, grab two wrenches and turn them in opposite directions. One turns the shaft while the other, holds the collet. The light is usually dim and most woodworkers end up with a bruise or two. Why it might be easier to remove the router entirely and change the bits.
Setting the bit depth
The bit depth refers to the amount of the bit that will be cutting the stock. In case of a fixed mounting plate, this is also an under-the-table task. Even if you don’t mind crawling in cramped, dark spaces, ad-hoc bit height adjustments can often be inaccurate. You go through the entire process and run a test piece, only to discover that the depth is too much or too low. Then you do it all over again. A lift allows you to make quick rotations to set the height. Then, you can lock it to prevent changes during operation. Some new models feature a digital height adjustment system which is foolproof.
A possible exception to this, is a router with a depth-adjustable base. These feature an Allen key that can be attached to the base to adjust the bit height. But be warned that the adjustment knobs on these bases are not designed to take the punishment that comes with frequent use. A lift is a sturdier and more reliable option.
Backlash Inhibitors – Router lifts feature backlash inhibitors, which allow butter smooth turns while changing directions. There’s no jerk or slop in the handle.
What are the disadvantages of a router lift?
Well, for some woodworkers, the price is a concern. Good quality router lifts often cost as much as a basic router. But that’s subjective, isn’t it? If you are a hobbyist who’s quickly graduating into more serious woodworking projects, then a couple of hundred dollars is a small price to pay for convenience and precision.
Also, some older router lifts do not offer a cumulative reading while setting bit depth. It’s typically one rotation of the crank handle that equals to a specific height increment. So, if you are looking to increase or reduce the height by more than 1/16”, you will have to keep track of the number of rotations. The alternative is to buy a more feature rich router table lift.
Do you really need a router table lift?
Every woodworker, both experienced ones and hobbyists go through this conundrum. To lift or not to lift, that’s the question. The answer is that it depends on the kind of tasks you perform on a daily or weekly basis, your physical condition and your budget.
Some tasks, repetitive depth adjustments and bit changes in particular, are too labor intensive without a router lift. For example, cuts that demand multiple passes with different depths for each pass. You just make a pass, crank the handle to adjust and make a pass again.
Also, some routers such as the PC 7518 features a motor that needs to be twisted to adjust height. Often, this results in the power switches shifting to an unreachable position.
If you are into production, then the time savings alone will be worth a lot more than what you spend on a lift. Also, as you get older, constantly bending down and crawling on all fours will get progressively difficult. A lift will be a blessing for your knees, knuckles and that sore back.
That said, there are many basic tasks that can be performed fine without a router lift. The way we see it, once you work with a lift, there’s no going back. You are absolutely not going to want to crouch under the table anymore. Having said that, it’s definitely not going to improve your routing skills. Also, there are some combo router kits allow you to make basic height adjustments above the table. Bit changes will still require the crawl routine. But if you primarily work with one bit and don’t require the precision that you get with a lift, you can save yourself the money.
Will a router table lift work with your existing table and router?
Well, most fixed-base routers are compatible with most new router table lifts. There are always exceptions, mind you. Like the Milwaukee 5625-29, which is compatible with just the JessEm and Rockler Mast-R-Lift for above-the-table adjustments. Having said that, you can always cross check this by reviewing a list of routers that the lift is compatible with. Some router lifts are designed to work with a specific router class.
For instance, there are lifts that are designed to house a large 3 ¼ HP router. You can probably use a smaller router with this. But you’ll have to buy an aftermarket adapter to ensure compatibility. On the other hand, if you have a large router and buy a lift designed to work with smaller models, then there’s no way to fit it in.
The same rule applies to router tables. Check the size of the mounting plate on the router lift and compare it with the mounting plate on your table. Even if it’s not an exact match, it might still work. Most lifts feature mechanisms that allow mounting plate adjustments to match the size of the plate on the table.
Lastly, there’s a possibility that the table top might sag when you throw in a lift. This usually occurs with DIY tables that are not designed to handle an additional 20 lb. of metal. Cross bracing might provide additional stability. But even then, the table top might sag over time. That’s why universal router tables are so popular. They cost a pretty penny. But they are designed to last and will probably outlast the woodworker themselves.
Our Final Thoughts
So, what’s your decision on router table lifts? If you can afford it, go for it. If you are into production, buy one by all means. If you are a hobbyist who seeks convenience, or who’s too bored to crawl below the table every time, a router table lift is your answer. But if you are a rookie woodworker on a tight budget, you are a spring chicken and you do not require precision in your tasks, you can give it a miss.