Which Router Bits to Buy

Router Bits, Which Ones To Buy

(This is an opinion piece.  It is my assessment of the averages of a very diverse and complicated market.)   

Kinds of Router Bits

Steel –  couple dollars – The least expensive kind of router bit to purchase. Comes in a variety of quality levels. Some can take a very good edge. Generally for beginning hobbyists, short runs or people who actually want to modify a bit.  Generally cannot be sharpened without significantly changing the profile.

Carbide tipped, tungsten carbide tipped or tct – $10 or 20 – Much longer wearing.  Much better value. Can usually be sharpened satisfactorily.  Combines the toughness of the steel shaft with the hardness of tungsten carbide.

Solid carbide – $50 – $100 – Solid carbide rod capable of being ground into an amazing number of complex shapes.  There is a trade-off between toughness and hardness with the carbide. The shaft has to be tough enough to handle the sideloading pressures. The cutting edges have to be hard enough to give clean cuts and long life.

Advanced material tipped router bits – $20 -$30 – These are identical to the carbide tipped router bits except that an advanced material such as a cermet or a cermet / carbide blend is used.  You the advantage of a tough shaft and a cutting head I can give up to 10 times the life of carbide.  Currently only available on a custom-built basis.

Diamond tipped, pcd  $1,000 – $2,000 – A steel shaft tipped with carbide that has polycrystalline diamond on the cutting face.  These can be run very fast and hold up under an incredible amount of wear.  One of the drawbacks is that they need to be run fast or there is a problem with heat buildup and the tool gets burned to the point where the diamonds come out.  Instances where operators reduce the feeds and speeds to reduce the operator workload are fairly common.

By User

Hobbyist, Price-Sensitive – May start with steel and stay there.  It is pretty much all price.

Hobbyist, Not So Price-Sensitive – Start with steel and move to carbide or start with an inexpensive carbide.  Influenced by price but also by advertising and by social media.

Artisan, Custom Furniture – Best quality carbide.  Clean cuts are essential as the quality of the joinery is often a selling point.  May use advanced material bits.  May use solid carbide if they have a CNC router.  Wants the best defined as cut quality.  Tends to seek out professional level saw shops and follow their advice.

Small Shop, Cabinets – Cheap to good quality carbide brazed tools in handheld machines.  Solid carbide in CNC machines. May use advanced material bits.  Will be called on regularly by sharpening shops. Is somewhat influenced by advertising including recommendations from the saw shop rep.  Wants the best cutting, lowest-cost router bits.  Router bits service life is typically most important only in the negative.

Large Shop – Medium to good quality carbide, solid carbide in CNC machines especially if they have a product line.  Is slightly influenced by advertising including recommendations from the saw shop rep.  Wants the best cutting, lowest-cost router bits.  Concerned with wear life because of the re-sharpening cost and the consequent profile changes.  Very concerned that every router bit be identical in size to the previous router bit of the same pattern.

Manufacturing Plant – Solid carbide or diamond depending on the length and frequency of particular production runs . Slightly influenced by recommendations from the saw shop rep.  Wants the best cutting, lowest-cost router bits.  Concerned with wear life because of the re-sharpening cost and the consequent profile changes.  Very concerned that every router bit be identical in size to the previous router bit of the same pattern.

By Material Being Cut

Clear, clean wood and simple plastics

Notty wood

Man-made materials; multi-oriented strands and resins with binders

Composites

There is a balance here between the initial cost of the tool and the length of the production run. You can use steel for a little while in notty wood.  Since steel can take a sharper edge than carbide it may be superior at cutting through the knots but it will not have nearly the wear life

Man-made materials and composites will use carbide tipped, solid carbide or diamond tools depending on the wear properties of the material being cut.  It also depends on the equipment being used and the form of the material being cut.  Sheets of material in a cabinet operation with very long production runs will use solid carbide or diamond.  An installer of those same cabinets may use a carbide tipped router bit in a handheld router.

Length Of Run

One-off pieces 

Short runs, one day or so

Repeating short runs

Long runs

Manufacturing product line

Equipment Available

Handheld tools – typically less expensive bits because handheld equipment is very hard on router bits

Hobbyist router table – carbide tipped or solid carbide

Manufacturing shop router – solid carbide or diamond

Manufacturing plant machining center – diamond

Brand Name

Sophistication and involvement in:

Retail advertising – magazine ads

People buy a name they recognize.  Whiteside Machine, carbide tipped, router bits were ranked number one for cut quality and value by Fine Woodworking Magazine

Retail advertising – big-box stores

Retail pricing, kind of packaging, placement of the items, in-store promotions, store brands

Small saw shops – Small saw shops like to sell router bits that people want to buy which involves brand name recognition.  However the sales are generally made face-to-face and there is the option to explain the advantages and disadvantages of various lines.  This type of sale is also heavily influenced by how the manufacturer treats the distributors and retailers.

Professional level saw shops – About the same as small saw shops.  However they can make custom tools including custom tools using advanced materials.

Internet sales – People typically search for name brands.  Heavily influenced by price. Price may be influenced byMAP(MAPP; Manufacturers Assigned Price or Manufacturer’s Assigned Price Point or Manufacturers Advertising Price Point.)  Although few manufacturers realize it, this is also heavily influenced by the quality of the pictures and the quality of the information they offer when the prospective buyer is comparing brands.

Social media – Discussion forums such as Sawmill Creek, LinkedIn, etc.  Heavily influential.  Typically dominated by a very small percentage of posters and a huge number of lurkers.  Typically the router bits recommended are heavily advertised router bits and are usually good router bits.

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