The hand tool that could do what a router does was called a molding plane. Molding planes were specific to a particular type of molding, with a carpenter needing separate planes for each profile they would cut. In carpenter shops, where there were several carpenters working, each carpenter would use the shop's "mother plane" to cut the base of shoe on their own plane, ensuring everyone else in the shop had the same profile. Considering that moldings for homes were cut and shaped on site, this was important.
It wasn't until Stanley came out with their model 45 molding plane in the late 1800s that anyone could cut more than one profile with a plane. The 45 came with an assortment of different bits, several of which could be combined in the plane at the same time. This gave the woodworker the ability to create just about any profile that they wanted.
For some smaller projects, a carpenter or furniture maker would use a scratch stock, which was nothing more than a piece of broken saw blade that had been filed to match the necessary profile and mounted in a handle. Much of the beading done on antique furniture was done this way.
In more recent times, the plane has been largely replaced by the router, especially for cutting moldings and profiles. Power routers began to be used in the early 1900s, but it wasn't until the 1950s that power routers with replaceable bits came into the marketplace. Today, routers and shapes are used for all types of molding work.
The original router bits were made of high speed steel. However, due to the high rotational speed of the router, the friction between the bit and the wood can generate a lot of heat. This can burn the wood, but it can also remove the temper from the bit, allowing it to dull rapidly.
Today, router bits are almost exclusively made with tungsten carbide tips welded to the bits. This provides a much harder cutting edge which isn't affected as much by the heat, allowing it to retain its sharpness much longer and cut much cleaner. Properly used and cared for, a carbide router bit can be used for years, without any loss in cutting quality.
These router sets provide an assortment of bits, allowing you to cut a variety of different profiles. As a bit can often cut more than one profile, by using different parts of the bit or using it from a different angle, you have more profile possibilities than there are bits in a set. However, the more bits you have, the more possibilities it provides you.
When selecting a router bit set, you are generally better off selecting a larger set for the increase in profiles it offers you. This must be compared to the overall quality of the bits, as some manufacturers are known for making higher quality bits than others. However, it’s hard to see the difference between the products of different companies. So you mostly have to go by reputation, when trying to select a particular set.
Most of today's routers use 1/2 inch shank bits, with the exception of compact routers, which use 1/4 inch shank bits. The larger shank provides more support to the bit, reducing vibration and helping prevent any possibility of the bit becoming bent from the high amount of force placed on it. Larger bits, such as those used for making raised panels, will only come with 1/2 inch shanks, while smaller bits may come in both sizes. While I’ve listed all 1/2 inch sets, the manufacturers typically have similar sets available for both sizes, with the exception of the larger sized bits.
Freud's router bits are the number one choice of most carpenters and woodworkers making it the clear choice for number one on this list. This set contains 13 of their most popular styles in one place. Read Full Review
It's hard to pick one best in this category, but I've based this choice on the fact that Freud is the number one choice of most carpenters and cabinet shops. The familiar orange bits are found all over the place, especially in the commercial suppliers that professionals frequent. This set contains 13 of the most common styles of router bits, all with a 1/2 inch shank.
Manufactured with Freud's proprietary carbide formula for long life, all these bits feature a non-stick coating to reduce pitch build up and resist heat. The case can be hung on the wall or mounted on the workbench for convenience. Freud is so confident in their product that they offer a limited lifetime warranty.
CMT provides a similar set to the Freud set, also made with a proprietary carbide alloy. Anti-kickback features have been built into the bits, where appropriate. Read Full Review
CMT is a blade and bit specialist and this 13 piece set is similar to the Freud Super Router Bit Set, with a similar assortment of profiles available. Like Freud, CMT uses a proprietary carbide alloy with chromium added for extra long life. Anti-kickback features have been designed into the bits where appropriate and for those bits requiring a bearing for use with a template have them already built-in, cancelling the need to change bearings between bits for use. The set itself comes in a nice hardwood case.
Whiteside has been lauded by Fine Woodworking magazine as both the best overall and best value in a router bit set. That's saying a lot, considering the reputation of that publication. Whiteside bits are top quality and their prices are more reasonable than you'd expect. Read Full Review
You've probably never heard of Whiteside, but they have one of the most extensive lines of router bits on the market. This set has won the prestigious Fine Woodworking magazine's "Best Overall" and "Best Value" award for superior performance at an affordable price; that's a hard to beat combination. These are American made bits, which come with a lifetime warranty against defects in workmanship or materials. Made of superior carbide, they are precision round for proper balance at high RPMs. These quality bits will satisfy the needs of any woodworker but unfortunately they come in a plastic case, making them look lower quality than they are. The only reason I didn't put them as number one, is this set is smaller than the one offered by Freud.
If you're just getting started in routing, you probably need a set like this one. Providing 70 carbide bits, this one will get you through most projects without a hitch. Read Full Review
If you're just getting started with routing, your biggest problem probably isn't which kit provides the best quality, but the one provides the most utility and getting the most for your money. That's where a kit like this one from Eagle America comes in.
Containing 70 sizes of router bits, this one will accommodate common routing tasks, including grooving and joining which aren't included in the smaller sets we've looked at. However, it doesn't have the large bits such as those needed for panel raising and building cabinet doors. The bits are carbide, all have a 1/2 inch shank, and come in a wall-hanging case. Eagle America offers a similar kit with 1/4 inch shank kits.
If you're looking for the most value for your money, this kit is for you. With 66 pieces, this MCLS kit offers you the most possible cutting action for the lowest possible price. Read Full Review
This kit probably provides the best selection for the money of any router bit set on the market. All 66 router bits are carbide tipped and have 1/2 inch shafts. MCLS produces a very similar set, their number 6083, which has the same bits in it but with a 1/4 inch shank for those that need it. Sizes go up to a 1-3/8" diameter ogee bit, providing a large variety in cutting. All bits which need bearings come equipped with them, saving you from having to change bits between setups. Packed in a nice display case which can be hung on the wall of your workshop, it's easy to keep these bits organized making this set an incredible bargain.