Router lifts aren’t new to the market. Different companies have produced them for decades, in different styles and configurations. But what are they about and why are some so expensive? Is it really worth the dollars invested, especially for the home shop?
I think any woodworker who does much work at a router table understands the problem that a router lift solves. Routers are meant to be held by the operator while placed on the upper surface of a workpiece. Routers aren’t really meant to be hung upside down in a table. While it does make it easier to perform some operations once set up, sometimes setting up a router upside down is quite awkward. Most of the controls are hard to reach upside down, and typically height adjustment is really difficult too, especially when trying to move in very small increments.
Back in the dark ages of the 1990s, when I started woodworking, different router manufacturers came out with special knobs that could be installed on your plunge router to make it easier to change the height of the bit. I still have my special knob for my old Elu router sitting in a drawer. It did make it easy to change the height in the router table, but then when I took the router back out of the table, the special knob required about 400 turns to remove so the router could plunge freely again. Special knobs didn’t solve all problems. Router tabletops are usually much thicker than the standard baseplate of a router, so it’s hard to get the bit to come up as high as needed in a router table. And when you have to change a bit, you need to take the router out of the table.
I think most woodworkers have heard rumours about how lifts solve all these problems and more. But how, exactly, do they do it? And how are they different from a router with a good depth adjustment system? First of all, there are two types of lifts. The first type of lift will take any router and move the whole router – base and motor – up and down. This type of lift usually features a “Swiss cheese” mounting plate that has holes that line up with virtually any router out there. This first type was put on the market because many people own a very nice (and expensive) 3-1/4 HP dedicated plunge router and think it’s a shame not to put it in a table. Examples of this type of lift would be the JessEm Rout-R-Lift Prestige 02322 and Steel City SCM47032.
The limitation with this type of lift is that you can’t bring the collet of the router above the table. Changing a bit is still quite awkward, although with this approach you do gain the benefit of above-table height adjustment. CMT offers a 1/2″ Collet extender (CMT# 766.001.00), but I find this setup less than ideal. It places the bit farther away from the bearing and behind the router collet, so inevitably there will be more runout and vibration in the cutter. There are limitations to what this type of lift can do for you. This type saves buying a new router, but typically these lifts are a bit more money than other lifts on the market because of their complexity. I would also group this type of lift with router kits like the Bosch 1617EVPK and Porter Cable 890 series, which have some adjustment function built into the base of the router, allowing a wrench to be put down through the tabletop to change the height of the bit. They’re not poorly made products, they just don’t have as much functionality as the second type of lift.
The second type of lift, which is my preference, works only with some routers because it only holds the router’s motor. These lifts don’t utilize the base at all. To use this second type of lift, you need a router kit (as opposed to a one-piece router where the base doesn’t detach from the motor) so the motor can be slid out of the base and installed in the lift. I believe this is a better choice of lift, even though it may require purchasing a new router. Because the motor is removed from the base, the lift can bring the collet up through the table to make bit changes much easier. And because the collet can be brought up so high, I don’t have to worry about losing any depth of cut because of the extra thickness of my router table’s top. I can also put the bit all the way into the collet rather than trying to “cheat” an extra 1/8″ of length out of a bit and potentially not have the bit installed safely.
For this type of lift, there are a wide number of companies to choose from, but some of the brands are remarkably similar. King, SawStop and Steel City share a four-post design that’s adjusted via a chain drive. This design is based on a design that was originally brought to market by General International under the Excalibur brand, and I suspect all three versions are now made by the same firm in Taiwan. This lift uses a system of plastic collars to accept motors of a limited number of different sizes into an aluminum clamp. Overall, these units are fairly heavy and well-constructed. Even though I suspect all three come from the same factory, they’re not all identical. The SawStop version comes complete with all the sizes of adaptors for different motors, replacement table inserts and the top surface is also engraved with scales to position the fence. The King and Steel City lifts don’t have these features.
The Grizzly T31638 is a nice price point option for a lift that can hold different sizes of routers. The construction of the lift is similar to the JessEm 02310, but rather than only work with one size of router motor, it can take three different sizes, 3.25″, 3.5″, and 4.2″. The lift mechanism itself uses four guide rods, which should keep the motor very stable during use. Although this does not accept every size of router motor known, it will take the most popular choices from all the major power tool brands, making it easy to find a motor for this lift. This lift is priced slightly above the JessEm 02310, but does have the advantage of taking more than one motor size.
JessEm Tool produces two different lifts in this category, the 02310 and the 02120. The 02310 is one of the least expensive router lifts on the market. It’s made to fit 3-1/2″ diameter router motors. This includes Porter Cable 690 and 890 series, Bosch 1617, and DeWalt 610, 616 and 618 motors, all of which are very popular. The good news is it won’t be hard to find a router to fit in it. It’s also manufactured in Canada, another plus. The 02120 is a beefier lift, much heavier in construction than the 02310. The feature I like most about this lift is the fact that the clamp that holds the motor in place is adjustable, and can hold just about any router motor without the purchase of additional parts.
The Rockler Router Lift FX is quite similar in design to the JessEm 02310 and takes the same common series of 3-1/2″ router motors mentioned above. This lift doesn’t have a lock for the height adjustment, something most lifts have. While there is some friction in the lift mechanism that should keep it stationary, it may drift in depth setting over long runs.
The Incra Mast-R-Lift II is made in Canada by JessEm and is a variation of JessEm’s own 02120. This lift uses a different system of inserts than the JessEm lifts. The inserts for the Incra lift are held in place by magnets rather than the usual twist-lock system found in most lifts. This lift features the same adjustable motor clamp as the JessEm 02120 to fit pretty much any router motor out there.
The Incra PRL-V2 and Woodpeckers PRL-V2 have similar features, and the Incra version is made for them by Woodpeckers. The most notable feature of these lifts is that they use a spring-loaded, quick-adjust system to rapidly position the router close to the desired setting, and then a thumb wheel to dial in the final setting. This allows the router collet to be brought up quickly for bit changes, and then put back in place quickly. The Incra lift uses their magnetic table inserts while the Woodpeckers version uses twist-lock inserts. This lift can also take a number of different router motors, though it’s a shorter list than the JessEm 02120. Adaptor pads are required for some motors with these lifts. Also, when using the Porter Cable 690 and Bosch 1617 series motors with these lifts, you won’t be able to bring the collet above the table. If you want to be able to change the bit above the table with these motors, you’ll need to use a collet extension.
Kreg Tool also produces a router lift. This lift has an adjustable clamp for the motor, which I like. It can take pretty much any motor out there, and adjusts similarly to the JessEm 02120 lift. There are no extra parts to buy, which I like because it means no future purchases, even if you change routers. If you should ever need a new router motor, you’re not limited in choice for what to buy. With this type of lift, you could also start off with a smaller router that you already own, then upgrade to something more powerful in the future.
I think a router lift is essential for any woodworker who spends much time at the router table. I prefer the second type of lifts I’ve mentioned here for one reason: above-the-table bit changes. Once you’ve done it once, you’ll wonder why you didn’t buy a lift sooner. It’s easier than changing bits in a handheld router.