(Written in May, 1997)
by Jim Heaphy
About four years ago, I accidentally forgot a router that I needed for a job. As a result, I had to purchase a good quality heavy duty plunge router on the way to the appointment, and only had a few minutes to shop. I stopped at a home center, and the only router available that met my requirements was the De Walt DW625, a 3 HP Swiss-made router with electronic speed control, formerly sold under the Elu brand name. Despite the hurried purchase, I was really quite pleased with this router when I started using it, and since then, it has become my workhorse, used almost every day.
Then, one day recently, I noticed that the router was running hot. It started giving off unpleasant odors, and within a few uses, it stopped running altogether. Again, I was faced with the prospect of buying a new router quickly. However, this time, I had a bit more time to shop, and I had an idea of what I wanted based on a magazine ad I had seen. De Walt had introduced a 2 HP plunge router with dust extraction, and this dust control feature really appealed to me - if it worked. Much of what I do is repair work on solid surface kitchen countertops, and any method of controlling dust is of great interest to me as it improves customer satisfaction.
I went to a tool store that I knew sold De Walt products, and asked about the new router. The salesman hadn't heard about it, and none were on display. I was almost ready to leave, when I glanced at an upper shelf and noticed De Walt's distinctive bright yellow carton. Sure enough, one of the new De Walt DW621 routers was hidden away up there. The salesman got it down, and I took a look. Unlike most plunge routers which slide up and down on two plunge columns of equal size, this router has one conventional column that is 9/16" in diameter, and another that is 1-1/8" in diameter. This larger column is hollow, and leads from a dust collection chamber in the router base to a fitting for a vacuum hose at the top of the unit. Speed control is electronic, and variable from 8,000 to 24,000 RPM. I decided that it was well worth a try, since I had good results with the older De Walt router, and a 30 day no-risk trial period was offered.
I eagerly unpacked and examined the tool. I noticed that it is made in Italy rather than Switzerland. Some of the controls are a bit unconventional, and required some getting used to. The on-off switch is integral with of one of the handles, and the motion required to turn on and lock on the router is not intuitive. After using it a few times, I got used to it. Similarly, locking the plunge mechanism is accomplished by rotating the other router handle. Although this operated easily, I worried for a while that I might accidentally unlock the plunge mechanism while handling the router. However, this has not proved to be any problem at all in routine usage.
I wanted to test the dust control feature as soon as I had familiarized myself with the basic functions of the new router. I got a scrap piece of solid surface material and set up a straight edge to guide the router in a test cut. At first, I did not hook up the vacuum hose. I plunged the router bit through the material, and routed a groove a few inches long. Of course, clouds of powdery white dust flew everywhere. I then duplicated the test cut, only this time, I hooked up the vacuum hose. I was absolutely amazed! The vacuum picked up 95% or more of the dust, and the difference was dramatic.
I then tried several other router operations. I discovered that the effectiveness of the dust collection varies, depending on the type of router cut that is being made. For example, it is less effective when routing along the edge of a work piece, since the cutting is taking place exposed to open air, rather than in a more or less contained chamber, as when routing all the way through a sheet. Even in this situation, though, the vacuum picks up between half and two-thirds of the dust, which is a great help.
I use a Porter-Cable 7810 tool-triggered wet/dry vacuum, and its hose attached easily to the router's hose fitting without use of an adapter. It is necessary to clean the vacuum's filter frequently when collecting solid surface dust. I usually clean mine three or four times a day.
I have learned to be very aware of the presence of the vacuum hose when I am using the router. The weight of the hose tends to pull the router off course a bit, or even tip it over if I am not very careful whenever the motor is on. Before I start routing, I check to be sure that there is both enough free hose and enough free power cord to allow the router to move to the end of the cut without restriction. As I route, I am careful to exert a extra little pressure along the straght edge that is guiding the router. It seems like every power tool has its own unique idiosyncrasies, and once I got used to thinking about the vacuum hose, it became second nature.
If you want to use the router without a vacuum hose attached, a cap is provided to prevent dust from spewing out of the top of the plunge column.
The De Walt DW621 has another really nice feature - the best adjustable depth stop feature I have ever seen on a plunge router. Setting the zero point is very easy. You just plunge the bit to touch your zero reference point, such as the surface of a countertop, lock the plunge mechanism, move the depth stop adjuster all the way down, and adjust a rotating dial to zero. Now, you rotate the dial to the depth of the cut you want to make, tighten a small thumb screw, and the depth stop is set. No addition or subtraction is required. It would be more accurate to say that the tool has two depth stop adjusters. The main one is calibrated in 1/16" increments, and the secondary one is calibrated in 1/256" increments. This allows incredible accuracy in making cuts of precise depths.
One side of the router is almost flat and free of controls or any projecting parts. This allows easy routing within 2" of a wall or other vertical obstruction.
The only shortcoming of the De Walt DW621 that I have discovered so far is that it is a little underpowered for really heavy duty routing operations. The difference between its 2 HP motor and the 3 HP De Walt DW625 is noticeable and significant. I solved this problem quite easily - I took the dead 3 HP De Walt DW625 to the nearest factory authorized service center, and they completely rebuilt the router for less than $80.00. It runs just like new, although its beat up appearance reveals its true age. When I picked it up, I learned that a special fitting is available on special order basis to retrofit this router for dust control. I ordered one, but haven't received it yet.
Now I have the best of both worlds - a great new 2 HP router that collects dust and a powerhouse 3 HP router for heavy cutting. Of course, I haven't said anything about the three other specialized routers I keep in my van, but this column is at an end.