R is for Router

For my other posts about woodworking tools, follow this link.

R is for Router

Router, router, blah, blah, blah. Let me tell you about the time this router almost killed me. Or rather, how I almost killed MYSELF by combining extinction-level-event stupidity with this router.

Ready? Here goes.

This router is a DIY home handyman version. It has a 3/8" chuck, which means that the maximum diameter of the shaft it will accept it, you guessed it, 3/8". Years ago, on some project (I forget what), I needed a special kind of bit. The terror of that day has so screwed up my memories of it that I don't even remember what kind of bit it was.

Was it something to make a fancy edge on something? Was I trying to make a sliding, open dovetail joint? I can't imagine that I needed a special bit to make a simple rabbet, which is just a wide slot cut into the wood. What the heck was I doing?

Anyway, I couldn't find this special, special bit with a 3/8" shaft. However, after much searching, I did find one with a 1/2" shaft. (This was before I paid much attention to things like chuck sizing and maximum shaft sizes). I took it home and, naturally, it was too big. It would have fit a heavy-duty contractor's router or a stationary router table, since those have bigger 1/2" chucks.

Now we come to the This-Is-How-Stupid-People-Die part of the story. Did I curse and take the bit back to the store? Did I learn an important lesson about chuck sizes and grades of power tool? Did I rethink my entire project to work out a construction method I could accomplish safely with the tools at hand?

No, no, and no.

Instead, I did one of the most breathtakingly ignorant, stupid, and dangerous things imaginable.

"Golly, gosh, darn it," I say to myself, "it almost fits. I'll just pop over to my bench grinder and shave that 1/2" shaft down to 3/8"."

Any of you woodworkers reading this have probably sat bolt upright in your chair and are screaming OH MY GOD NO NO TELL ME YOU DIDN'T TELL ME WEREN'T THAT STUPID and I'm sorry to say that, yes, I was that stupid and yes, that's exactly what I did.

To all you non-woodworkers: you must understand, routers - even my home handyman one - are designed to make complicated cuts in wood. They do that by using a very powerful motor to spin a very sharp piece of heavy steel very, very, very fast. I think mine goes at 7000 rpm. Dremels and other ultraspeed tools go at 10,000 or 15,000 rpm, but they are spinning bits that are tiny. Router bits can be BIG. The forces placed on a router bit are directly proportional to the size of the bit. For this reason, router bits and shafts are made of a special kind of tempered tool steel that can handle these kinds of stresses (all of this I know now, but didn't know then).

Since my bit had a honking big 1/2" shaft, you can imagine just how big the bit was. Actually, never mind. I'll tell you how big the bit was: too big for my router to run safely.

And grinding down the shaft was catastrophic.
  • It thinned the shaft, giving less support to the spinning chunk of metal.
  • The grind was uneven, placing more stress on one side of the shaft than the other. And did I use a micrometer to confirm that my grind was even? No. I eyeballed it. What a moron.
  • The process of grinding made the shaft super-hot, which ruined the temper of the steel and weakened it badly.

It took a long time to grind that bit down, but I got it done. So proud of my own ingenuity, I popped the modified bit into the router and set it up over a test piece which I'd secured to a set of sawhorses. I turned it on and got about two seconds of operation before the router detonated in my hands.

As soon as the bit got up to speed, the weakened shaft snapped. The walnut-sized bit shot through the far side of the router housing, smashed through some pegboard and tore a huge chunk out of the concrete basement wall, shattering into an explosion of shrapnel.

If the shaft had held on for just 1/20,000th of a second longer, it would have completed another half-rotation. Instead of flying AWAY from me, that bit would have come TOWARD me. That big, spinning chunk of sharpened tool steel would have gone right through my sternum, right through my lungs and right out through my spine. The hole would have been in the concrete wall BEHIND me instead of IN FRONT of me... and I would have been dead.

My heart rate is up and my hands are shaking slightly just to think back on the visceral terror of the moment I realized what had happened. At the time, I remember that I set the router down, turned off the shop lights and called it quits for the day. After that, I have no clue. I don't remember if I went for a walk or turned on a golf tournament on TV or went out to mow the grass. Whatever it was had to have been mindless. I was in shock, pale and trembling and loose-boweled at what had just happened.

Another 1/20,000th of a second and my kids would have been without a father, my wife without a husband. But none of that happened. I didn't die. I wasn't even hurt. In the most literal sense, I dodged a bullet. In the years since, I have wondered often about the meaning of my escape from the just consequences of my own stupidity.

I've used the router since then. It was gut-wrenching to fit a bit in and fire it up the first time after my near-death experience, but I did it. It works fine - a great tool, so long as you use the right bits, follow the safety instructions and don't act like an idiot.

To be honest, though... the router isn't my favorite tool. Not anymore.


||| Comments are welcome |||
Help keep the words flowing.


  1. That is definitely a tale of WHOA. It reminded me of Neil Stephenson's riff on power tools.

    I'd never do something like that, not because I'm not crazy, but because I don't have a bench grinder at hand. Having a bent drill bit in a portable hand drill is the closest I've come, and that was unpleasant enough.

    But you have and use the same router? With a hole in the housing?

    1. I love that story about the Hole Hawg. I've seen those drills, but have never used one. They look exactly as he described: no nonsense and powerful. Just reading it, though, has helped me to put my own tools, abilities and accomplishments in perspective.

      Yes, I still have and use the same router. When the bit flew out, it shattered a clear plastic section of the housing, a viewing plate comparable to the one on my side. The sections on the side are open to allow woodchips to exit. If the bit had hit one of the metal parts of the housing, the whole thing would have exploded in my hands instead of zinging over to explode against the wall.

      Like I said, the only failure window that would let me walk away from that unscathed was only a tiny, tiny fraction of a second wide... and my bit hit it square on. I'm not saying I dedicated my life to a merciful God at that moment, but I will say it let to a lot of time spent thinking about what I was doing with my life.

  2. I felt sick to my stomach when I read that you were going to grind down the bit...

  3. I'm glad you survived and became a little wiser, too.



Thank you for leaving a comment. The staff at Landless will treat it with the same care that we would bestow on a newly hatched chick. By the way, no pressure or anything, but have you ever considered subscribing to Landless via RSS?