The Clarke Contractor CR4 is a large variable speed plunge router with a 2000-watt motor. I needed a plunge router that could be kept for freehand use, negating the need to remove the Dewalt from its semi-permanent home in the router table. The budget didn’t stretch to a second Dewalt, though hindsight is 20-20 and the old sayings “you get what you pay for” and “buy cheap, buy twice” ended up ringing true.
On the surface at least, Clarke’s CR4 offers everything you could want in a contractor’s router. Its hefty body houses a 2000W brushed motor with infinitely variable speed between 8000 and 23000 RPM. It rides on 2 plunge columns offering a 66 mm plunge depth, with an adjustable depth stop and accurate fine adjustment. It is also supplied with most of the accessories you might need including a fence, trammel attachment for cutting arcs and circles, 1 22 mm guide bush and collets in 1/4inch, 3/8in and 1/2in sizes. That last point is particularly welcome and means the CR4 will accept any imperial-shank router bit you might have. It will also support metric 6mm, 8mm, 10mm and 12mm bits with reducing sleeves. The 22 mm guide bush is an odd choice though as most professional jigs such as the worktop jigs from Trend require a 30 mm guide bush.
The packaging is awful. Tool packaging is never lavish, but the CR4 packaging shows no thought to its preservation in shipping. The router rattles around inside a flimsy box, with the accessories haphazardly distributed around it and everything wrapped in thin plastic bags. I had two of these units; one ordered online, and the other purchased in a retail store. I thought that my first unit had been a custom return, but when I received my second I realised that this is how these leave the factory. No wonder the cast fence on my first unit was damaged, and the baseplate of the router itself bent. The second model was better in both regards, though it was a display model so had at least been checked prior to purchase.
Nevertheless the router is well designed with sturdy side handles tilted backwards for better ergonomics. The trigger, safety latch and variable speed knob are positioned on the right-side handle, with the plunge lock also within easy reach. The trigger has a positive click when engaged but cannot be latched, so it is not possible to use the CR4 in a table. The base of the router incorporates mounts for the two supplied fence rails and the supplied dust extraction adapter. Fitting the latter requires removal of the plastic base cover, which also serves as a handy template for making custom jigs to fit to the router base.
The parallel fence mounts to both of the included rails and is stable once the thumb screws are tightened. The fence face is plastic and split into 2 sections which can be adjusted to give proper clearance for the router bit while maintaining maximum contact with the workpiece. The trammel attachment mounts to the end of either fence rail, with a nicely machined locating pin that is fully adjustable for depth. Trammel attachments make cutting arcs and circles a breeze, providing a central hole in the workpiece is acceptable.
Here is where the CR4 falls short. On both of the examples I had there was a large amount of play in the plunge mechanism. So much so that the body would rock back and forth by a few millimetres, enough to cause the bit to judder as it was plunged into the workpiece. It was also impossible to cut a dead straight line, as I couldn’t hold the router still long enough to engage the plunge lock. Locking the plunge depth wasn’t a guarantee that the router was plunging straight, so the centre of the cut would usually end up being at least a millimetre off target. The plunge spring offered the right amount of resistance; enough to carry the weight of the body, but not enough to require biceps of steel to plunge the router to its stops.
The lack of stability can also be quite dangerous. Plunging some cutters into a workpiece at an odd angle can increase the risk of kickback. With a powerful machine like the CR4, a kickback can easily cause a loss of control and send the router flying from your hands.
Speaking of power, the CR4 has a lot of it though it doesn’t have the torque of similarly specced routers. There doesn’t appear to be any electronic load compensation, so the motor noticeably slows under the resistance of the cutter and workpiece. After using my second unit to cut a few grooves in MDF, I noticed a grinding noise on spin down and the unmistakeable smell of magic smoke emanating from beneath the brush cover. There was no apparent damage to the brushes or the rotor, but spinning the collet by hand began to produce a rattling that could only be a sign of a bearing about to perform a self-destruct routine. I had no desire to experience that under the power of such a large motor with a multi-bladed cutter in the collet, so the router went back in the box and back to the store from whence it came.
I would love to recommend the Clarke CR4 but I can’t. On the surface it is a bargain router for a contractor or for the home woodworker wanting to tackle more complex or larger projects. It comes with a useful complement of accessories too and is ergonomically designed.
However, the amount of play in the plunge assembly makes it inaccurate at best and a danger at worst. The bearing in one of my units started to fail after a few passes through a relatively low quality MDF, which should have been child splay for a router of this size. And some thought to proper packaging would surely save many of these from shipping damage. I’d be glad to see its issues addressed as even at an elevated price a CR4 with these problems resolved would be a great machine. But as of the time of writing, other models offer better accuracy and are safer, and stand a chance of reaching you in one piece.