I’ve been using these small trim routers for decades, having first used them in the industry they were developed for: laminate work. I can’t say I miss the laminate work, but it didn’t take me long during my preferred woodworking tasks to realize that I missed the convenient size and abilities of a laminate trimmer. Who says they’re only for laminate?
Though limited to 1/4″ shank bits, these trimmers are true routers. They’re capable of joinery work and edge details just like a standard router, but also offer benefits not found on a standard router. Their small size makes them ideal for detail routing such as inlay work and small hardware installation.
In addition, many of these routers are available as kits that include multiple specialty bases. Most kits include a traditional flat base and an offset base that allows a power transfer from the main spindle to an offset collet for routing into tight corners. A third base is a tilting base that allows routing at angles. This opens up lots of new opportunities for customized profiles, as well as angled grooves and more. The kits can almost double the price of the router, but it more than doubles the applications possible with the router, so it’s worth considering.
To test the routers we used three different operations using new bits from Infinity Tools (infinitytools.com). We ran a 1/4″-radius roundover bit along the edge of an 18″-long Lyptus board, checking the amperage draw during the cut.
One of the most common knocks against trim routers is that they’re underpowered. To see if that assertion was valid, we slipped a 3/4″-diameter dadoing bit into the trim routers and ran 1/4″-deep dados across a 12″-wide mahogany board in a single pass.
Our third test was to gauge the ease of fine work with the routers. Their small size makes them ideal for this work, but if you can’t see where your bit is cutting, it’s not that helpful. We ran 1/8″-deep hinge mortises in the Lyptus boards, again using the 3/4″-diameter dado bits.
We also spent some time gauging the ergonomics of the tools. In particular, how the router felt in the hand, how it balanced and how easy it was to change bits and adjust the depth of cut.
Features and Comments
There were a number of features to help contrast the nine routers in the test. Two of the routers (Bosch and Ridgid) included variable-speed control, while all the others were single-speed models. While these routers are somewhat limited in capability by their motor sizes, they can use large-diameter bits (if the base allows enough clearance). When using a large bit, slowing the speed of the router will improve the cutting performance of the bit. That said, variable speed is a nice feature, but not a deal-breaker in this category.
A soft-start motor is a side benefit of the variable speeds on the Bosch and Ridgid units, but the Makita also includes a soft-start feature. This is a handy feature because of the power packed into these pint-sized routers — there can be a significant jerk as the centrifugal motion kicks in. Soft start allows you to more easily control the router during delicate procedures (such as inlay work) and it makes the tools more pleasant to use in general.
Related to the capability of each router is the base opening size. We’ve noted the range of opening sizes in the chart. Some of the router bases are designed to accept template guides, so the base opening is sized for that feature. Two of the routers (Makita and Grizzly) actually come with a template guide.
While the motors do much of the work on these routers, the bases make them accurate and affect the ease of use. There are a variety of bases used in the test routers. The most common is a base that slips over the motor housing and clamps in place against the body. The depth of cut is adjusted by sliding the base up or down the motor body. Six of the nine routers use this design, though each of those six have differences. Some have bases that orient or align to the motor, and some offer gross or fine depth-of-cut adjustment (or both). Another difference is how easy it is to lock in that adjustment.
The other three routers (DeWalt, Freud and Porter-Cable) use a base design that clamps the base to the motor housing and the depth of cut is controlled within the base itself, independent of the positioning on the motor body.
Another interesting feature about the bases relates to visibility. Some of the bases (the base body, not the base plate) are a high-impact polycarbonate, while others are metallic. The polycarbonate bases are translucent or transparent, with differing results. More important than the type of material used is the way the base is cut away around the bit. A more enclosed base dramatically reduces visibility.
The switches for these routers are all over the place. Some on top, some on the side — and when on the side, they can be either at the top or bottom of the router. Because trim routers are primarily one-handed power tools the switch position isn’t as critical as on larger routers. But you may very well prefer one switch location over another. We’ll leave that decision to personal choice.
We based our conclusions solely on the standard routers, not on the extra bases offered in the kit versions. Though we feel these extra bases offer significant benefits, not all the trim routers in the test included multiple bases, so we felt it inappropriate to consider them in forming our conclusions.
While the power offered by each of these routers is important, we found that the ease of use (depth-of-cut adjustability and visibility) were much more important factors.
In considering power, the routers range from 2.1 to 6.5 amps, with the Grizzly standing as the lowest router on the totem pole at a mere 2.1 amps. During our dado testing we pushed the routers beyond what would be appropriate use and found the power in the Bosch, DeWalt, Makita and Ridgid to be the best. All the other competitors fared well, but we noticed bogging in the Freud and Grizzly units.
In depth-of-cut adjustment we found the Bosch the best of the bunch with easy to use gross and fine adjustments. The Makita and Ridgid models offered better-than-average depth-of-cut adjustment, while the rest of the group ranged from average to awkward.
Visibility was another tricky one. While you might assume that the translucent bases would improve visibility, the plastic isn’t clear enough to actually provide improved visibility. It does improve the light available at the cut, but the more important factors were the hole size and the way the base was cut/formed to allow actual visibility. Bosch won again in this department with a well-designed base cut nearly half away and a larger-than-average base opening for bits. Close behind was the Makita with a clear base, good cutaway and an added task light to help out visibility.
Considering all these factors and more, we awarded the Bosch the Editor’s Choice Award in the trim router category. The Makita offered good performance, though slightly less user-friendly depth-of-cut adjustment. Tipping the scale for the Makita is the built-in work light, earning it a second-place finish.
While the Grizzly H7790 was significantly less expensive than the other routers in the test, we didn’t feel that its performance and ease of use gave it enough of an advantage to call it out as a winner based on price.
This router has the best feel of any we tested. The grip is a comfortable size and the soft rubber wrapped on the body provides a good grip and reduces vibration transferred to your hand. It’s also one of only two routers with variable speeds.
The base has the benefit of both a gross and fine depth-of-cut adjustment that can be switched back and forth with a slight turn of the base. Very nice. The base attaches and locks in place on the motor easily with a quality turnbuckle latch. The fine adjust on the base is the only one in the test that calls out the adjustment range (one turn equals 3/64″). Changing bits is made more convenient with the tool’s spindle lock, which is easily accessible. The soft-start feature also adds to the user-friendly feel of this tool. During testing we found very good power and performance. Visibility was very good, but we wouldn’t mind if they added a work light like Makita has. While it’s not a comment that we can support with numbers, the Bosch trimmer “felt” more smooth and solid during testing, giving a quality feel to the tool, which earned it our Editor’s Choice Award.
The router as tested comes with a straightedge guide and plastic case. Available bases include offset and tilting, as well as bearing-guided accessories and a laminate seaming plate.
The Craftsman is one of two nearly identical routers in the test (compare it to the Ryobi).
Overall we like the size and feel of the Craftsman and we were initially pleased with the thought of the translucent base with a smoky finish. Unfortunately, we found that translucency didn’t translate into improved visibility. The base design has the base slipping over the motor to adjust the depth of cut and uses a convenient turnbuckle latch. Unlike some of the other “slipover” bases in the test, the Craftsman base does orient on the motor using a pin guide on the motor. However, we noticed that the guide channel in the base collected dust during operation, making the base difficult to adjust. Only gross height adjustments are possible with this router and we found that the balance of tight-fit and easy depth-of-cut movement was very tricky. When the adjustment was smooth the base would slip during operation. Not good. Considering the $100 price we would have liked to see a collet lock on this router, and we would certainly expect a base that doesn’t slip during operation.
As tested, the Craftsman trimmer comes with the standard base and an oversized woodworking base with two large handles. Also included is a flush-trimming bit with bearings. No accessory-base kit is available.
The DeWalt is one of the three routers in the test that uses a non-slipover base design. This offers a fine-adjustment feature (though without graduated indication of depth change), but no gross adjustment for depth of cut. The DeWalt design uses a toolless attachment for the base, but this adds a rather large handle that is in the way. While the DeWalt includes a spindle lock to assist with bit changing, the base really needs to be removed to adequately access the collet lock.
The grip size is OK, but there was little attention given to ergonomics. During testing we found the DeWalt to have good power, but the base design makes it very difficult to see where the cut is taking place. The hole is small and because the base offers only fine adjustment there is very little travel in the base, making it a very short opening with poor visibility. The DeWalt was also the loudest router in the test, making it less appealing. But in short, the DeWalt isn’t a bad choice. It has some upgraded features (a spindle lock and toolless base attachment), but they’re cumbersome to use. Essentially this is a tool that could benefit from a redesign.
As tested, the trimmer includes the standard base and a bearing guide. The kit includes standard, offset and tilting bases, a laminate seaming plate and edge guides.
The Freud is similar to the DeWalt in design, with the base attaching to the motor body. Unlike the DeWalt, the Freud requires a wrench to tighten the base and does not offer a spindle lock. Like the DeWalt, the base design offers only fine depth-of-cut adjustment and has no graduated depth indicator. The base offers slightly better visibility than the DeWalt, and adjusting the depth of cut is a smoother operation with the Freud.
Power, on the other hand, was not as good as the DeWalt. While both the Freud and DeWalt are larger than most of the trim routers in the test, the Freud has the unpleasant distinction of the being the tallest, giving it an ungainly feel in the hand with a penchant toward tipping during operation. While priced competitively with most of the pack, the Freud router is lacking in features, ergonomics and power. This is another tool that could benefit from a redesign.
The Freud trim router is sold only as tested with a standard base, case and bearing edge guide, though tilting and offset bases are available as accessories.
The Grizzly is the no-frills router of the test. It is an older design with the only metal-motor body in the group. It’s also missing some user-friendly features that, combined with its affordable price, would have given it a nice edge in the review.
We found the power limited as we pushed the router during testing. The base is not fixed in relation to the motor and only offers gross depth-of-cut adjustment. The base-mounting mechanism (a two-handed thumbscrew arrangement) is awkward, requiring both hands to tighten the base and a third hand to maintain the depth-of-cut adjustment. One feature that is solid on this router is the visibility at the base. The clear base and cutaway design offer nearly identical visibility as the Makita (but without the work light), which is very much appreciated. As to ergonomics — well there wasn’t much effort exerted there. The router size is OK, but it feels odd in your hand, with no obvious place to grip the tool. In addition, the top-mounted switch hinders convenient bit changing. While the price is tempting, we’d suggest spending more for a better tool.
The Grizzly comes with the standard base, an edge guide, template guide and a bearing-edge guide. No additional bases are available.
The Makita router is an odd mix. The base is a slip-fit design that offers gross and fine height adjustments, using a slip sleeve and a pressure roller wheel mounted on the base. The fine adjustment is there, but not as refined as on some other routers in the test. The base attaches to the motor body effortlessly with a simple turnbuckle latch and is transparent and cut away, which offers good visibility. For even better visibility, Makita added a pair of task lights that shine directly on the work surface. The router has a comfortable, slim grip and some attention was afforded to ergonomics.
During testing we found the Makita to have reliable power and the quietest operation of any router in the test. The Makita is comparable in performance and visibility to the Bosch, earning it an Editor’s Choice Award. The fine adjust is less convenient than on the Bosch, and we would have liked to have a spindle lock. That, mixed with the highest price in the test, makes it finish in second place behind the Bosch, but still worthy of recognition.
The Makita comes with a standard base and bearing-edge guide, and a template guide. A tilting base is available as an accessory.
The Porter-Cable router is most similar to the DeWalt and Freud base designs, employing a base that mounts to the motor (with a knurled knob), but doesn’t slip on the motor housing for depth-of-cut adjustments. As with the two similar routers, this base design offers only fine depth-of-cut adjustment. The Porter-Cable does offer a smaller motor housing making the router easier to handle during operation but still offers little in the way of ergonomics. The flat top and conveniently located spindle lock allow for convenient bit changes.
Power during testing was below expectations with some bogging during the dado cuts. Visibility was poor. The base offers only a short area to see past and a small, dark hole through which to see. The base adjustment was better than some in the test, but still not great. For the base to move, the locking knob has to be slightly loose. This leaves play that allows the base to wobble during tightening, throwing the setting off by 1/16″ or more. When compared to the similarly priced models in the test, the Porter-Cable tool falls short in performance and visibility.
As tested, the router includes the standard base. Offset and tilting bases are available in kit form.
One of only two variable-speed routers in the test, the Ridgid has a very slim design that is comfortable in the hand, and some attention has been paid to ergonomics. The base is the only (standard) round design, with a rack-and-pinion height adjustment that allows for gross and fine adjustments, though the fine adjustments are tricky to control. The thumbscrew lock on the base tends to compete with the fine adjustment function. Though the switch and cord aren’t mounted at the top of the router, the top is sloped so bit changing isn’t made any more convenient. The router also requires two wrenches to change bits, and one of the wrenches provided was slightly undersized making the process frustrating.
During testing we were pleasantly surprised by the power offered in such a small package. On the opposing side, the base design makes visibility difficult. This is the first trim router manufactured under the Ridgid name and while they got a number of things right, we still see room for improvement.
The router comes with a bearing-edge guide and fixed-edge guide. No accessory bases are available for this model.
This router is a nearly exact copy (physically) of the Craftsman router. The one significant difference is the color of the translucent bases. The Ryobi base is yellow, which is an improvement for visibility over the gray, smoke-finish Craftsman base. The base slips over the motor to adjust the depth-of-cut. The Ryobi base suffers from the same slipping/tightening difficulty found in the Craftsman model, making easy adjustment a trade-off for slipping during operations.
Performance was slightly better than the Craftsman during cutting, and as mentioned, visibility was slightly better. One obvious benefit over the Craftsman is the $20 savings. Unfortunately, that still leaves it at an $80 price which doesn’t make up for a balky base attachment, minimal features and less-than-perfect visibility.
One caution about the Ryobi (and the Craftsman clone) is that the collet is an integral part of the motor shaft. If you wear out the collet on one of these, you can’t easily or affordably replace it.
The Ryobi trimmer comes with the standard base and an oversized woodworking base. Also included is a flush-trimming bit with bearings. No accessory-base kit is available.
As trim routers begin to gain respect as routers, not just trimmers, it’s natural to consider where they’re headed as a category. If you compare the differences between the recently redesigned Bosch trim router and the dated but functional Grizzly trimmer, you can see that things are changing.
While the addition of better depth-of-cut adjustment, better visibility and improved bit changing are very much welcome, there’s more to come. One of the features that makes trim routers appealing to me is the addition of specialty bases giving the trim routers more versatility than standard routers. So why not add another base to the mix?
We welcome the plunge base for trim routers. There are a couple of examples of smaller routers with plunge bases such as the Grizzly H2854 ($69.65) shown at right and the Dremel plunge-base attachment. The Grizzly (and other similar models) uses a grinder motor body giving it a different feel than a true router, but you still get the benefits of a plunge base in a smaller router. The Dremel almost works, but while acceptable power is a concern for trim routers, it’s even more so for rotary-style tools when used as a router.
Not to worry. Just last year MicroFence introduced a Portable Three Axis Mill designed to bring precision plunging capabilities to a selection of trim routers as an accessory. We’ve tested the mill (April 2006, issue #154) and it’s very precise and a nice addition to a trim router. It’s also a bit of an expense — at $400, the accessory is four-times the cost of most of the routers in the test.
For those interested in a more affordable option, manufacturers such as Bosch are looking at adding a plunge base to their trim router line. We’re glad to hear it and as soon as we have more information we’ll pass it along to you.— DT