For smaller kitchen tasks, you'll get more control and better results using a paring knife rather than a large butcher knife. And likewise, a paring knife would be a poor choice to carve a roast. It's the same with routers. Use a big router for the biggest jobs, and for most light-duty jobs—flush trimming plywood edging, routing hinge mortises, or shaping edges—a trim router excels with its small size and nimbleness. And because it costs a third to half the price of a big router, you can own multiple trim routers and dedicate some to bits and setups you use often, such as 1⁄8 " or 1⁄4 " round-overs.
Not much has changed among corded trim routers in the past five years, but the growing field of battery-powered trimmers intrigued us. So we tested 15 popular models—nine corded and six cordless—head to head in the WOOD® magazine shop. Here's what we found.
It all starts with power
We know the capabilities of a corded trim router, but our biggest question entering this showdown was how much power and battery runtime the cordless models would have. Thanks to lithium-ion battery technology and high-efficiency brushless motors—all six cordless models use both—most of the cordless trimmers perform as well, in terms of power, as the top corded models. (See the chart for full comparison ratings.)
But how long will that power last? We measured battery runtime by routing a deep chamfer until the battery exhausted its charge. (See the chart below for results.) Granted, this was a hefty cut, so runtime will be longer when making lighter cuts. The good news: If you're routing shallow round-overs or chamfers, you'll likely not exceed a battery's capacity unless you're doing a big job. (All the cordless models sell bare—without a battery pack or charger. We used an optional 2- or 3-amp-hour pack with each router in testing. Optional larger amp-hour packs will deliver longer runtime.)
Small collets = small bits
For a level playing field, we used new Freud router bits with each trim router in all testing.All 15 trim routers we tested come with 1⁄4 " collets. That—as well as bit openings in the subbases that range from 13⁄16 to 19⁄16 " in diameter—limits you to small, 1⁄4 "-shank bits that won't overwork the motor. The Makita cordless router also comes with a 3⁄8 " collet; it's optional for Makita's corded trimmer. But 3⁄8 "-shank bits are relatively rare, so it delivers minimal value.
These trimmers come equipped with one of three types of collets, as shown below. We prefer the one-piece self-releasing collets on the Bosch Colt, and the Bosch, DeWalt, and Milwaukee cordless models.
Bit depth requires finesse
With all the tested routers, the motor slides out of the base for better access to change bits. That's also how you make coarse bit-depth adjustments. All but the Grizzly H7790 also have a fine-adjust mechanism to dial in a precise bit depth, which proves most helpful when setting a perfect round-over. We like the Milwaukee and Ryobi adjusters best.
Five models provide at least 2" of collet travel, giving you greater flexibility when setting bit depth, especially for long bits. The DeWalt tops the group with a maximum travel just over 217⁄64 "; the Milwaukee has the least at 11⁄16 ".
Watch where you're routing
For bearing- or bushing-guided cuts, bit visibility proves less critical. But for freehand routing, such as for inlay mortises, you need to see clearly. A clear-plastic subbase improves both your sightline and light transmission to the work area. The black subbases on the MLCS Rocky 30 and Bosch and Makita cordless routers make the area around the bit even darker.
LED illumination increases visibility around the bit. All but the Bosch and MLCS routers have this feature. The LED on Makita's cordless router, shown below, helps to offset the visibility issues caused by the black subbase and metal base.
Ergonomics, balance matter
In most cases, trim routers can be used with one hand. But doing so sometimes creates balance issues. The top-mounted batteries on cordless routers can make them top-heavy, especially when using a high-amp-hour battery pack. When balancing a trimmer on a narrow surface, such as flush-trimming plywood edging, it's best to steady the base with your other hand, as shown in the opening photo.
Other noteworthy items regarding ergonomics:
■ The cordless DeWalt's 31⁄2 "-diameter base is the largest in the test; small hands might struggle to grip it.
■ Bosch's cordless router, above, differs from the other battery-powered models because its motor and battery are not in line with the spindle.
More trimmer tidbits
■ Bit changes. You tighten and loosen the collet nuts on these routers in two ways. Four models require two included wrenches, and eight use one wrench and a spindle lock. Three models provide for both methods, letting you choose which you prefer. We find it easier to change bits with the base removed, but the motor can roll when using one wrench and the spindle lock. That's not a worry with two wrenches; but it's one more wrench to store (or potentially lose).
■ Speed ranges. More than half of the 15 models have variable-speed motors, letting you adjust the speed for each application. For example, when routing cherry or maple—species prone to friction burning—it helps to slow the bit speed to prevent burn marks. You don't have this option with the single-speed models, six of which run 26,000 rpm or more. The Bosch cordless router runs at 13,000 rpm, a speed that maximizes runtime from its lower voltage, and also avoids issues with burning. We did not find the slow speed to be a problem.
■ Power switches. We experienced no problems with any of the switches. The two-part safety switch on the Makita cordless model, above, requires an extra step.
■ Guide bushings. You might want to use a guide bushing to follow a template with these routers, but not all will accept them out of the box. Four models (the corded DeWalt and Porter-Cable and the cordless Makita and Milwaukee) come with a subbase that accepts standard two-piece guide bushings. Subbases on the corded Makita and both Grizzlys won't accept two-piece bushings, but each comes with a single proprietary 3⁄8 " bushing that fits their subbases. (No other bushing sizes are available for these models.)
■ Accessory attachments. Most of these routers come with an edge guide, shown above. And five of those models also include a bearing-guided attachment for flush-trimming edges, as shown below. This proves helpful if you don't own a bearing-guided flush-trim bit. (See the chart for the models with these accessories.)
Put your trimmer dollars here
You won't find any duds in this group, but some models do stand out. Among the corded trim routers, the Porter-Cable PCE6435 ($120) earns the Top Tool award. It's excellent ergonomically, has a variable-speed motor, a guide-bushing-ready clear-plastic subbase, an LED for excellent visibility, and comes with an edge guide.
In the cordless category, the Milwaukee 2723-20 ($180 without battery or charger) grabs Top Tool honors. It balances nicely with either a 2.0 or 5.0 amp-hour battery pack, provides respectable runtime, has a clear subbase with LED, and comes with lots of extras.
For great bang for the buck, get the metal-bodied Grizzly H7790 at $35. It's a good performer and comes with a one-year warranty, so we named it our Top Value.
Download PDF of Trim Router Comparison Chart