Choosing a Compact Router

There are very few tools that compare with a top of the line 3 horsepower variable speed wood router. At least not when it comes to raw power and abilities that compare to that of a commercial shaper – especially when paired with a quality router table.

But if you have ever tried to balance one on the edge of a 2 X 6 rail and make a consistent cut, or spend hours lugging one around while creating profiles on a job site, you know there has to be a better way.

These days a router offers unlimited versatility in design. With a bit of creativity, the router is able to create truly beautiful examples of custom woodwork, whether that be in designing one-off trim profiles created in multiple passes with multiple bits, or beautiful accents applied to a piece of custom furniture. The only other tool likely to offer this level of customization would be a shaper with custom cut blades. But a shaper can’t be carried to a piece of work. And today’s router is a relatively light and eminently portable tool.

But this was certainly not always the case.

The Router Matures

The venerable handheld router has been around for a century now. Originally developed as an air powered tool that used the basic concept of the milling machine adapted to perform the functions of a hand router plane. As with virtually all woodworking tools prior to the twentieth century, the router plane performed admirably in the hands of a pro, but suffered from limitations. Those limitations could be addressed with rotary bits, and at the time, air power was the only way to spin a bit at the speeds required to make cuts in wood without burning.

Palm RouterAs you can imagine, the router in its original form, like many of the power tools of the day, could only charitably thought of as portable.

Over the years the router was continually refined. Weight was pared, power was improved and features were added. Eventually arriving at the many versions available today. The standard full-size router is available in models from 1 horsepower fixed base units aimed at the home handyman, to 3-1/4 horse plunge routers with wariable speed and soft start, some of which are designed specificlly for use in a router table.

As noted, there remained a gap in the product offerings.

Laminate Trimmers

Originally designed as a small, specialized tool for trimming veneers, the laminate trimmer had no need for the power of full sized routers. Since these routers had smaller motors, they could be packaged in smaller cases. This was a definite advantage in shops where workers were handling a router day in and day out in a variety of orientations.

Eventully laminate routers evloved into full featured mini-routers able to perform virtually all of the tasks of a full size router, albeit ones that could only handle the smaller bits and had to take the work in smaller bites.

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A palm router, as its name implies fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, offering unparalleled versatility performing molding functions on the job site. In fact today’s compact router is a viable option as the only machine an occasional light user is likely to need. It really is able to perform virtually all of the tasks you would expect of a full sized router.

What to look for in a trim router

The laminate router has come a long way in its evolution to the palm router. Today you can buy a compact router that has all the features of a bigger model save for one. You would be hard pressed to find one with a half inch collet. But since the typical small router maxes out at 1 hp, 1/4″ bits are moreTrim Router than sufficient for the tasks its likely to be called on to perform.

From the most basic of routers – fixed base and single speed – all the way up to variable speed routers with soft start and otional plunge bases, there is a choice to fit your needs.

There are realistically not that many situations where the average user is likely to need all of the features offered by the best routers. The truth is though, that the prices of many of the offerings by quality manufacturers are such that you don’t have to forego them.

There are models that offer all of the options, with the exception of the added plunge base, for under $100.

You might want to consider a cordless version for very limited occasional use, but with the high speed demands and power requirements of a router, it is quite possible that current technology leaves the battery powered router not ready for prime time.

Making the choice

What your choice of router will be is likely to come down to the offerings of your most trusted manufacturer. Any palm router offered by a quality woodworking tool manufacturer is likely to give you years of use.

After that it will boil down to the bells and whistles – the extras that are bundled with the router itself.

Like many tools today, most are offered with a case, but some additonal options are:

A plunge base for easily starting milling operations in the middle of a piece.

A tilt base that allows the bit to attack the work piece at a variety of angles.

A dust hood to keep sawdust from accumulating.

Advanced edge guides for maximum adjusability.

Template guides for inlay and other advanced techniques.

And more.

In short, when it comes to trim routers, why choose at all? Instead of deciding what trade-offs to put up with, decide what you want.

And then get it.

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