This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Milwaukee Tool M18 FUEL Compact Router
COLLET: ¼ inch
VARIABLE SPEED: 10,000-31,000 rpm
BATTERY: 18 volt
WEIGHT: 2.95 pounds [without battery]
• Soft-start motor
• Instant-stop bit
• Edge guide
PRICE: $179 [battery extra]
As a rule, cords are a nuisance: They pose trip hazards, force you to hunt for a place to plug them in, and ruin your work if they snag on something. That’s why, among the several routers I own, my compact cordless ones get the most use.
It wasn’t always so. When cordless routers were first introduced in 2009, their performance was less than stellar. Motors bogged down in dense stock, and batteries lost steam in long runs; the tools simply couldn’t keep up with their corded cousins. But with more powerful batteries and brushless motors, performance is no longer an issue. Now, even without a cord, the latest generation of compact routers—a.k.a. trim or palm routers—are up to any task their corded counterparts can handle, including hinge mortising, flush-trimming, and edge profiling.
Because of their small size, these tools are mostly used one-handed, so they’re easy to control, and they allow you to adjust your grip and body position to ensure the best line of sight to the bit. Which means cordless compact routers are not only more convenient than their plug-in predecessors, they’re actually safer to use.
Guide to 18-volt Cordless routers
Makita 18V LXT Compact Router XTR01Z
Most complete kit
THE DETAILS: The electronically controlled, brushless motor matches torque and rpm to the demands of the work; it maintains a constant speed for all routing tasks. Two-step on/off switches eliminate the chance of an accidental start. The height of the bit is adjusted with smooth rack-and-pinion gearing—scales etched into the aluminum motor housing show the depth setting. Two bright LEDs illuminate the bit and the base.
NO-LOAD SPEED: 10,000-30,000 rpm
WEIGHT: 4.6 pounds [with battery]
FEATURES: LED light, soft start
ACCESSORIES: Kit includes edge guide, plunge base, trimmer base, two batteries, and charger.
KIT PRICE: $399
DEWALT DCW600B 20V MAX Compact Router
THE DETAILS: While its bit speeds look low, this router’s motor packs plenty of torque; it can tackle most any job without bogging down. Its soft-start feature eliminates jumps when you turn the tool on, and it stops turning the instant power is shut off. You set bit depth by twisting the tool’s motor housing. A clear Lexan base, the largest in this group, provides reassuring stability and open sight lines. The big motor means the tool’s grip might be too large for some hands.
NO-LOAD SPEED: 16,000-25,500 rpm
WEIGHT: 2.6 pounds [without battery]
FEATURES: LED light, soft start
OPTIONAL ACCESSORIES: Plunge base, dust shroud
PRICE: $199 [battery extra]
Ryobi P601 18V ONE+ Palm Router
THE DETAILS: This single-speed tool doesn’t have the sophisticated motor-control technology of the other routers, but the bit’s high rpm will get the job done. The housing is die-cast aluminum, and the base is clear Lexan, for good bit visibility. Users with big hands will find there’s limited space under the battery to grip the tool comfortably. on/off switches placed front and rear make it easy to use with either hand. This tool’s micro-adjustment allows you to set bit depth in precise 1⁄128-inch increments.
NO-LOAD SPEED: 29,000 rpm
WEIGHT: 2.8 pounds [without battery]
BRUSHLESS MOTOR: No
LED LIGHT: Yes
ACCESSORIES: None offered
PRICE: $69 [battery extra]
How to Use a Compact Router
Turn it on and let the bit come up to speed. Place the router’s base on the workpiece, then slowly slide the bit into the edge of the stock. Because the bit spins clockwise, you move the router so the bit’s cutting edges spin into the stock: from left to right when the bit is on the right edge of the stock; from right to left when the bit is on the stock’s left edge.
How to change bits
1. Remove the battery.
2. Engage the spindle lock; using a wrench, turn the collet counterclockwise to loosen it.
3. Insert the bit until it bottoms out. Then pull it out slightly—1/8 inch, at least—so the collet can tighten fully.
4. Reengage the spindle lock. Tighten the collet clockwise by hand, then with a wrench.
All compact cordless routers use bits with 1/4-inch shanks. Look for ones with carbide edges, which stay sharp much longer than all-steel bits. Here are the four I use most often.
1. FLUSH-CUTTING BIT
Trims back overhanging edges of countertop laminates, edge-veneer tape, and applied, solid- wood edges.
2. ROUNDOVER BIT
Removes sharp corners. A second pass on a board’s opposite face creates a bullnose profile. Lowering its depth makes a quarter-round bead.
3. RABBETING BIT
Carves an L-shaped edge that increases the surface area of a glued joint. Commonly used in cabinetry projects.
4. MORTISING BIT
Faster than a chisel, it cuts flat-bottomed mortises for door hinges. To guide the bearing, you need to make a template thick enough for the bearing to ride against it.
Cordless Router Safety
- Check that the bit is firmly secured in the collet.
- Verify that the motor body is locked into the base.
- Secure the workpiece with a clamp.
- Keep clothing and hands away from the spinning bit.
- Always wear eye and hearing protection.
- Wait until the bit stops completely before setting the router down.
How to Prevent Router Blemishes
Fast-spinning router bits (and stiff bearings) create so much friction, they can leave burn marks in the wood. Here are some ways to prevent them:
- Dial back the bit’s speed.
- Move the bit through the material more slowly.
- Use a climb cut (see below) to remove less material with each pass.
- Put a drop of oil on the bearing. If that doesn’t work, replace the bearing.
Standard routing technique can cause wood to splinter or tear out when the bit goes across the grain, as shown. To prevent this, make a “climb cut”: Push the router slowly in the “wrong” direction across the vulnerable edge to limit the bit’s cutting depth. When climb-cutting, be sure to hold the router with two hands because it will want to jump. After rounding the corner, finish the cut as you normally would.
The edge guide
All routers need a way to keep the bit from wandering. Often it’s a bearing that rides on the edge of the work. But when routing dadoes, you need an edge guide, above, to keep the bit going straight. Just hold the guide firmly against the edge of the work as you push the router along. To avoid tear-out at the end of the cut, clamp a scrap piece across the bit’s exit point.