Mighty Minis

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This article is from Issue 7 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Originally the tool of choice of kitchen installers for trimming laminate countertops, mini-routers are earning an important role in today’s woodworking shop for handling a variety of common light routing tasks.

By Mark Goodall

There are two kinds of woodworkers: those who buy tools because they need them and those who buy tools because they want them. Here’s a tool that appeals to both – inexpensive enough to own several, as well as being very useful. I’m talking about laminate trimmers, those mini-routers we are seeing more of these days. 

For many years – back when they were simply called trimmers, not routers – there were only a few available. Now, just about every manufacturer makes at least one model. Manufacturers refer to them by a number of names: trimmers, laminate-trimmers, trim routers and palm-grip routers. Whatever you call them, these handy (pun intended) one-handed, ¼" collet mini-routers are great.

A mini-router isn’t the best choice for your first router, but it complements a full-sized one in many ways. Understand that these mini-routers won’t take the place of a more powerful, accurate and stable (larger) router, and using any tool for a task it wasn’t designed for can be dangerous.

What follows is a roundup of eight mini-routers you’re most likely to find on your favorite store’s shelves. The DeWalt DW670, Porter-Cable 310 and Porter-Cable 7310 have been around for some time, while the Freud FT750 and Makita 3707FC are fairly recent introductions. Three are quite new: the Bosch Colt PR20EVS, Ridgid R2400 and Ryobi TR45.

Although some models receive consistently high marks from both professionals and DIYs, there isn’t one perfect mini-router. Some woodworkers prefer the size, shape or features of one model over another.

For example, if you’ll use one for edge-trimming laminate material like Formica, you may not need the micro-height adjustment feature found on some models. Similarly, if you plan on having several mini-routers, each for a dedicated task with a bit that is “set and ready to go,” you may not appreciate features that facilitate bit changing. But if you plan to have just one mini-router and swap bits like you do with your full-size machine or if you’ll use it for more precise routing work where fine bit-depth adjustment is necessary, those features will be key. 

The newer models boast features such as soft-start, variable speed, and better ergonomics but the older models are still very good choices and are better in some areas.

Mini-routers themselves aren’t entirely new. Small routers of less than 1 hp, like the Porter-Cable 100, have been around for a long time. This 7/8-hp router was the venerable 690’s first little brother. Laminate trimmers have been around for almost as long as laminate has. But while the Porter-Cable 310 and others may have been around for several decades, what’s new is the number of models now available that offer good performance and high-end features for under $100.

Since precision, especially in height adjustment, isn’t that critical for laminate trimming, all models tested do well for these simple tasks. In some cases, there is more precision built into adjusting the roller/bearing guide attachment on these tools than the height. 

Laminate trimming can involve more than just quickly and neatly cutting off the laminate overhang. Trimmers with extra bases and offset attachments can handle the more advanced laminate trimming tasks that countertop installers would face. 

Because of their affordability and availability, I expect we’ll see more mini-routers doing woodworking chores in our workshops than trimming laminates for countertops, especially since more countertops are being made with solid-surface materials like Corian instead of laminate.

Power, speed and volume

These models range from 4 to 6.5 amps with the Porter-Cable 310 and the Ryobi drawing the lowest current, and the Freud and the Ridgid drawing the highest (see comparison chart, page 80). Surprisingly, performance wasn’t affected by the difference in power as much as I expected. While the DeWalt, Freud and Porter-Cable 7310 felt the strongest, the 310 didn’t feel as underpowered as its amp rating might indicate. All had enough power to handle the tasks that included cutting a 1/4" groove, as well as 1/18" and 3/16" roundovers in red oak and maple. 

The Ridgid and the Bosch were the only two variable-speed units tested. The Bosch, Makita and Ridgid all have a soft-start feature that greatly reduces the kick upon startup. When starting, the Ryobi had the greatest torque effect – if I hadn’t tightened my grip it felt like it might spin out of my hand. The others lacking soft-start had a similar twisting force, although not as abrupt. As expected, the Bosch and Makita had very little torque effect due to their soft-start electronics, and the Ridgid had almost none. The Ridgid’s soft start is the slowest and smoothest by far, noticeable both to ears and hands. It’s slow enough that I had to hold back a second before starting to cut, waiting for it to hit full speed. 

Both the Bosch and Ridgid boast electronic speed control, but frankly I didn’t feel any of these routers slow down even when cutting oak with a dull 3/16" roundover bit. I suspect that if you push one of these enough to need electronic speed control, your task needs a full-size router.

As to noise, there’s a noticeable difference between the quietest (Makita) and the loudest (Freud and DeWalt). Speed contributes to noise, so the faster routers produced the highest pitched noise. From quietest to loudest, the order went – Makita, Ryobi, Ridgid, Bosch, Porter-Cable 310, Porter-Cable 7310, Freud and DeWalt. Keep in mind that the variable speed Bosch and Ridgid become the quietest of all when set at their lowest speeds. 

While some may question the need for variable speed in a mini-router, the biggest advantage is to reduce the noise if you don’t need full speed. But you should wear ear protection, since each may be loud enough to cause hearing problems over time.

Construction and weight

These mini-routers, like their bigger cousins, consist of three basic parts – motor, base and sub-base. The sub-base on all models tested is plastic or phenolic, so they won’t scratch the work surface. The phenolic sub-bases seemed to be flatter than the molded plastic ones, but all were within 0.004".   The bases of these mini-routers are made of aluminum or plastic, while motor housings are made of aluminum, plastic or a combination of both. 

The Makita and Ryobi are made entirely of plastic, including motor housing, base and sub-base. The Freud and Ridgid both have plastic motor housings, but aluminum bases. The Bosch, DeWalt, and Porter-Cable 7310 have aluminum bases and motors whose lower halves are made of aluminum and upper halves of plastic. The Porter-Cable 310 is made almost entirely from aluminum. I prefer aluminum over plastic for its durability and precision, especially in the base and lower half of the motor where flex and heat expansion can affect precision of any fine adjustments. 

The Makita and Ryobi are the lightest and easiest to grab off the shelf. The extra heft of the others, however, isn’t necessarily a negative as it contributes to stability and durability. The Porter-Cable 310 is the second heaviest (behind the Freud), and the most solid and steady. I know firsthand that it can sustain a fall from 31/2' onto a concrete floor with no ill effects. Although the plastic bodies on the others may to be able to take similar abuse, I’m not sure the plastic bases of the Makita or Ryobi would.

Height adjustment

For single-task use, just about all these models will work well. But when faced with a routing task demanding precision and critical height adjustments, I’d grab one that can be adjusted accurately. 

When considering height adjustment, I considered both how quickly and accurately adjustments can be made. The motors on the Makita, Ridgid and Ryobi simply slide up and down inside their bases, making major height adjustments fast and easy, but fine adjustment difficult. The Makita has a small thumbwheel for fine-tuning the height, but it’s not as precise as the threaded-screw height adjustment found on the DeWalt and Freud. Those use a screw and thumbwheel that provide fine adjustment, but slow major height changes considerably.

The Bosch and Porter-Cable 7310 are the only two that do both, eliminating the compromise between quick and accurate. Each has the ability to adjust height with a quick slide of the motor. With the Bosch, a slight turn of the motor in its base engages the fine-adjustment thumbscrew. With the Porter-Cable 7310, tightening the thumb knob engages the fine-adjustment screw.

Easy-to-read height scales are present on the Bosch (1/16" and 1mm increments), Makita (1/8" increments), and Ridgid and Ryobi (1/16" increments) units. They give a good estimate of height, but aren’t accurate enough to be relied upon for anything more than rough measurement. When you turn the height adjustment ring on the Porter-Cable 310, or the thumbwheel on the Bosch, you can translate the amount turned into a height change, but frankly I find that too complicated. Regardless of which router used, I still measured bit height by hand if any accuracy was required. 

Speaking of height, a router’s center of gravity affects how stable it feels in use. A tall, top-heavy router feels more likely to tip than a shorter one, something we see in full-size machines when comparing a fixed-base router with a taller plunge router. The same is true with a mini-router, but because of its smaller base and footprint, the effect can be more pronounced. Some, like the Freud and DeWalt are tall and feel like they will tip sometimes, especially when held higher up on the housing. Others, like the Porter-Cable 310 and Ryobi, are shorter and feel more stable. The heights of these mini-routers range from a tall 101/2" on the Freud to a diminutive 55/8" on the Porter-Cable 310. 

Height was measured from the bottom of the sub-base to the top of the motor with the routers at their lowest setting. All are about 11/2" higher at their highest setting.

Most mini-routers, like the Porter-Cable 7310 shown here, offer a variety of bases and sub-bases for different tasks.

Ergonomics, comfort and grip

The most comfortable mini-routers are the ones that can be grasped easily, and the router’s diameter is one factor related to its ergonomics, as well as its shape. Since not all mini-routers have completely cylindrical bodies and bases, it’s difficult to measure their diameter accurately. Instead, I’ve measured the circumference of each router at the point where they’re designed to be held. 

I found the smaller Makita, Ridgid and Ryobi the easiest to grip. The Ridgid is the most comfortable, but all three are very easy to hold comfortably and securely. The Bosch and Porter-Cable 310 are the largest. I can’t quite get my hand completely around them, but they’re still very comfortable to hold. Keep in mind that comfort is subjective, so this is one place where measurements and charts aren’t nearly as valuable as hands-on testing. Someone with larger hands may feel cramped on the smaller Ridgid and prefer the larger body of the Bosch. 

The Bosch boasts a soft rubber grip and golfball-like dimples for better grip. It’s very comfortable when held high up, but I found it a little too high. When held lower for stability, it’s too wide. Knobs and bumps can get in the way on some of these mini-routers the lower down you hold them. This is less of an issue with the Porter-Cable 310, Ridgid and Ryobi. The Freud has a comfortable, but very high grip.

Power switches

The switches on all models tested are plastic. The switch on the Makita, Ridgid and Ryobi is on top; the Bosch, DeWalt, Freud and Porter-Cable routers have theirs on the side. All can be operated easily this way. The one exception is the Freud, with a switch close to the bottom of the motor that felt clumsy.

The toggle switches on the Makita, Ridgid and Ryobi, and the Bosch’s rocker switch are the easiest to use. The rest had slide-switches. Only the Ryobi has a bright red color on the switch to indicate when the switch is in the “on” position, making it easy to determine the switch position. The Freud switch was also easy to see. The Makita, DeWalt and Bosch all have switches that are fairly easy to read, but I found myself having to double-check switch position on both Porter-Cables before plugging them in.

Although originally designed (and named) for the task of laminate trimming, these small routers lend themselves well to dozens of chores in the woodshop.

Bit changing

Depending on your philosophy and number of routers you have, the ease of bit changing may be of greater or lesser importance to you. Changing bits on all these routers is fairly easy, but if your goal is to have a dedicated router for the bits you commonly use, you might not change bits often enough to appreciate the different features to make it easier.

You change bits on these mini-routers much the same way you do on full-size routers. All come with either one or two (as required) wrenches to loosen and tighten the collet nut. Models that require two wrenches have a second, smaller wrench that fits on the “flats” of the spindle, keeping it from turning while you turn the wrench on the collet nut.

The Bosch, DeWalt and Porter-Cable 7310 all have a spindle lock that lets you loosen or tighten the collet nut with one wrench. These locks are spring-loaded so you must hold the button in one hand while using the single wrench in the other – in other words, you use only one wrench, but still use two hands. 

The Bosch has “flats” on the spindle allowing you to use a second wrench (not included) instead of the spindle lock if you prefer. This turned out to be a good thing, as I found the push button on the Bosch hopelessly difficult to use. I had to push the button at precisely the right angle and then push it in further than was comfortable. It was easier using two wrenches. The DeWalt also has flats on its spindle allowing two-wrench changing if preferred, but the spindle lock must be completely removed to reach them. The Porter-Cable 7310 doesn’t have accessible flats on its spindle so you have no choice but to lock the spindle. It’s not as comfortable as the others, but it was the easiest and most effective of all three. 

There isn’t a whole lot of room for wrenches in most of these mini-routers. Makita makes it easier by providing thinner and longer wrenches. While it’s possible to change the bit on all these mini-routers without removing the base, there isn’t a lot of room, so often it’s quicker and easier just to remove the motor. Two models excel at this: Simply pull the motor on the Porter-Cable 310 until two clips release, or turn a lever on the DeWalt to pull it off its base. The Bosch, Makita and Ryobi are almost as easy: After loosening the barrel/collar clamp you pull the motor to its highest setting, twist and pull. A stop-block prevents the Ridgid’s motor from being completely removed, so you’d have to remove the thumb knob and screw in order to remove the base. With the Freud, you’d need to use a T-20 driver to loosen its base, but it’s not worth the trouble. Freud’s base, like the Porter-Cable 7310, is very open so there’s enough room for wrenches. 

Like full-size routers with a flat top, the Bosch, Porter-Cable and Ryobi mini-routers can sit upside down while changing bits.

All but the Ryobi have a replaceable collet separate from the spindle. I was surprised to see the new Ryobi has the same integrated spindle collet as the previous model. It was criticized in the past because if the collet gets damaged, it can’t be replaced. I found no noticeable difference in ease of inserting or removing a bit from any of the collets tested. In fact all were a little tight and none were noticeably self-ejecting. The Bosch has a nice feature: Its collet is held inside the collet nut and won’t come out and be lost or damaged when you remove the nut.

Base and sub-base

These mini-routers have a base that holds the motor, and a replaceable sub-base that attaches to its base. The smaller bases offer better visibility of the work and can get deeper into corners, but at the expense of stability. The clear bases of the Makita and Ryobi offer good visibility, but perhaps at the expense of durability. 

The motor mounts to its base in one of two ways. The motors on the Bosch, Makita, Porter-Cable 310, Ridgid and Ryobi sit inside a one-piece base completely surrounding the motor barrel, just like a full-size router. The DeWalt and Freud two-piece split bases clamp around the bottom of the motor.  The Porter-Cable 7310 one-piece base attaches to the side of its motor.

The Makita and Ryobi have a transparent plastic base. The Ryobi’s trademark yellow-tinted transparent plastic base is good, but the clear base and dual LED work lights give the Makita the best visibility of the work surface. 

All these mini-routers have a plastic or phenolic sub-base that can be removed and replaced. 

Listed on the comparison chart on page 80, you’ll see the diameter of the hole in the base as well as the sub-base. Use this to determine the maximum diameter bit that will fit in the router. Remember, however, that just because a bit fits doesn’t make it safe to use. 

All these mini-routers come with standard bases, but the Bosch, DeWalt, Freud and Porter-Cables have additional bases that can either be bought separately, or come in a more expensive kit configuration. The Bosch has an available tilt base. The DeWalt and both Porter-Cables have an offset base, a seaming base and a tilt base. The Freud has an offset base, a plunge base and a tilt base. The Ryobi comes with an additional two-handled woodworking sub-base. 

A laminate installer would probably appreciate the optional bases more than woodworkers. 

Edge guides and bushings

There are two types of edge guides found on these mini-routers: a straightedge guide, similar to the type used on full-size router, as well as a roller-bearing guide, which comes from the tool’s original use of trimming laminates. 

A straightedge guide holds the mini-router at a certain distance away from edge of a straight workpiece. Only the Bosch and Ridgid include this type of guide. The guide on the Bosch attaches to the side of its base, while the Ridgid’s guide slides and clamps onto two steel rods screwed into the holes in the base. The Ryobi base has similar threaded holes, but doesn’t come with an edge guide. 

A roller-bearing guide attachment replaces the function of a pilot bearing found on many router bits, allowing you to use a non-pilot bit the same way. All except the Ryobi come with a roller-bearing guide attachment. The Bosch, DeWalt, Makita and Ridgid attach to the side of the base and extend down below the sub-base. Both Porter-Cables as well as the Freud have an attachment that screws directly into the bottom of the sub-base. While it comes standard with the Freud, it’s an optional accessory for both Porter-Cables. 

If you want to do inlay work, you’ll want a mini-router with a sub-base that can accommodate router bushings or template guides. The Porter-Cable style bushings that screw onto many full-size router sub-bases can also be used on some of these mini-routers. Those standard bushings will fit the DeWalt, Ridgid and Porter-Cable machines right out of the box. You can get an optional sub-base for other models, like the Bosch, that will accommodate a bushing guide. The Makita comes with its own single pressed-steel template guide, which doesn’t offer the versatility or precision that the multisized machined brass bushings do.

Small features ... and some small quirks Some features are functional while others are just frills. 

The orange LED on the Ridgid’s power plug, designed to indicate whether or not the router is “live” (plugged into a outlet or extension cord that has power), would be more useful if it was on the router itself rather than up to 10' away at the wall. Compare that to the dual LEDs on the Makita that light up when the machine is running, which is a great feature. Even better would be a LED work light that turned on when the router was plugged in, acting both as a “live” indicator as well as a work light. I would rate each of the routers tested as good, very good or excellent: however, because I did not find a router with all the features available on the individual routers, I can’t say any one is perfect. 

The Porter-Cable 310 lacks soft-start. The Bosch’s comfortable grip is wide, but its pressed-steel height adjustment barrel clamp looks out of place on a tool with more refined features. Compare that to the nicely curved, thick and comfortable cast aluminum clamp on the Ryobi, and you’d think they were mismatched. However, you must disassemble the Ryobi’s base to remove the retail store’s anti-theft device glued inside. 

None of these points are that important; they just indicate that there’s always room for improvement. 

I suspect that with this new breed of routers, each manufacturer will look at its competition and may include a few new features on their next models. Unless there’s a patent issue, I expect the dual-mode height adjustment found on the Bosch and the Porter-Cable 7310 may be seen on other mini-routers in the future. 

Likewise, the bright dual LED work lights on today’s Makita may be seen on other routers in the future. It’s such a nice feature I’m surprised more don’t have it

Summary

All of these little routers are a pleasure to use. For a true mini-router, I prefer the Porter-Cable 310 or the Bosch for their more precise height adjustment, but for a “set and ready to go” mini-router, all of those tested do a great job.

Those of us with $150-$200 in our pockets looking to purchase our first all-purpose router should look at a full-size router first. As handy as they are, mini-routers lack the power and versatility found in a full-size machine. Unless your work is specific and small-scale, you may be disappointed. But a mini-router would be a welcome addition as a second router. I have had four of these mini-routers, along with six full-size routers over the last four or five years and more often than not, when I’m reaching for a router for a quick small task, I’ll reach for a mini-router with a bit that’s all set and ready to go. I keep 3/16"  and 1/4" roundover bits as well as a 1/4" flush-trim bearing bit and a regular 1/4" bit in each of my minis.

At $150 the Porter-Cable 310 is the most expensive, but I appreciate the solid performance and accuracy it gives. Every other mini-router here is priced at, or under, the important $99 price point for the single-base router. The Bosch and DeWalt and the Porter-Cable 310 and 7310 also come in kits in the $200 range that include the extra offset and tilt bases. Unless you have a specific need for them, you may prefer to spend the additional money on yet another mini-router instead.

Mark Goodall

Mark Goodall is a self-admitted tool junkie and DIY who lives in Peachtree City, Ga., with his wife and three young children. He’s been woodworking since he was 12 years old, and now works as an IT consultant to pay for his woodworking hobby. His Web is www.happywoodworking.com.

Safety and limitations

As useful as they are, these one-handed routers don’t take the place of a solid and stable two-handed router. A mini-router used for the wrong task can quickly become a wild, flying, flesh-eating animal.  

The rotational forces involved with a blade spinning at 30,000 rpm increase as the diameter and bite of the bit increase. Even with anti-kickback bits, it’s possible to push a router too hard, have the bit catch the work surface and then spin out of your hand. This isn’t likely to happen on a full-size, two-handed router which offers a much firmer grip, but when you’ve wrapped your hand around a mini-router – especially if you don’t have large hands – it’s amazing how easily it can twist and jerk right out of your hand. Then as it is performing its twirling destructive dance all over your wood or workbench, you’ll be hard-pressed to react safely. 

A mini-router is great for light routing tasks, but it’s not a full-size router and can’t be expected or pushed to do everything you could with a larger router. Remember, the right tool for the job is always the safest tool for the job.

Use a mini-router only with small-diameter bits, and take multiple shallow passes. Try to cut too much, too fast and you might have it fly out of your hand and out of control. 

Avoid the temptation to use your other hand as a workpiece clamp too close to the router. 

Finally, don’t overestimate your one-handed grip – it’s not as firm as your grip on a two-handed router.  

—Mark Goodall

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