With some routing chores, bigger isn’t always better; sometimes it’s a bother. For small-cut jobs, a larger machine is the workshop equivalent of swatting a fly with an elephant gun. Enter the trim router. This prized tool – sometimes called a laminate trimmer – started out in the world of cabinets and countertops, but its uses quickly outgrew its initial intent. Before long, the trim router took up residence in woodworking shops, proving to be the little tool that could.

Palm a trim router, and right away you’ll see the reason for its success, namely, comfort and control that you can’t get from a larger model. As the chart on the opposite page shows, full-sized routers might be more versatile, but for small cuts and trimming jobs, the one-handed tool does more than holds its own. And at a price that’s half to one third that of the big boys, you can afford the convenience of keeping one or more trim routers pre-loaded with your most-used bits.

Trim router is a specialty tool

A trim router isn’t designed to make heavy cuts or serve in a router table like beefier models, but there are other tasks where it excels. Because of its light weight and one-handed convenience, you’ll find yourself choosing this tool over bigger routers for more moderate routing chores such as the following: Ready-to-go edger. While most trim routers have less-powerful motors (1 hp or less), but they’re more than capable of handling the standard arsenal of round-over, cove, and chamfer bits. In fact, trimmers will work with almost any 1/4″-diameter shank bit that will fit though the opening in the base. And perhaps because of this built-in bit size restriction, most trim routers are geared to run faster than larger, general-purpose routers. More cuts per inch translate into cleaner cuts.
 

Selection Criteria Laminate/Trim Router
(1-1 1/4HP)
Mid-size Router
(1 3/4-2 1/4HP)
Price Range $70 – $200 $150 – $350
Amps 4 – 7.5 11 – 15
Collet 1/4″ only 1/4″ or 1/2″
Speed (RPM) 10,000 – 30,000 8,000 – 27,500
Where Used Hand held + + +
Table Mounted   +
Edge Work Light + +
Round-overs
Chamfers
Coves
Beads
+
Heavy   +
Panels
Molding
Stile & Rail
Rabbbets – Dadoes – Mortising Light + +
Hinges
Inlays
Banding
+
Heavy   +
Dovetails
Box-joints
Loose Tenons
Key: + = Performs well     + + = Excels

 
The smaller base of a trim router also allows it to go into tighter corners where a larger router can’t fit. The smaller base and lighter weight make it easier to rout along the edges of boards, making it ideal for profiling face-frame edges or flushing up solid-wood edging with a flush-trim bit.

A mighty mini mortiser
For freehand cuts, the lightweight motor and small base provide a handy combination for routing shallow dadoes and grooves on horizontal and vertical surfaces. In addition, most trim routers come equipped with square bases, making them perfect for running along a straightedge.

When equipped with a straight or down-cut spiral bit, a trim router makes mortises more quickly than a chisel ever could. For small jobs, the small router is easy and comfortable enough to use freehand, but you’ll definitely need to switch over to a chisel to finish paring up to your line. For multiple mortises, you reduce chiseling time by outfitting your router with a bearing-guided bit or bushing and making a simple jig like the ones shown on the following pages.

Countertop king
Because a trim router serves in so many ways, it’s easy to forget its original use as a plastic laminate trimmer. You’ll be pleasantly reminded of this tool’s original use the first time you can’t maneuver some work piece to your workbench. Thanks to their design, trim routers take much of the risk out of the balancing act inherent in trimming the laminate edge of a countertop or flush-trimming solid wood edging on plywood shelves.

Deluxe kits are sold with multiple bases for greater versatility, but some single base kits still come with a trim guide an adjustable bearing tipped arm that hangs off the base. This can be used not only to turn regular straight bits into bottom-bearing flush trim bits, but also can be moved in or out for additional profile options.

Features make the difference
Brand name trim routers start at around $90, but extra accessories or adjustability can add to the price. Check out this list of features and decide for yourself why and where they matter most for your woodworking needs.

Bit Visibility
Since most laminate jobs are bearing-guided, fabricators don’t spend as much time focused on the tip of the bit. It’s a completely different story when you want to rout a freehand mortise. The friendliest bases for woodworkers have large viewing openings or windows; a few even have clear acrylic bases.

Bit Height Adjustment
The bit height adjustments on the earliest trim routers were basic threaded housings, similar to those found on certain fixed-based routers. While this design works for quick, rough adjustments, it falls short when making a fine depth cut. If you plan on using a trimmer primarily for edge work, you might buy a basic base, set it once, and forget it. However, if you plan to rout delicate inlays, or need to sneak up on the leaf-thickness of a brass hinge, look for a model with a threaded depth adjustment. Speed control. The greater the RPM usually translates to cleaner cuts, but at times, too much speed can be a disadvantage. Depending on your feed rate, a super fast spinning bit can burn dense hardwoods such a maple and cherry. Fixed-speed routers are fine for edging and laminates but you might want to spend a little more on a variable-speed motor if you anticipate careful crawl-cuts, such as up to hinge lines or scribed corners.

Bit Changing
Trim routers fall into one of two categories—those with a single wrench and spindle lock, and those with a two wrench-collet. Because it’s easy to pinch your palm between the two tiny opposing wrenches, consider a single wrench collet. (Plus, there’s also one less wrench to lose in the shop.) On the other hand, the two-wrench system is a little easier to tighten and loosen. More than likely, your experience with your other routers will help you determine your option here. Extra bases. Trim routers are sold as single-base units, or in deluxe multi-base kits. You’re likely to find some uses for these bonus bases in your workshop, but they tend to be more suited for laminate and countertop fabrication. The tilting base is designed to trim laminate flush into corners, but by changing the orientation of the bit to the work piece, it can also serve to create new profiles from old bits. The offset trimmer base relies on a belt-driven chuck that allows the router to cut within 3/4″ of a wall or corner. This comes in handy when scribing the back edge of a work piece for a snug fit or when trimming laminate where countertops meet the wall.

Don’t deny yourself a trimmer just because you can’t afford the multi-base kit; you’ll probably use the standard base most of the time.

Information for this article is sourced by permission of  Woodcraft.