there are various major moments in modern woodworking tool development, times that have shifted the whole framework of what it means to do woodworking. let’s take a look at a few (in no particular order) that i think were particularly significant. stanley’s popularization (not invention but definitely popularization) of the metal-body almost-maintenance-free plane. the adoption of japanese saws as an alternative to traditional western saws in the west. the development of a2 steel to allow vastly longer sharpness on blades. the arrival of cheap benchtop grinders both for sharpening and tool restoration/rust removal. sawstop’s revolutionary flesh-sensing technology that’s saved countless fingers (among other things i’d rather not think of that should never have been close to a saw in the first place). the standardization of modern tablesaw fences — and if you don’t know what i mean, take a look at just about any saw from fifty years ago and the fence will be an unqualified pile of shit unless it’s an expensive aftermarket model or (perhaps) if it’s a delta unisaw, whose fence is creative and usable, if not inherently as practical as most of the newer ones. but perhaps more than any other, the adoption of modern battery technology and the resulting tools that don’t leave you tethered to a cord? that’s amazing. not quite as revolutionary as keeping your fingers or being able to plane day after day without having to worry about your plane’s wooden sole but it’s not insignificant. and with most of the major problems in woodworking technology solved a good fifty or a hundred years in the past, progress is often compound rather than dramatic.
my favorite cordless tool used to be my little dremel. sand, shape, fit, trim, whatever. it’s not often thought of as a serious fine woodworking implement but i don’t give a rat’s ass and i kept that thing in easy reach. still do. it’s no less amazing when you need a tiny sander (it’s invaluable for those of us who love kumiko as much as i do, i swear!) but it has been overshadowed by a new cloud of cordless joy. enter the router.
for anyone who is familiar with my stance on overly-complex handtools, my love of routers will not come as a shock. i have had a passionate love of my saws and chisels but anything on the handtool side that is more complex than a plane and i’m likely walking away in search of a jig and a power cord. no, that’s not a judgment. it’s just how i am. i want direct action and i want it now. if i can’t make progress without masses of setup, the tool will languish there and i have as much likely use for it as a flute to tempt the wood into working itself. (if this doesn’t conjure images of fakirs and wooden snakes, i haven’t done my job very well.)
but routers are the whole deal. take the (brutally overcomplicated) stanley 55, add a motor, make it spin so fast nothing really takes measurable time and voilà — trim router. let’s get a little terminology straight. there is a lot of ambiguity over what the difference is between a trim router, a plunge router, a regular router and a router plane are. i’ll start with the last one. a router plane is a hand tool that looks like a cross between a miniature bat’leth (klingon much?) and a hamster with erectile dysfunction. it’s a great little tool and i love using them. they’re mostly used for cleaning out the bottoms of mortices and grooves (and dados but if you are the kind of person to seriously correct people when they say groove or dado meaning the other thing, please save yourself the trouble and smack yourself in the head cause it really doesn’t matter and you know it). but that’s not really relevant. a plunge router (as opposed to a fixed-base router) has the ability to be adjusted vertically perpendicular to the workpiece rather than just in the same plane using a vertical base that’s usually detachable. it’s great. and a router can be a trim router and a plunge router at the same time. a regular router is just a router. you can call any of them that. but where does a trim router start? well that’s not so obvious. but it’s a small router that’s not as big or powerful as a “big” router, let’s say. i make the division simple but not everyone (and not every company) puts the dividing line in the same place as me. for me, it’s a trim router if it takes a 1/4” bit and it’s not if it is big enough to take a 1/2” bit. yes, i’m a devotedly-metric woodworker. but router bits are still described using imperial measurements and i have to live with that. many routers can take both sizes and i consider those non-trim routers. a trim router is little. if it can spin a 1/2” cutter, it’s not little. you may place the dividing line in a different place. that’s your right.
i can see what you’re thinking, though. a router is probably the second-messiest tool in the modern shop. and you don’t hold a thickness planer in your hand and try to walk around with it. this thing tears dust out of a solid board faster than you can breathe it in and choke on it. so if you’re using a router in an indoor shop (or, ffs, in an outdoor shop) without a hardcore respirator or, far more intelligently, serious dust-collection, you’re courting pulmonary disaster with a passionate lust and your lungs have far more to fear from your craft than any virus we can pretend isn’t tearing the world apart.
and that’s where the train of thought gets derailed, right? you can use a drill without dust collection. you can use a dremel without dust collection. but a big honking vacuum hose sticking out the back of the thing and wtf’s the point of having a cordless trim router? that’s what i thought, too. you’re not alone. but i have been converted to the cause. with a vengeance.
ok, tell me this. have you ever gotten to the part of your routing on a piece where you had to take your second hand off the router and shove the cord out of the way? have you ever done something unsafe to avoid getting tangled up in the cord? gotten distracted by the cord? if you haven’t, you’re a much better person than me. i have (more times than i’d like to admit) lost complete control of the router in my hand while attempting to keep routing while dealing with the cord. far more times. and it’s never the vacuum hose. it’s always the power cord. the vacuum hose is pretty flexible and it’ll just go with you. the cord, though? that’s going to get in your way and you’re guaranteed to try to keep routing and deal with it one-handed and run into problems. like taking a huge gouge out of the workpiece or, far worse, slipping off the piece completely with a cutter spinning at many thousands of revolutions per minute precariously held in one already-exhausted hand. cordless trim router, though? not so much.
you might not be convinced but i swear it’s a game-changer. tell you what. whatever battery platform you’re already on, they’ve probably got one. pick it up and give it a shot. you can probably get the thing with a 30-day return on it. it’ll be the best tool you buy this year.
perhaps you came here for my recommendation on which one to buy. and that’s easy. if you don’t have a battery system already, i’ll tell you the same thing i tell everyone who’s interested (and many who aren’t). get a makita. and get a bunch of batteries. if you’ve already invested significantly, the bosch is great, too. the dewalt and milwaukee are exactly what you expect, less than spectacular but they’ll get the job done. the ryobi is a great deal and the rigid is built cheaply and feels like it but it’ll work if that’s what you can get. i’m truly impressed with the makita, though. it has power to burn, long battery life, balanced like a spinning top and ergonomic like things that aren’t family-friendly to describe on the internet. but the real point of this post is to tell you why you need a cordless trim router, not why you need the makita. though my love of all things makita is limitless and i will happily point you in that direction for any tool they sell.
so perhaps this will make up for it. you may have come here looking to find support to justify your upcoming purchase of a $500 bridge city jointmaker pro. without any of the wild and crazy accessories, that’s about the usual starting price on the thing. and i told you it would be overpriced at free and what you really need is a tablesaw, which you probably already own and if you don’t you aren’t likely to want that, either. worry not, though. for about four hundred bucks you can pick yourself up a makita trim router complete with the kit battery (it’s far cheaper if you’ve already got batteries — it’s like a hundred bucks and change). and with the money you have left over from your salvation from your narrow escape from death-by-uselessness you can get a few nice new bits. take a look at the astra-coated compression bit from bits & bits if you haven’t got one in mind and it’ll change the way you think about template routing and grain direction — more on that some other time or feel free to ask me. enjoy your router…