Palm routers, trim routers, laminate routers — compact routers go by a lot of names.
And like the names, there’s a lot of buying options out there.
So how do you choose?
Well, I’m here to give you my candid, unsponsored, and unsolicited advice.
I tested palm routers from seven different brands to find out which are the best, and which are best left to stirring your coffee.
To reiterate, this tool review is NOT sponsored.
I bought these routers with my own money to help develop the 3x3 Custom 6-in-1 Universal Trim Router Jig.
(This jig is EPIC. It exponentially increases the uses for your compact router —and we even have a benchtop router table for it).
So if you’re looking to buy a compact router, here’s what you need to know.
WHAT ARE COMPACT ROUTERS?
Compact routers hover around 1 horsepower — making them a lot less powerful than full-size routers. They come with ¼ inch collets, and only take bits with ¼ inch shanks.
But less power doesn't mean they’re not useful.
Their small size and light weight make them great for knocking out detail work quickly with lots of control.
You wouldn’t use a compact router to flatten a slab — but they’re ideal for sign making, light chamfers or roundovers, and clearing waste for dovetail keys and inlays.
A full-size router can do pretty much everything a compact router can. But compact routers are a great luxury to have as part of your workflow.
Just make sure to take small bites, and they’ll give you great results. Read my top 8 router tips here.
A BIT ABOUT BITS
Choosing a good quality compact router is important — but so is using high quality bits.
Spiral router bits are the best of the best when it comes to good results and longevity. Their design helps reduce tearout, burning, and they stay sharp longer than traditional straight bits.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A COMPACT ROUTER
The first thing to consider is what you’ll be using your compact router for.
If it’s going to be your first router, it might be worth getting a corded option so you don’t have to worry about battery life.
And you’ll definitely want a more powerful model that comes with lots of accessories.
If you plan to use it in addition to your main router, cordless might be the way to go so you have the freedom of a battery.
But the two most important factors are power and accuracy.
The more power your trim router has, the better it can handle an array of cuts.
Side note: I was surprised to find there isn’t a big difference in power between corded and battery powered palm routers — at least on higher end models.
By accuracy, I mean that once it’s locked down, the bit stays in the same position even after extensive use.
On cheaper routers, the bit can shift… which is muy malo. I’ll tell you which routers this happened with below.
Here’s a few other things to look for.
Does the router have a plunge base available? Does it take bushings? Edge guides? Tool-mounted lights? Free Wi-fi?
The more accessory options available, the more use you’ll get out of the tool.
The collet is what holds the bits — and it’s super indicative of quality.
ER collets are the best — and standard on any quality compact router. You can recognize them because they look like they’re split into four parts.
They lock down super tight, making sure your bits won’t adjust while in use.
Collets that look like a circle with a piece missing are garbage — and it’s not worth buying any compact router with that design.
POWER SWITCH POSITION
This one sounds trivial, but annoys the heck out of me.
I’d stay away from any router that has the power switch on the top.
When doing edge work, I like to put a hand on top of the router to stabilize it. And if the power switch is on top, I’ll constantly shut off the tool without meaning to.
A NOTE ON VARIABLE SPEED
Almost all the routers I tested are variable speed, meaning you can adjust the RPM the bit spins at.
But I never really use the variable speed on compact routers.
It’s there so you can lower the RPM when using bigger bits. But for any bit over a ½ inch in diameter, I’d just use a more powerful router instead.
Compact routers don’t really have enough power for bigger bits.
I ran two separate tests with each compact router.
The first was to test repeatability and accuracy.
I cut a ⅛ inch groove with each router twice. One time just holding the base, then a second time holding the base and putting pressure on the top.
I measured the grooves with a pair of calipers to see if the bits shifted position at all, and ran the test twice just to be sure.
After that, I did the “Use it and Abuse it” test.
I used each router continuously for 15 minutes doing a range of heavy cuts. Flush trimming with the bit fully buried, ⅜ inch grooves, dovetail keys at full depth, edge profiling — you get the idea.
These were the results.
COMPACT ROUTER RANKINGS
Some of my opinions come down to personal preference. Don’t get your bloomers in a bunch if I talk trash about your favorite router.
And while this list doesn’t cover every compact router available, I chose some of the most popular and readily available.
The Ryobi and Milwaukee only had cordless options available, so I had to go with those.
They’re ordered by approximate price (which, as all things in life, is subject to change).
For the speedy who don’t read, I ranked each compact router from 1-5 stars.
RYOBI P601 (CORDLESS): ~$69
18v 4.5a 29,000 RPM
Too many buttons and switches. Removing the base involves three separate mechanisms which is a total pain.
Absolute no-go. The collet couldn’t even hold the bit shank securely after one pass — and the bit dropped by ⅛ inch.
I didn’t want a bit flying out at me, so it was out of the running after the first test.
The cheapest option — but in no way worth it. I’d never use this compact router again.
PORTER CABLE PCE6430: ~$100
120v 4.5a 31,000 RPM
Good depth adjustment, but…
This compact router failed the accuracy test. The bit shifted slightly — and even though it was just a little, that makes it a non-starter. Probably because of the cheap collet.
It looks like it wants to be a good compact router — but it just isn’t. The bit shifted during a cut which should never be the case.
Overall, it feels cheap. And also has that top button (no!).
BOSCH GFK125CE: ~$119
The adjustment dial’s a little stiff, but works great. It also has a knob you turn to lock it down, adjust, and remove the base — making it pretty simple to do macro and micro adjustments.
My only complaint is the small size of the depth adjustment dial.
Makes perfectly accurate and repeatable cuts.
This is a hefty little router and felt noticeably more powerful than everything (except the Dewalt).
The collet is rock solid and it’s super easy to change bits. The lights always stay on when plugged in, which is great for setting up your depth of cut.
RIDGID R2401: ~$129
Not the best. The macro-adjust feels cheap and is hard to mess around with too much. And the locking lever rotates when open, which gets annoying really quick.
Passed the accuracy test, but the adjustment is a pain.
To me, this feels like Playskool’s “My First Router.”
It does the job, but the parts feel chintzy and the design just isn’t that smart overall. Plus, it has the power switch on top (which I hate).
MAKITA RT0701C (CORDED) AND XTR01Z (CORDLESS): ~$129 / $142
1.25 hp / 18v 5a 30,000 RPM
I’m a Makita fanboy — but the depth adjustment on these compact routers is a non-starter for me. I didn’t know how bad it was until I got to compare it to other mechanisms.
The way it just slides up and down (stop it) makes it hard to dial in a perfect depth of cut.
I’d probably just throw an ⅛ inch roundover bit in this, set it once, and never adjust again.
Rock solid. The bit didn’t shift at all.
It has great power and accuracy, but the adjustment mechanism is a non-starter for me.
However, if you already have a main router, are on the Makita platform, and just need something for edge work — this is a great option.
MILWAUKEE 2723-20 (CORDLESS): ~$138
18v 5a 31,000 RPM
Not bad, but it can still be adjusted when locked down — which a router should never be able to do.
I had big problems with this one at first. Even when locked down, the base had .04 inches of play.
I was able to fix this by locking it down a bit more with an allen key, but I would never be able to fully trust it down the line. It also got a lot harder to adjust.
A lot of people swear by this router — and if you’re already on the Milwaukee platform, it’s a great option.
My experience with the base shifting might not be typical, but it would leave me worried about using it again. There also aren’t as many accessories available as I’d like.
DEWALT DWP611: ~$150
The absolute winner in this category. There’s just a single large knob that’s super easy to grab onto. Turn it quickly for large adjustments, and just barely turn it for micro adjustments.
It’s a great design that makes it dead simple to use. I love having the macro and micro adjust in the same mechanism without needing to use any other levers or buttons.
Perfectly accurate. Easy to change out bits and lock them down securely.
This is everything a compact router should be. Powerful, accurate, solid, and easy to adjust.
I also love the baseplate that extend out a bit more, giving you a place to put your fingers when you’re really trying to dial in detailed work.
As an added plus, this is the only compact router I tested where you can flip the base 180° — which is great for if you need to switch which side of a board you’re working on.
Knowing what I know now, these are the two compact routers I’d buy out of the bunch.
Both have a ton of accessories they can be used with.
BEST VALUE: BOSCH GFK125CE
This is a really close second to the Dewalt — but significantly cheaper. The adjustment mechanism is the biggest reason I’m putting it at #2.
If you want a great compact router but are trying to save money, this is the model I’d choose.
BEST OVERALL: DEWALT DWP611
This is my favorite hands down (and also the most expensive, but not by a lot).
It’s a top-performer in every category — and I absolutely love the adjustment mechanism.
If you’re after the best of the best, here’s your answer.
Their smaller size and ease-of-use make compact routers a super helpful tool to have around the shop.
And hopefully, my little experiment helps guide you to the perfect one for your needs.
If you have or plan on getting a compact router, you’ll definitely want to check out the jig we’re about to release with Tamar from 3x3 Custom.
It takes the applications of your palm router to the next level — and fits every model listed in this blog. Watch this video to see how it works.
Sign up for our newsletter so you can get first dibs (because I’m pretty sure these are going to go quick).