Compact Router vs. Full size Routers

For many new woodworkers, choosing a first router can be exciting, but confusing. There seem to be so many different sizes and they all appear to be made for something different. So how do you know what size router is right for you? The question isn’t as difficult to answer as you may think. In fact, there are really only two basic sizes, with a few different power ratings for each.

Compact vs full-size routers

The most common type of router in use today is the full-size router, which you’ll mostly find in horsepower ratings from 1-3/4 to around 3-1/4 whereas compact routers will come in horsepower ratings from 1 to around 2.

The mid-range motors are good for most general-purpose tasks, like routing decorative profiles in the edges of doors and drawer fronts. Full-size routers are quite capable when mounted in router tables.

The good news is if you want to make rail and stile doors, decorative moldings or small joinery projects with your router, but you’re on a tight budget, you should go for a router with around 1-3/4. Smaller routers are usually less expensive, so you can buy something that won’t break the bank but is powerful enough to handle most tasks.

Light-duty tasks like rounding over or chamfering edges are best done with a palm router. These compact routers have small motors and are ideal for tasks that would be tiring with something larger.

Palm routers are perfect for trimming laminates and veneers or routing small letters in wooden signs. They’re available with many of the options you’ll find in full-size routers, like variable speed and soft start.

Because of the small motor and compact body, a palm router probably isn’t the best choice if it’s going to be your only router. But, if you already have a full-size router, you might want to think about getting something smaller for your light-duty work.

Compact routers (Palm routers)

Here are three excellent palm routers.

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For less than a hundred, you can get this palm router with variable speed control, soft start motor, edge guide attachment and plastic carrying case.

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This is another model with variable speed control and a soft start motor. It’s from DeWalt, so you can be confident that it’s well made. You may also find that the LED lights in the base help you see what you’re doing.

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Finally, take a look at this palm router from Porter Cable with 1-1/4horsepower. Again, this one has variable speed and soft start. It’s a good router from a reputable company.

You can purchase a number of useful accessories for full-size and palm routers, including dust collection ports and plunge bases. The key to choosing a router is deciding what you plan to do with it. For most tasks, a 1-3/4 or 2-1/4 horsepower router is perfect. To use large bits (2” in diameter or larger), go with a heavy-duty router. When you already have one or more full-size routers, consider a compact router.

Full-Size Routers

There are several full-size routers with lower horsepower motors that are excellent entry-level choices for most woodworkers. Purchase one from the list below and you’ll have a tool that can handle everyday woodworking projects.

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This is the router you’re most likely to see if you walk into a professional woodworking shop.This 1-3/4 horsepower has been around for a long time and has proven to be a real workhorse in production environments. Although it doesn’t have a lot of the features that some newer and often more expensive routers do, it’s time tested and works equally well for handheld and router table work.

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DeWalt’s basic full-size router is another model you’ll find in a lot of professional shops. It’s also rated at 1-3/4 horsepower, but you might find this one quite a bit more comfortable to work with because of the rubber handles and lower center of gravity. You can pick up one of these routers for a little less than the Porter Cable, but the DeWalt comes with a hard plastic case.

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Although less popular than the Porter Cable and DeWalt, Milwaukee’s BodyGrip router features an ergonomic design that’s made for continuous use, so you’ll experience less fatigue when using it for long periods. Get one with a plastic carrying case.

Horsepower ratings vary once you move up from 1-3/4. Anything between 2HP and 2-1/4 could be considered mid range, and anything larger should probably be called heavy duty. As you might expect, a bigger motor means you can use bigger bits, so take a look at the following mid range routers if you want to be able to use joinery bits like the lock miter.

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With wood handles, variable speed and 2-1/4 horsepower, this is a sweet router that’s a step up from the previous models in more ways than one. It’s not much pricier than the routers you’ve already seen, and you should be able to find one online.

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It’s bigger than the 690, has soft start and variable speed, and features a dual-position power switch that makes it easy to turn off without moving your hands and losing control.

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It looks just like the DW616K, but this router packs more horsepower and variable speed control.

For the most demanding jobs with big bits, a heavy-duty router is the tool to use. There are a number of excellent routers at or above 3-1/4 horsepower routers that can handle any job you throw at them, but here’s the one that dominates the market.

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Like the 690LR, this is a popular router with professional woodworkers because of its quality and reliability. The powerful motor has five preset speeds for bits of all diameters. You simply choose the speed that works for the application. Be prepared to spend more for a big router like this.