Routing: small, beautiful & cordless

The author with his pack-flat bird hide. A small Ryobi cordless router was used for grooving and drilling the steel bar and studding to secure pole extensions

How many times have you trapped a router cable in between the straight fence and workpiece, or found that the cable has got caught up somewhere on the bench, thus preventing full router travel? For many years, I’ve been asking router manufacturers when a cordless version is likely to appear when everything else has gone this way. I recall writing my first article on cordless tools back in 1992. The router seems to be the one that really warrants cable-less operation; freedom and ease of use is surely a priority in both the workshop and on site (photos 1 & 2). Phil Davy’s review of Trend’s T18S cordless router in the February 2022 issue will whet the appetite of many woodworkers. Actually, I tried to get my hands on this model as it looks very promising and thankfully, it’s called a router rather than a trimmer. So, I’m assuming it’s only slightly bigger than the Makita DRT50 cordless trimmer, which I got my hands on last year (photos 3 & 4). Both take 18V Lithium-ion batteries and accept 1⁄4in and 8mm collets.


1 Stilt poles extended by routing in steel locating pins and brackets


2 An improvised jig for cutting grooves, using a Ryobi cordless router


3 Using the Makita DRT50 to surface skim my novel dovetail joints


4 Surgical precision: the compact Makita DRT50 allows unconventional fast and accurate waste removal on the same novel dovetail joints


5 The Makita DRT50 outside the ‘JB OmniBox’ space-saving router storage system


6 The Trend T18S 1⁄4in 18V cordless router

Routing outside the box
The thing about the router is to think outside the box that it comes in (photo 5). That is, if you want a tool that does more than only cut grooves, rebates and profile edges. But even if you just use a router for those tasks, why is it such a latecomer or indeed the last comer to the world of cordless woodworking? I can only guess that the router has been considered too power hungry to be cordless and that the establishment of brushless motors in other tools has at last prompted manufacturers to take the plunge with routers. Also, a battery will make it top heavy and unsafe. The new Trend T18S router (photo 6) looks tall with its 60mm plunge stroke, which could potentially make it top heavy, but presumably not.

Big is beastly
I dislike using the word ‘myth’, which is currently so over-used, but thinking you need a big router for proper work or that a small router is somehow a toy, is a fundamental misunderstanding. Yes, of course some people like big beasts. As with a powerful car, they don’t struggle uphill and there’s the case in routing that the added weight makes the tool more stable and less likely to wander. I have several big beasts in my router collection – around 2Hp and 3Hp – and for cutting deep mortises at speed, I have for decades used a Hitachi MV18 with hefty 1⁄2in shank cutter. Speaking of which, last year, HiKOKI – formerly Hitachi – launched the world’s first 1⁄2in 18V cordless router, which, interestingly, has a shorter plunge stroke than Trend’s 18V version.

Ergonomics & safety
So, where do you put the battery on a cordless router? It has to be on top although who knows in future. Just as the frames of some electric bikes hold batteries, the plunge columns and base itself could be used for storage. Electric cars have batteries built in as part of the chassis, with low centre of gravity being a key design factor. I haven’t noticed any problem with the Makita DRT50 regarding top heaviness, and I think the balance and feel is just right. Some woodworkers – mainly from across the pond – claim that accidents can occur with top heavy cordless trimmers and lithium batteries suddenly shut off power. I really can’t see this being a serious safety issue as the power drops considerably, thus giving a warning in the last few seconds. However, I’m intrigued that the Trend T18S cordless router boasts a 60mm long plunge stroke. This is presumably for the on-site cutting of deep mortises for door locks. To conserve battery power for such tasks, why not start by drilling out much of the stock, and just use the router in its jig for defining the mortise’s final surfaces?

Surgical precision
A router’s outstanding feature is its precision. In particular, the depth stop in allowing a mortise or other recess to be cut to a precise depth. A smaller router gives greater control for really precise operations such as my use of a tiny 1.2mm diameter cutter to create a fine groove along joint lines (photo 7). Sitting down at the bench and taking time to rout each tiny groove demands great concentration. I’ve always regarded the router as a tool that begs to be used in new and imaginative ways and am puzzled as to why it’s still mainly used to replicate methods of the past. A surgeon’s tools – whether scalpels or pliers – are ergonomically designed for precision, weight and balance and when handed to the surgeon, he/she’ll likely not be looking at the tool itself, but rather, what it then does. Sadly, irrespective of whether a router is large or small, the essential finger/thumb control of the on/off switch is generally poor. It shouldn’t necessitate taking the hand off the router hand-grip. Fortunately, with a smaller router the fingers don’t have to stretch so far. This is also the case for side play in the router columns, which affects accuracy when carrying out repeat plunge cuts.


7 Surgical precision and great concentration are required to rout these narrow groove joint highlights

Reaching parts other routers cannot
Some readers will remember the Heineken beer adverts (1973) – ‘Refreshes the Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach’. A small router can dramatically change the way in which you construct cabinet carcasses and reduce lengthy glue-up procedures by routing shelf and vertical partition housings after the main outer carcass has been glued up. The Makita DRT50, loaded with a 4Ah battery, stands just under 250mm high when a short, straight cutter is set to machine a stopped housing run in from the rear of the open carcass. This opens up enormous possibilities and advantages for design and construction in the case of intricate, modern cabinetry (photos 8 & 9).


8 A small plunging router can radically simplify life with staged carcass construction


9 The main carcass is glued and clamped, then subsequent members housed in

Even the cable sticking out of a router can limit its ability to access closed spaces. Interestingly, the 2-5Ah range of batteries are all the same depth. Out of curiosity, I worked out how tall the Trend T18S stands with a 4Ah battery inserted, then how tall it stands fully plunged. It stands 210mm tall unsprung, which is 20mm taller than the Makita, but I was surprised that it stood lower fully plunged at 210mm, which is 30mm lower than the Makita! This means that potentially, the T18S can reach parts other routers cannot. I suspect Trend may not be aware of this, but with the creative woodworker in mind, it’s a bonus (photos 8 & 9). Fortuitously, the battery’s flat outer surface also allows the router to be mounted upside down, which is a huge ease-of-use benefit when it comes to inserting a guide bush or changing a cutter. So onto the battery itself.

Battery runtime & router usage
The burning question is how long does it function on a fully charged battery? And speaking of burning and how to avoid it, a golden rule of routing is to make light cuts, which is particularly relevant to cordless routing. I cringe when I see YouTube videos showing deep trenching in one pass with the router revs dipping drastically as though a tractor is attacking a furrow. You should cut no deeper than half the diameter of the cutter in one pass and the secret, especially for a cordless model, is to make light cuts at high revs. Runtime will of course depend on battery amperage – e.g. 3-5Ah.

The Makita DRT50, which I find almost perfect for my own diverse routing, tends to be used by tradesmen as a trimmer and a typical application is radiusing window sills. Around 100m maximum can be achieved, which is a long window sill. An amateur woodworker profiling the edge of a table top may take less than two minutes; cutting a dovetail joint in a jig perhaps five minutes. It all depends on the level of resistance to material – load. Take a person such as myself, for example, in the autumn of his youth – a determining factor is stamina at concentrating, eye strain, back strain and wrist ache! I find a natural maximum operation time is around three minutes without a break, and with this in mind, a small router makes sense.


10 10 My fast plunge technique – less than a third of the cutter engages in a rhythmic, vertical, overlapping chop motion


11 Over three times the runtime using my fast plunge method to trench a 20mm deep mortise. After 12 minutes, more stock is removed with a staggering three-quarters’ power remaining

Runtime test
I decided to conduct a very basic test with the Makita DRT50 router fitted with 4Ah battery, subjecting it to high load torque, at highest rpm, making deep cuts into a piece of hardwood using a 10mm wide straight cutter. I worked the router deliberately hard with the revs dropping significantly, which you shouldn’t do in normal use. I achieved nine minutes in three-minute sessions – the maximum you’d se a router for in any task – and continuously in three-minute sessions.

Out of curiosity, I repeated the test using an aftermarket 5Ah battery and achieved six minutes. I then used my fast plunge method (photo 10) for removing stock and achieved 17 minutes runtime with 50% of battery power remaining and well over double the amount of stock removed with three-quarters’ battery power still intact (photo 11). A video showing the full test can be viewed here. The fact that a lithium battery suddenly dies isn’t so bad. If the router unexpectedly stops it’ll seldom ruin the workpiece, but more importantly, you should keep an eye on the condition monitor and not let lithium batteries drain completely. Ideal charging is between 10 and 80% of battery charge state. A 4Ah Makita battery takes about 36 minutes to reach full charge.

Kitting out
You’re likely to have spare batteries as Makita and Trend’s cordless routers are sold as a kit and form part of their proprietary battery systems. At nearly £400, the full kits aren’t cheap, and I don’t quite understand why a separate trimmer is included – a small router has always been used for edge profiling and this can be carried out safely with just one hand.

Feel-good factor
From the unusual and fortunate position of owning numerous routers, I don’t have to be married to just one! The litmus paper test seems to be which plunging router I tend to use most of the time given that none are perfect and most have quirks that you get used to. It used to be the DeWalt 621 1,100W router, formerly known as the Elu 97e. The little Makita DRT50 seems to be an ideal size, well balanced with lovely soft rubberised but firm grips. It’s the quietest one I own and superbly engineered with an adequate – but not brilliant – plunge lock lever. The straight fence is limited in reach but there are other ways to make parallel cuts, such as using a batten clamp where the fence is unhindered.

In what is already an overcrowded marketplace, Trend has made a bold move in competing with the likes of Makita and DeWalt. Had I been able to source this new router, I could very well have taken to it as with the DRT50. Extra plunge depth is certainly useful and both models look great. After all, the great joy of woodworking is collecting tools that make you feel good during use. A small router may even encourage you to make smaller objects using this precious material. Considering the shortage of trees and slow-growing hardwoods, timber is set to become increasingly scarce on this planet that’s on loan to us. Curiously ‘small is beautiful’ seemed to be a 1970s fad, but some of the greatest gifts do come in small packages.

Jeremy Broun is the author of the original pioneer creative routing book, The Incredible Router (1989). The revised hardback edition (2018) and his definitive routing videos are available as DVDs or downloads via