No woodworking project is complete until the wood has been sanded. Whether you plan to stain your project or leave the natural wood unvarnished, sanding is an important step in finishing your work. With manual sanders, however, it may be one of the most tedious and least attractive parts of working with wood. Enter the sanding machine.
The electric sanding machine is an essential tool for hobbyists and professionals alike. It produces a high-quality finish more quickly and easily than manual sanding tools. Not all machines are created equal, however, and with several types on the market, it's important to consider the options.
The first thing to consider is what kinds of projects you will work on. A sanding machine that works well to remove paint from a deck may be entirely unuseful for refinishing a cabinet.
Similarly, what might make sense for someone who expects building many doors might not make sense for someone planning to remodel a kitchen. Price, size, and ease of use are also important considerations. First, though, let's look at the main categories of sanders available for home projects.
Belt Sanders, Drum Sanders, Orbital Sanders - What Is The Difference?
Belt sanders are small, handheld machines. A reinforced abrasive cloth hangs in a tight loop around two cylinders. As the back cylinder rotates, the cloth is pulled forward in a lateral motion over the front cylinder. The operator moves the sander over the stock quickly and steadily to avoid creating depressions.
The abrasive cloth can be swapped out, with finer-grained cloth used to get a smooth finish and more coarse-grained cloth for heavier stock. The belt sander is a good standard machine, but depending on the model, it may not work for the heaviest jobs.
For that, you might need to turn to a drum sander. Drum sanders are large, free-standing and more expensive than the other two.
Inside the machine is a large cylinder around which is wrapped a reinforced abrasive cloth. (This, as with the belt sander, can be replaced with cloths of different granularity.) The cylinder rotates, and a piece of wood is fed through the machine.
As it passes against the cylinder, the cloth sands down the wood, which passes out through the other end of the machine.
Orbital sanders are, like belt sanders, small, handheld machines. Rather than the lateral movement of the belt sander, however, an abrasive pad quickly moves in tight circles. The orbital sander is typically the lightest and most versatile of the three.
The orbital sander's abrasive pad typically moves in a random pattern to avoid unsightly patterns in the finished wood and allow the operator to use it in any direction necessary, rather than just parallel to the grain.
The machine does this by both spinning the pad itself and moving its orbit along tiny ellipses. The result is an even finish and an easy-to-use tool.
The belt sanding machine is useful for smoothing out wide, flat surfaces and for removing finish and paint. Besides flat planes, the belt sander is also good for smoothing edges. It is best for medium-stock projects (that is, projects that don't require removing large amounts of wood).
The operator holds the belt sander and moves it across the stock, avoiding holding the sander in place in order to ensure an even finish. It's also important with belt sanders to move with the grain of the wood to avoid splitting it.
Drum sanders, on the other hand, are able to carry out more heavy-duty projects. They can even be used to reduce the thickness of the wood. Compared to products such as a thickness planer, drum sanders allow for tighter control over the desired thickness of the wood.
They also produce a smoother finish than thickness planers. But unlike the handheld machines, drum sanders can remove significant amounts of stock quickly and easily. While a handheld sanding machine might provide finesse, a drum sander provides power. The automatic feed is a bonus for those who have many pieces to finish.
Similar to the belt sander, the orbital sander is handheld and is best used to finishing rather than reducing the thickness of the stock. Unlike the belt sander, however, the orbital sander can be moved in any direction. Not just parallel to the grain of the wood, which makes it ideal for smoothing corners and removing the finish.
The orbital sanding machine is a light-weight tool, and it's perfect for providing the finishing touches on smoother wood. Compared to both a belt sander and a drum sander, the orbital sander works better for lighter-stock projects.
A sanding machine is a relatively affordable piece of equipment and owning one is easy for even the casual builder. Belt sanders and orbital sanders can be purchased for as little as $20, although high-quality machines cost between $200 and $300. Drum sanders are more expensive and have a wider price point: They can cost as little as $400 or as much as $2,000 and up.
Sanders can be found anywhere home project tools are available. Amazon sells all products reviewed below. Home Depot sells both handheld sanders.
Because of their size, drum sanders can be more difficult to source, but a local home projects store should be able to help you select and buy one. In addition, drum sanders are available directly from their manufacturers.
How They Compare
We picked a couple of similar products available on the market to see how they compare.
A handheld sanding machine with a powerful motor, the Makita 9404 weighs 10.3 pounds and is 13 inches long, 6 inches tall and 6 inches wide. It is cord-powered, and the design includes a bag to capture sanded dust. It's a high-quality belt sander from a reliable manufacturer that will suffice for most sanding jobs.
The machine is sold with a one-year warranty.
Ease of Use
A powerful free-standing machine good for heavy-duty projects and thickness adjustment, the JET 629004K is perfect for professionals and serious hobbyists. The machine stands 30 inches tall, 35 inches wide and 15 inches deep. It has a 1.5 horsepower motor. Its feeding mechanism can accommodate wood pieces that are up to 32 inches wide. It is industrial strength and the perfect tool for heavy-duty sanding projects.
The machine is sold with a five-year warranty.
$1,119 - $1,899
Ease of Use
An easy-to-use and versatile machine, the Bosch 1250DEVS comes with a six-foot electric cord and can be purchased with a separate vacuum for collecting sanded dust. It weighs a slight 7.3 pounds and is 15 inches long, 6 inches high and 8 inches wide. This sanding mechanism has two main modes: The standard random orbit mode for normal sanding, and a turbo mode for heavier-duty projects. The motor is 6.5 AMP.
The machine is sold with a one-year warranty.
$269 - $279
Ease of Use
Which is the Best Sanding Machine?
Ultimately, the sanding machine you choose will depend on your projects' needs, your price point and the space you have for the machine itself. All three machines will make your projects go more quickly and, if used properly, will leave you with a product that looks professionally manufactured.
That being said, for the typical use case, the Makita 9404 is the most versatile, hardiest and best-priced machine we reviewed. The JET 629004K is a wonderful machine for those who can afford it.
But it's bulky, and its stationary design limits its use cases. The Bosch 1250DEVS is a versatile, easy-to-use machine, but exactly because it is so light-weight, it may not come in useful for the range of products the typical woodworker needs.
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