Tool Test: 5-in. Random-Orbit Sanders
We test sanders from Festool, Mirka, Ridgid, Ryobi, Porter-Cable, Dewalt, Bosch, Black & Decker, and Craftsman at Sears
Synopsis: Barry Dima took one for the team when he set out to field-test 11 random-orbit sanders to see which are the best of the current crop of 5-in. models. He spent days sanding cherry test boards and poplar test boards and inspecting their surfaces, rating the sanders for how quickly they removed stock, how well the on-board dust-collection worked, how well dust collection worked when attached to a shop vacuum, how smoothly the sanders handled, how loud they were, and how quickly they stopped when shut off. In the end, he was dusty and numb from the vibrations and tired. But he had a good idea of which models he preferred, and why.
The 5-in. random-orbit sander is a staple in most shops, and for good reason. Its size makes it easy to handle, and its random-orbit action cuts quickly and yields a smooth surface without obvious scratch marks. Still, sanding can be a particularly vexing chore, so you want a sander that works as quickly and comfortably as possible, and leaves the least amount of dust floating in the air. I took a look at 11 sanders to find out which ones excelled and which disappointed in terms of ability to smooth, speed of stock removal, dust collection (both with and without a shop vacuum attached), handling and ergonomics, decibel level, and how quickly they stopped vibrating after being turned off.
Testing the sanders
To see how well each sander smoothed a solid-wood surface, I sanded cherry test boards up through the grits, ending at 220. Then I quickly hand-sanded the boards at 220, wet them with denatured alcohol, and viewed their surfaces in raking light. It turned out it wasn’t the surface quality that separated the sanders. From the $30 Black and Decker to the $610 Mirka, they all produced a finished surface free of blemishes. But there were big differences elsewhere, including in how much stock they removed, and how well they collected dust. My findings are in the chart in the PDF below.
Almost all of the sanders come with a removable container for on-board dust collection, and I tested their effectiveness. They also can be fitted to a shop vacuum, which made for substantially more efficient dust collection and more aggressive stock removal. All these sanders performed much better when used with a shop vacuum. But having a hose attached does make sanding somewhat more cumbersome, as it can make the back end tippy and, if you rotate the sander much, you have the ribbed hose to contend with. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake, but each time a rib caught on the edge of a board, I was just as surprised and annoyed.
If you always sand with a vacuum attached, the exact noise level of a sander might not be a vital concern, since the vacuum will add its own racket. But if you ever sand without a vacuum, the decibel levels of these sanders, which ranged substantially, could be a factor in choosing between them. There’s also the amount of time a sander takes to completely shut down after hitting the power button. This didn’t make or break a sander for me, but I noticed and appreciated the luxury of a fast-stopping sander.
A number of the sanders have variable speed control, although the value of this feature is questionable. Professional finisher Teri Masaschi suggests there’s no advantage to sanding at slower speeds with an electric sander. Furniture maker Chris Gochnour agrees. In any case, I tested the variable-speed sanders at their highest setting.
Other factors to consider are ergonomics and handling. A tool that’s hard to use and control could skitter over the board or dig into it—not exactly what you want when you’re so close to the finish line. In the same vein, all but one were nice to hold from above. People who like to hold a sander around its waist, though, may find some models more spacious there than others.
- Are You Sanding Right? by Teri Masaschi #225–Mar/Apr 2012 Issue
- Surface-Prep Shootout by Asa Christiana #212–May/June 2010 Issue
- Jeff Jewitt Shares Sanding Methods by Jeff Jewitt #250–Nov/Dec 2015 Issue
To view the entire article, please click the View PDF button below.
From Fine Woodworking #272