Tool test: Belt sanders for woodworkers
Asa Christiana put 10 midsize belt sanders to work flat-sanding both panels and edges, sanding curves and tight corners, and using the tool as a stationary sander while clamped to a benchtop.
Synopsis: More aggressive than a random-orbit sander and more portable than a benchtop sander, a handheld belt sander shines when there’s a lot of material to remove and you want to bring the sander to the work vs. the work to the sander. Asa Christiana put these midsize models to work flat-sanding both panels and edges, sanding curves and tight corners, and using the tool as a stationary sander while clamped to a benchtop. In the end, four stood out from the pack.
Testing for versatility
I gave the sanders a workout to evaluate how well they handle a number of different jobs in the shop.
The belt sander is a tool most woodworkers don’t need every day, but it proves invaluable when called upon for a range of odd jobs. Contractors and finish carpenters, on the other hand, use theirs more frequently, for fitting—or “scribing”— cabinet frames and moldings to walls and floors, trimming the edges of sticky doors, leveling one floorboard to another, and a grab-bag of other job-site tasks.
More aggressive than a random-orbit sander, and more portable than a benchtop sander (disk, belt, or spindle) a handheld belt sander shines when there is a lot of material to remove and it makes more sense to bring the sander to the work vs. the work to the sander. Part of the belt sander’s versatility comes from the different ways you can hold the tool—from right side up to sideways to vertical—to address the work, and the different parts of the sander you can use, such as the flat section (the platen), the front roller, or a bit of both.
Two newer models—Triton and Tacklife—can be mounted upside down on a work table as a stationary machine, letting you sand smaller pieces held in your hands, such as router templates made from thin stock, and making it possible to get by without a benchtop sander. The rest can be clamped on their sides for the same purpose, even if it’s not shown in the manual.
With its continuous pull in one direction, the belt sander requires a bit of practice to master, but once you do, it becomes a powerful, precise tool for a range of woodworking, remodeling, and DIY jobs, like stripping the paint off a flea-market find.
To help you figure out which brand and model is right for you, we picked the most popular size, 3×21 (the belt is 3 in. wide by 21 in. long). This size has a reasonably large contact surface yet is still easy to handle. We gathered up 10 models available in stores and online, and I put them through a series of tests designed to replicate common uses of this tool.
Tough tests simulate typical tasks
First, to level the playing field, I removed the sanding belt included with each model and put on a fresh 80-grit belt from a single manufacturer. In the process, I checked the belt-changing lever and belt-tracking adjustment. I also checked the trigger lock, which is essential on a belt sander, allowing you to release the trigger and hold the two handles in the most comfortable position for best control. And I checked for variable speed, which isn’t essential but helps with fine shaping.
From Fine Woodworking #284
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