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How to Choose the Right Sander

Sanding wood or metal surfaces is a common workshop task, and power sanders speed up this time-consuming job. With the right sander, you can remove excess material from a rough board, shape a delicate curve or prepare a wood surface for paint or stain. Discover the features and capabilities of these useful tools, and learn how to select the best sander for the task at hand.

Sanders by the Numbers

There are many types of power sanders available, and each has its strengths. The most familiar are probably belt, orbital and drum sanders.

Belt Sanders

porter-cable-belt-sanderIf you’re working on surfaces such as tabletops or doors or need to aggressively remove material, belt sanders are your tool of choice. Two drums connect to a powerful motor to spin a continuous belt of abrasive material across a flat metal plate, creating a large sanding surface. Use these hand tools with coarse sandpaper to remove old finishes or quickly smooth rough-cut surfaces. Work your way to finer grits to achieve an even finish. While most of these products have belts that are three to four inches wide and 18 to 24 inches long, some have very narrow sanding surfaces, less than one inch wide. They’re an excellent option for detail work.

Orbital Sanders

festool-sanderFinishing and shaping tasks require a light touch, and orbital sanders are lightweight tools you can maneuver and control with one hand. These products, also known as finishing or palm sanders, have four to six-inch round or square pads that affix to a metal plate that vibrates and moves in small circles. When you use it with fine grit sandpaper, this motion eliminates swirl marks and produces a silky, ready-to-finish surface.

Drum Sanders

supermax-drum-sanderThe heavyweights of the sanding world, drum sanders are free-standing shop tools that smooth and shape stock. Abrasive paper covers a metal drum that hangs above a flat, level table to deliver precise sanding power. These tools are popular for removing surface irregularities or altering the thickness of stock. Some models have an open side, so you can sand materials up to 50 inches wide using two passes. Combination tools use abrasive drums to smooth wood and wire brushes to remove paint or varnish and create distressed or brushed finishes on wood or metal surfaces.

Additional Sander Options

Of course, there are plenty of other tools that take on specialized finishing or shaping tasks.

  • Disc sanders are heavy-duty tools that have a spinning, circular abrasive surface. Use them to remove material from edges or shape curves. They can also grind metal, plastic or other materials.
  • Detail sanders combine the controlled sanding characteristics of an orbital sander with a triangular pad shape. The pointed tip fits into tight corners or between obstacles.
  • While they may not be the first tool that comes to mind when you think of sanding, rotary tools are a versatile addition to your shop. Their interchangeable tips give you dozens of shaping and sanding options for molding, spindles or other detail work.

Get a Handle on Your Sander

Sanding requires precise control over your tool to prevent surface damage. Most belt sanders have both a pistol-style handle and a separate front grip. The combination gives you excellent control over these powerful tools. Orbital sanders have a rounded, top-mounted handle that fits into the palm of your hand. They’re easy to maneuver, and the natural shape helps reduce hand fatigue.

While drum sanders are not hand tools, they do have controls to manage the sanding process. Models with easy-to-access height and alignment adjustments simplify setting up your job. Products with built-in sensing technology automatically vary the conveyor’s speed to prevent burning or gouging.

Control the Sanding Pace

Most of these tools have a slide or trigger control in the handle so you can turn the unit on or off without shifting your grip. Models with variable speeds and interchangeable sanding pads or belts handle a broad range of sanding jobs. You can clamp some varieties to a bench. A mounted tool provides a stable sanding surface, making it easy to work with small, delicate materials.

Dealing With Dust

Sanding produces plenty of dust and debris that can affect your breathing and damage your materials and finishes. Most sanders have some form of dust collection, either a bag that traps debris as it falls or ports that connect to a shop vacuum or other dust-collection system. Always use safety glasses and wear a dust mask when using these tools.

Sanders clean, smooth and shape wood, metal and other materials and reduce the time you spend on these tasks. Use your new understanding of these versatile products to find the right power tool for your next project.

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