I used to loath finish sanding because it was slow, super dusty, and just down right boring. These days I embrace the process, and rather enjoy the steps involved in creating a smooth surface, but I still find the work boring! The reason for this dramatic attitude change is due to technical advances in today’s sanders that speed the work and reduce the mess. I’ll walk you through a variety of my favorite hand-held electric sanders telling you why I like them, and how they save me time and mess. I use most, if not all of these on pretty much every project I build. Each sander does one aspect of the finish sanding extremely well, so by combining their use I can greatly reduce the overall finish sanding time. Dust collection is very important to me these days. Any dust that can be collected at the source is less dust inhaled and less dust to be cleaned up later, and that is good!
Belt Sander – Porter Cable #360VS, 3″ x 24″ Variable-Speed, 1,000 to 1,500 SFPM, $250
To be honest, there aren’t many choices in the belt sander category these days, and that’s too bad. For me a belt sander is an essential tool in my woodworking arsenal. I feel many woodworkers fear the belt sander because at some time they ruined a project by using a belt sander. My suggestion is to practice using your belt sander on scrap wood until you get very comfortable with how it works. Slow down the sander’s speed and start sanding with finer grit belts, and always hold the sander with two hands, otherwise it’s sure to gouge your workpiece.What I like about this Porter Cable belt sander is that it’s powerful, well-balanced, variable speed, and easy to keep the belt tracked properly. It uses a 3″ x 24″ belt, which gives it a perfect balance between size, weight, and capacity. I’ve used both larger and smaller belt sanders, and none work better for me than a 3″ x 24″ model. What I don’t like about this model is the dust collection bag. I wish it had a port for connecting a vacuum, and I have yet to find any adaptor that fits over the tube where the bag connects so I could use my dust extractor vacuum. The dust bag is about 70% effective. I know if I could connect my vacuum I could increase that to near 95%. There’s only one other 3″ x 24″ belt sander on the market today. I own one, it does have a dust port, but it is nowhere near as good a sander as this model.
I use my belt sander 99% of the time to do one of two operations. I own a large drum sander, so I don’t use a belt sander for flat sanding solid wood glue-ups. But as great a machine as my drum sander is, it leaves very subtle chatter marks that make for a lot of extra orbital finish sanding. To speed things along, I mount a 150 grit belt in my belt sander and start my finish sanding by “kissing” all the drum sanded wood just prior to orbital sanding. That step removes the chatter marks and saves a ton of orbital sanding time. The other thing I use my belt sander for is to flush sand solid wood to plywood joints, mostly thin edging strips. The narrower 3″ belt is perfect for that work.
Right Angle Random Orbit Sander – Porter Cable #97455, 5″ Variable-Speed, 2,500-6,800 OPM, $160
This right angle style of random orbit sander is very powerful and aggressive, and that’s why I like it so much. It does a lot of tough sanding very fast. It accepts 5″ dia. 5 hole hook and loop sanding discs. I’ve really come to love hook and loop discs. They are easy to mount, easy to remove, and easy to remount so you get to use them completely until the grit wears out. I’ve said goodbye to PSA sanding discs, and I’m not looking back! The dust collection port on this sander is very effective. Connected to my dust extractor I estimate it removes 95% of the dust produced. That’s impressive.Using this sander takes practice. Like I said… it’s aggressive. You’ve got to hold on tight and be the boss. I use it for the second stage of my finish sanding sequence. I start with a 120-grit disc and at full speed very quickly “buzz” the entire surface, then I switch to a 150-grit disc and repeat. This removes pretty much removes all belt sander marks and/or other marks and imperfections. This tool is not a good flat sander and it’s not intended to be, so I know I’m not done sanding when I’m finished with this tool.
When sanding broad flat surfaces, I hold the sander so the disc is flat and in full contact with the wood. When I’m sanding smaller areas, or concentrating on a blemish, I tilt the sander up a couple of degrees and sand using the edge of the disc. If you do this, you have to keep the sander moving quickly over the surface because if you stall, you will produce a gouge.
Another task this sander excels at is removing saw marks on end grain. To do this I slow the sander down to about 2 or 3 on the speed dial, and using a 150 grit disc I carefully hold the sander as flat as possible on the edge and move it back and forth quickly. It’s easy to see the progress and know when to quit.
Random Orbit Sander/Polisher – Bosch #3727DEVS, 6″ Variable-Speed, 4,500-12,000 OPM, $150This is the newest sander I own. I bought it because I was curious how well a 6″ random orbit disc sander would work for sanding large flat surfaces. This one is very nice and does the job. It accepts 6″ dia. 6 hole hook and loop sanding discs. It’s super fast, well balanced, easy to handle, and the dust collection works great. Note that the clip-on dust port is an accessory.
I use this sander as the second to last, and sometimes as the final step in my flat sanding sequence. Whether or not I stop after using it depends on factors like type of finish being applied, and whether the surface is horizontal or vertical in my project. Defects in horizontal surfaces are much more noticeable than those in vertical surfaces. As a general rule of thumb, if the surface is large and horizontal, I finish sand using my 1/2 sheet orbital sander (below).
1/2-Sheet Finishing Sander – Bosch #1293D, 4-1/2″ x 11″, 11,000 OPM, $160
My all-time favorite finish sander is a 1/2-sheet orbital sander. It’s large surface area makes sanding large flat surfaces easy, and the results are flat and smooth. Keep in mind; this is an orbital sander, not a random orbit sander. Random orbit sanders are more aggressive and remove wood faster. Orbital sanders produce smoother finishes when finer grits are used.
This model works very well. It has a simple and effective paper clamping system, and the dust collection when connected to my dust extractor is at least 95%. Notice the included “punch plate”. It’s used to perforate the sandpaper for dust extraction after you attach the sheet to the sander. Also note that the clip-on dust port is an accessory.
There are two advantages a 1/2-sheet sander has over its nearest rival the 6″ disc sander. First, sheer size. The sanding surface area of a 1/2-sheet is nearly twice that of a 6″ disc. That’s huge! Also because it’s a rectangle it is better for sanding close to edges and in corners.
Palm-Grip Random Orbit Sander – Bosch #ROS20VSK, 5″ Variable Speed, 7,500-12,000 OPM, $80
Palm-size random orbit sanders have been around for a while. There’s a lot of competition in this market because every carpenter owns one. It’s a great tool for quickly sanding smaller surfaces, and for detail work like sanding face frames, door frames, and wood trim. This Bosch model is fast, easy to hold, runs smooth, and the dust collection is great. It uses 5″ 8-hole discs, which are common and easy to find at local home centers.
Detail work is where this sander excels. I use it a lot for finish sanding edges. It comes with a soft sanding backer pad, which is good for most tasks, but that tends to “roll over” narrow edges more than I like, so I bought the accessory hard sanding backer pad, which minimizes that effect.
Bosch Microfilter Dust Canisters
One last note: You should be aware that all the Bosch sanders I’ve shown include a Microfilter dust collection canister. This system is unobtrusive and effective. I’d estimate the dust collection of the canister system to be around 85%. This is way better than nothing if you don’t own a dust extractor vacuum.
That’s it! Hopefully you get a chance to operate these sanders sometime. I think you’ll like them as much as I do, and maybe they will change your attitude towards finish sanding.
Good sanding discs at reasonable prices: