Unless you’re built like The Hulk, you may not have the arms or the patience to sand your wood-based art manually. For the average carpenter and amateur woodworker, they can rely on belt sanders to give their workpieces an ultra-smooth finish.
A belt sander is a tool that utilizes a fast-moving abrasive belt to smooth, splinter-free surfaces. Two drums turn a long loop of sandpaper, removing a huge amount of materials in a short amount of time. Other than giving your workpieces a nice, flat finish, a belt sander can also be used to shape rough stock and prepare it for further processing.
Types of Belt Sanders
Belt sanders come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they typically fall into two different categories – handheld and benchtop.
Handheld Belt Sander
A handheld belt sander (palm or otherwise) is one that you can carry around. You use it by gripping the tool with both hands and running the rotating belt over your workpiece. The best thing about handheld belt sanders is that although they produce a ton of sawdust, they usually have large dust collection bags, so you don’t need to sweep/vacuum anything. However, using this tool requires having a steady hand since applying too much downward pressure can remove more material than intended.
Benchtop Belt Sander
A benchtop belt sander is one where you take the material to the tool, not the other way around. This stationary belt sander is also portable, but it requires a bit of muscle in doing so. Also, you need to mount this tool to a workbench or other surface to keep it perfectly balanced. Any slight imbalances can lead to messy sanding.
In this article, we’re going to focus on benchtop belt sanders. The reason or doing this is simple: although they’re larger compared to their handheld counterparts, they’re still extremely portable and come with a wide range of features that make it an extremely handy tool to have in the workshop.
Benchtop Belt Sander Buying Guide
If you’re in the market for a benchtop belt sander but don’t know what to look for, we’re here to help. The following section will discuss the various specs and features to look out for, especially if you want a tool that’s both powerful and versatile.
The standard motor on a benchtop belt sander ranges between 1 and 6 amps. For average DIY guys and gals out there, a motor of about 4 amps will provide enough power for most, if not all, of your sanding needs. If you’re looking for more power for bigger projects, then try finding a 6-amp benchtop belt sander. A more powerful motor generally means quicker, more effective sanding.
When it comes to sanding, you’re going to want to find a high-speed tool. Quicker belt rotations mean removing more material in less time. However, you need to be mindful about how much pressure you’re applying to the belt with your workpiece since you could accidentally end up removing more than you’d originally planned.
A good speed to look for would be about 1,500 RPM or at least 2,300 SFPM (surface-feet-per-minute). Better yet, a variable speed feature would give you the option to do both light sanding and heavy-duty removal on one machine.
Even though belts are replaceable, it’s still a good idea to check what type of belt your sander comes with. The two choices available to you are aluminum oxide and zirconia. Both options work well in removing material, but many people prefer the more abrasive zirconia belt for both light and heavy sanding. If you didn’t get your hands on a zirconia belt, an aluminum oxide belt would work just fine; just make sure that you get the right grit size for either rough sanding or final sanding.
Belt Length and Width
There are two reasons why the size of the belt matters. First, longer belts have a longer lifespan so you won’t need to purchase replacement belts as frequently. Second, wider belts allow operators to sand larger workpieces with minimal movement and maneuvering. You don’t want something so small that you could risk sanding away your knuckles as you twist and turn your workpiece. A good size to be on the lookout for would be at least 3 inches wide by 18 inches long, but feel free to find something bigger or smaller depending on what you’re most comfortable with using.
Weight and Construction
Consider the weight and the materials used to make the benchtop belt sander. Even though this tool is technically portable, you really shouldn’t think of purchasing a model that weighs less than 30 pounds. Even if the belt sander is properly mounted onto your work surface, vibrations can cause the unit to rock unexpectedly.
The best benchtop belt sanders we’ve seen are typically made of steel and/or cast iron. These durable materials add much-needed weight to the tool to keep vibrations in check. If the tool is made out of plastic or aluminum, we recommend finding something else.
One thing that manufacturers realize is that a belt sander can’t replace a disc sander and vice versa. To get the most out of your workbench belt sander, it’s a good idea to find a model that also includes a disc sander system. A vertical disc sander works a lot better at producing curved edges on your workpiece, so having the ability to sand, shape a point, and make curves in one machine is something you should definitely consider.
This is one of the most overlooked features in a belt sander most people use this tool to sand and not shape. However, if you’re looking to make oddly shaped pieces of art of with a belt sander, ideally, the tool should have a bevel gauge and tilting work table. This will allow you to remove material from your stock at almost every angle without bumping your knuckles against the work table. The work table can usually bevel up to 45°, 90°, or not at all.
Dust Management System
Belt sanders produce a heck of a lot of sawdust – something that’s not exactly good for you in inhaled. You should only get a belt sander/disc sander combo if it comes with a reliable dust port. You can always purchase or 3D-print your own adapters if your shop vac’s hose doesn’t fit into the existing dust-collection port. An adjustable dust shoot that lets you redirect the direction of the port is a nice feature to have as well.
Both handheld and benchtop belt sanders are handy tools to have in your shop, but if you’re looking for ultra-sanding power and a multi-purpose tool, the benchtop belt sander is the way to go. You can sand large workpieces, shape pointed edges, and even make fancy curves without having to employ/purchase multiple tools. Basically, it makes sanding a whole lot easier and enjoyable to do compared to vigorously rubbing a sheet of sandpaper across the surfaces of your wood-based art.
If you’re planning on purchasing a benchtop belt sander, make sure that it comes with a strong motor (4 amps or more), is made of a durable material (steel, cast iron, or both), uses large-sized sanding belts (at least 3 by 18 inches), and comes with a reliable dust chute for ejecting sawdust. A tilting table and disc sander add-on are huge pluses.