Belt Sander – Is It a Lost Tool?

At the AWFS show in Las Vegas (I’m sure you’ve seen the blog entries and the special AWFS page at our web site), one of the highlights was a trip to the Hard Rock CafÃ?© to witness my first Delta/Porter Cable press event. What a great evening.

At the event, Delta/Porter Cable unveiled a new look and some new tools to the attendees. Some of these tools were going to be immediately available, some will be brought out during the coming year and a few were prototypes that may change drastically prior to anyone seeing the end result.

As I surveyed the tools displayed behind velvet ropes , the “look but don’t touch” directive gave the impression of a Hollywood movie-star filled event , I noticed a large number of belt sanders. The belt sander was once my most useful sanding tool, but I cannot remember that last time I used it in the shop.

As I began woodworking I would assemble my panels and when they came out of the clamps, the belt sander was the next tool used. I would flatten the panels, working at a slight angle to the grain and glue line, starting with #120-grit sandpaper then progressing through #150. Once the panel was flat and smooth, I would make a couple passes over the board using #150 and #180 grit in a random orbit sander (ROS).

That entire process got easier with the addition of a drum sander. I used #120 grit in the drum sander, but because a drum sander leaves straight-line scratches, my belt sander was still my tool of choice for the next step in preparing the panels. I used it with #150 grit to clean up those scratches before the ROS took over.

Bringing the wide-belt sander into the shop was the “kiss of death” for my once-beloved belt sander. Now I had a machine that not only sanded flat and smooth, but because the pivoting head allowed the sanding belt to oscillate back and forth, there were no more straight-line scratches. From the wide-belt sander I moved directly to the ROS to finish the sanding process.

This walk down memory lane leads me to wonder about the belt sander’s role in woodworking today. I know hand-tool folks don’t use this tool, except for possible rough grinding of nasty chisels or blades. But what about power tool woodworkers? Do you still have the belt sander in your arsenal of power tools? As new sanders are released should Popular Woodworking bring them in for review? Would those reviews be helpful? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment.

, Glen D. Huey

23 thoughts on “Belt Sander – Is It a Lost Tool?

  1. tom

    Considering all of the different types of woodworking done in this world it is inconceivable that the belt sander would stop being used. It will go anywhere and do things done by no other electric sander.

    Most of the prior comments center around work done in the shop but what of the jobs out of the shop. Sanding beams, smoothing joints on a fascia, fitting doors on the jobsite, removing the points on nails and screws protroding where a file would take forever, smoothing a bench top of glue, paint or other foreign substances,etc, etc.

  2. Philip Dell

    I have an old belt sander I bought at a garage sale. It doesn’t have any dust collection port and throws dust like crazy. I’m considering one with a port, but haven’t yet obtained a RO sander, which I think should come first. Speaking of order, before I get a drum sander, I need to get a band saw, a jointer planer and a thickness planer. I suspect a new belt sander will precede at least one or two of those. I haven’t mastered my hand planes yet, so I associate them with gouges to some extent. I’m afraid to use them on panels on a real project.
    Phil

  3. Avery Smith

    I have no room for a large sander but get along very nicely with of all things a 22"wood plane and a belt sander. Try the big planes,they keep old guys in shape

  4. Joe Byron

    My father was a professional cabinetmaker and used his 4" belt sander sparingly for rough work and "cutting" cabinets into place. When I became interested in what he did, I purchased a 3" both because it was cheaper and lighter. Being impulsive and impatient, I used it on everything. We all know that once one has a feel for the tool, its power and ability magnify. I used belt sanders for gouging depressions in seat chairs, smoothing curves, general freeform shaping, as well as sanding. I recently purchased a vintage (1960’s) 3" all-aluminum Craftsman that is unused and just pull it out every now and then to admire it and reminisce.
    -Joe Byron

  5. mike paulson

    Glen,
    You ask a good question that is really a money/space issue I think. Personally I have no money or space, thus I like my belt sander.

    Glen, your books are fine work!

  6. carlos betesh

    Belt sanders are great, I use it very frequently, especially when I want to generate concave surfaces by holding the tip of the sander belt in a 60 degree angle to the piece I want to hollow out.

  7. Greg Bohn

    I’ve owned a number of belt sanders, and found them all to be brutish, violent, ill-tempered beasts good only for holding open my shop door. Give me a good hand plane any day. Ok, I won’t go that far – I do use it for pounding in concrete nails and anchors. If I want to increase my odds of ruining a project by 100%, I need only reach for my belt sander. I know what you’re thinking, and I agree, to wit: "It ain’t the bow & arrow – it’s the indian". A phrase my wife never passes up the opportunity to mention.

  8. Tim Childs`

    I still use a belt sander because I neither space or money for the big belt sander. My old belt sander is just that, old, I’m keeping my eye open for a new one.

  9. Dan Crisp

    I think everyone can relate to not having enough money to buy the ultimate tool, which in the case of the belt sander may be the stationary sander or drum sander (or the oscillating wide-belt sander you referred to, which only people running a production shop could justify). Up until recently I had a 20 year old Craftsman belt sander that screamed like a banshee and tore the paper like my kids at Christmas, but it was indispensable when I needed to remove a lot of stock in a hurry. I’ve since donated that one and got a bit more modern one, but it’s still a relevant tool for many of the uses stated by previous posters. I think beginning and intermediate woodworkers will always need a belt sander in their arsenal.

  10. Vince Faulkner

    Glen:
    All of my tools were bought with "Hard" earned money, earned from my shop made items. Nothing was bought from the "In house budget". Rule from she who must be obeyed. She and "I" have learned from other hobbys I have gotten into. Yes I own a super duty, super heavy belt sander. In my shop if I don’t use it, I don’t own it. (For the most part) I don’t try to keep up with the Jones household, they come to me with "Do you have a….., can I borrow a……, can you come over and take a look at…. ?" Keep in mind that what you say and do has a GREAT effect on the shops around the world….
    Vincew Faulkner

  11. Alvis

    Nope,no way,negitive! It isnt dead as long as folks work out of their garage, or just dont have room for a wide sander. Futhermore, as long as their are folks like me that just dont need something that big,or cant justify the price,or cant afford the price, the belt sander will be around.It is the first sander I use on face frames or whatever I build. Its quick,easy and does the job.You’ll have to pry my belt sander from my cold dead hands.

  12. Joseph Fehrenbacher

    I have a vintage belt sander that I inherited from my father. Even though it is very heavy I still use it.This sander has had many uses around my home besides woodworking. I have used it for trimming doors that stick, removing paint from the large surface of my front door when I restored it. It has been used in the shop many times and found it to be very handy. My shop is not large, so I do not have room for a lot of machines. I do have a benchtop belt sander, but even that has its limitations. I also have a palm sanders that also gets a lot of use as well. The only thing about the belt sander is that it is very heavy, so I would consider upgrading to a newer, lighter model as the old one is a bear to keep adjusted.

  13. Tom Cissell

    I recently acquired my first belt sander using a Lowes gift card. I had never used one. I must say since then I have used it on a number of occassions and don’t know what I would have done without it. Of course not all of us have space for a wide belt sander – or the budget.

    I will be using it again this weekend on a table top for a buffet server I am making for my daughter. I used loose tenon joinery and the registration is not perfect. I also used it to take out some gouges in the legs for the same piece.

  14. Dwight S

    I have one, but don’t use it much. I do use my stationary belt sanders (not the big ones, the little 4×36, the 6×48, and the 1xwhatever) – goodness, my shop doesn’t have any more space for the big drum sander models as is probably the case for most average woodworkers. So, I’m not so sure spending the time on reviews would be as useful as many of the other things you’ve reviewed. Just my 2 cents.

  15. johnbarrett

    Mine isn’t lost. It’s on the shelf to the left of my bench. I have a stationary sander, but I still use the belt sander for glued up panels too large for the machine. Done cautiously and patiently, the belt sander does as good a job as the big machine. I can’t see a good reason to let it gather a lot of dust.

  16. John W. Barrett

    I think that it is definitely a useful tool. I have a drum sander, but my belt sander still gets a lot of work on glued up panels too large for the machine. Done carefully and patiently, it’ll match a stationary sander any time.

  17. Mark Steffens

    I build glued lapstrake wooden boats. It is indispensable from scarfing planks to fairing sheers and stems, I wouldn’t be without it.

  18. Ben

    The belt sander may not be the most efficient tool, but for those of us that use power tools and can’t afford the big cabinet tools the belt sander still has its uses. I would still appreciate reviews of belt sanders as they came out.

  19. dave brown

    I haven’t used my belt sander for woodworking in years. I’ll probably use it when I need to resurface my hardwood floors. On second thought, I’ll probably rent a proper floor sander.

    It sees use now as a "stationary" tool when I need to grind a bevel on a blade. If I could get some decent money for my porter cable belt sander I’d put it up on eBay.

    I think that the better hand held power planers have more relevancy with woodworkers than belt sanders do.

  20. Bruce Jackson

    As someone whose workshop has to share space with his wife’s car, the belt sander is quite relevant, since like all of my other tools, it has to walk or roll its way home when my wife’s car crosses the end of the driveway for the night.

  21. Chris C.

    Glen, I still think the hand belt sander is
    relevant. I can’t speak for all woodworkers, but I
    would likely not be able to fit a wide belt sander
    in my shop. And most of the ones that are made
    for the home user can’t handle large panels anyway.

    I like to use the belt sander for some other things as
    well. It does a nice job scribing cabinets to a wall. It
    can be easily taken outside or to a friends to
    work on a project. And you can use it to work other things
    besides wood if you work carefully. You mentioned
    sharpening which is one. But I have used it to grind
    down a stubborn piece of plastic or metal as well.

    It wouldn’t be the tool I would rescue from the shop
    were it on fire, but I do like belt sander just fine.

    Chris

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