Random-orbit Sanders

As we prepared to test random-orbit sanders, we considered the vast number of tools available. In order to make the test manageable, we decided to limit the test to variable- speed tools with 5″ pads.

The reason for selecting tools with 5″ pads is that most stores carry a wide variety of grits in that size. But why should you purchase a variable-speed sander versus a single-speed sander that costs a few dollars less? Where it helps, in our opinion, is when you have to deal with boards that aren’t exactly flat, such as where you’ve worked a glue seam with a scraper and ended up with a slight valley on the surface. A sander can move wildly as you traverse that valley. At high speeds the sander has the potential to “walk” and create sanding scratches that require additional attention. Slower speeds allow more control.

Next, we envisioned an article full of charts demonstrating how different these sanders are. But as testing began, we discovered that each sanders does the job it is supposed to do. Each one sands a surface smooth and flat without leaving huge swirls.

What we found to be the most important aspects of these sanders were attributes that do differentiate the tools: How the tool fits your hand, whether the switch is easily accessible to most hands, and how easy the tool is to control. The other important issues are dust collection and whether or not the tool is aggressive.

A Five-minute Stock-removal Test
In order to test the tools’ aggressiveness and dust collection, we ran the sanders through a simple five-minute test. Pieces of surfaced poplar were cut to the same size and weighed to three decimal places.

Then we sanded each board for five minutes using an identical, unused #120-grit sanding disc. (The Festool sander uses a Festool disc due to the hole patterns.) When the fiveminute cycle was complete, we weighed each board to find the amount of stock removed. At the same time we evaluated the dust collection of the sanders, noting any dust that was deposited on the tool, that was left on the board or was visible in the air.

A look at the amount of stock removed should also involve a study of the orbit diameter of each sander. That diameter influences the aggressiveness of the machine. For example, the Festool sander was the least aggressive at removing stock, and it has the smallest orbit diameter of the group. The Porter-Cable 390 is the most aggressive sander tested. It removed more than a half ounce of waste, but it didn’t have the largest orbit diameter. That honor goes to Craftsman. The Craftsman 11218 sander ranked second in stock removal. A quick look at the chart on page 62 will give you an idea as to where each tool placed.

Dust Collection Design and Ability
We’ve all seen or experienced the canister or bag falling off a sander and a cloud of dust bellowing out. That’s not good. So a study of dust collection has to begin with how the receptacle attaches to the sander.

Here we give kudos to the Ridgid R2600 because the bag is attached to a frame that’s screwed to the body of the sander. There’s no chance this receptacle would fall off.

The Porter-Cables, DeWalt and Milwaukee have either a canister or bag that twists and locks onto transition pieces that are attached to the sanders’ bodies.

While Porter-Cable has shown improvements over its earlier models, the transition pieces simply press-fit over an O-ring gasket. The O-ring tightens the connection. The Porter- Cable 390 sander showed quite a bit of dust around the sides of the body just above the pad. We also noticed airborne dust while using this tool when we worked near edges.

DeWalt and Milwaukee each have transition pieces firmly affixed to the sander. The DeWalt sander showed a small amount of residual dust at the front of the tool just above the pad, and the Milwaukee sander exhibited a large amount on the dust bag at the seams.

The Makita, Craftsman and Hitachi tools have other dust-collection issues.

The Makita sander has a bag twist-locked onto a transition piece, but the transition piece slides over a tube-like dust port and can easily be removed. There are no O-rings to tighten the fit.

The Craftsman sander has a frame that’s holding a cloth bag, but the frame simply slides onto a 1 3/8″ tube-like port; again no O-ring.

The Hitachi sander has a loose-fitting bag affixed to a transition piece that slides onto the tool. Not only is there no gasket or Oring, but due to the shape of the fitting, there’s no method for hooking the sander directly to a vacuum (something other sanders have addressed. The Makita requires a separately purchased accessory). The dust collection was poor – dust gathered over the entire base of the tool and was concentrated where the bag meets the transition piece.

The Festool sander has a paper bag for dust collection. If you’re a Festool user, you probably have an external vacuum. Without a vacuum, this sander ranks in the middle of the pack. And I don’t think having to buy replacement paper bags is ideal.

A Sander in the Hand
Regardless of stock removal or dust collection, if a tool doesn’t fit your hand you won’t like it. And when it comes to sanding, who needs additional aggravation?

Each sander has a unique grip. The fit and feel depends on your hand size and how you grip the tool as you sand.

The sander with the smallest grip is the Festool ETS 125 (2-11/16″ across the top of the tool). One of our editors dinged the sander due to the lack of a softer rubber covering; prolonged use would become uncomfortable. The Bosch ROS20SVK that measures 2 7/8″ came in a close second to the Festool sander for smallest width, while the new low-profile Porter- Cable 390 sander has the widest grip. The top of this tool measures 3 1/4″ wide. The next widest grip is on the Craftsman sander.

Interestingly, we discovered that width across the top is not the sole determiner of comfort. In examining the sanders, it was the Milwaukee that stood out. The dust collection assembly turns slightly as it extends from the body of the sander. That bit of a twist caused the sander to poke some of us in the midsection while sanding (of course it depends on how you hold the sander).

Make the Switch
Most manufacturers have designed the sanders to turn on or off with a single finger via a rocker-style switch. All the tested sanders that utilize that switch have the control located at the front, top edge of the sander. There it’s easily reached with your index finger.

Of all the sanders, only the Ridgid R2600 and the Craftsman 11218 use a switch that slides through the body. Until you get used to working with a switch like these, it’s possible to accidentally turn the sander on or off while repositioning your grip. After a while, it becomes a non-issue. Also, smaller hands may have difficulty in reaching the switch without engaging a second hand.

One sander stepped beyond either of the two conventional switch designs. Hitachi uses a slide switch located like those with rocker-style switches. However, this switch is hard to use because it’s small, stiff and slightly recessed into the tool’s body.

Another concern when evaluating switches is whether the switch is sealed from dust exposure. Mounds of dust are created when sanding, and the more dust that gets into the switch, the less likely the switch will endure.

The DeWalt, Bosch and Milwaukee sanders have switches with a protective membrane. Engineers at Porter-Cable thought the membrane resulted in making the switch difficult to use, so they opted for an internally sealed switch. Hitachi also uses an internally sealed switch. However, to the untrained eye these switches appear to be of an open design.

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About Glen D. Huey

Glen Huey is a former managing editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, a period furniture maker and author of numerous woodworking books, videos and magazine articles.

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