Best Belt Sander
Belt sanders can be broken down into two categories: handheld and bench-mounted. They both operate under the same principles, with the bench-mounted ones being much larger than the portable ones. Typical belt size for a bench-mounted belt sander is 6 inches wide, while the most common size for portable belt sanders is 3 x 21 inches.
Of all the types of portable sanders on the market, belt sanders are the fastest cutting. These tools are normally used with a coarse grit belt to take off material quickly, whether they are being used for smoothing a hardwood floor, leveling the surface of a butcher block table or countertop, or stripping finish off of a chaise lounge on the patio. They don’t work well for finish sanding; you’re better off with a vibratory sander or a random-orbital for that.
Due to their size, these sanders are considerably heavier than other types of portable sanders. In most cases, this is an advantage, as the weight of the tool eliminates the need for the operator to lean on it. For larger projects, there are a few four-inch-wide portable sanders on the market. However, if the sander is going to be used to strip paint off existing doors, molding, and other vertical surfaces, be sure to buy the lightest weight one possible.
The biggest issue when selecting a belt sander is the tracking. The alignment of the two pulleys that the belt travels over can make it wander to one side or another. If it does this too much, it can damage the belt, the tool, or the workpiece. Better belt sanders generally have better tracking mechanisms, with a few of them having fully automatic tracking which you don’t have to adjust.
Power is a secondary issue, but is also important. If a belt sander is going to be used a lot, you’ll want the biggest motor you can get. The same can be said if you’re the type of woodworker who leans on his sanders a lot. Without enough power, the sander can get bogged down, slowing the work. It can also overheat, which could ultimately damage the tool.
Most belt sanders are designed to have one side where the belt runs right up to the edge of the tool for flush cutting. This allows you to sand the entire surface - even the surface of the floor adjacent to a wall. A few of them also do a pretty good job of providing good clearance at the front edge for getting close to vertical surfaces without damaging them. A new design that is appearing on the market has the front pulley smaller than the rear one, much like the wheels on a dragster (racing car) - this allows the sander to get under overhanging objects, such as the toe kick on kitchen base cabinets.
The handles vary on these sanders, although most have a front and rear handle. You want something that will be comfortable, preferably with a rubber overmolding. A few provide movable front handles, allowing you to position them where they will work the best for you, but this feature is pretty rare.
One last little detail which can be useful is how the top of the sander is designed. When using the belt sander for small pieces, it can be useful to be able to turn it upside-down and clamp it in a vice or lay it on a workbench. Most allow this, although a few don’t.
Best Belt Sander Overall:
Most of the time, sanders are used for finishing work such as final smoothing of a piece of wood or metal bodywork before putting the finish on. But, there are also those times when it’s necessary to do some major work with a sander when you need to take material off. In those cases, a belt sander is the thing to use.
Belt sanders are made for fast cutting, not for fine finishing. Generally speaking, coarse grit belts are used with them, so that they can attack whatever is being sanded even that much more aggressively. The belt moves at a fairly high rate of speed, for the same reason.
Although there are larger belt sanders on the market, the 3 inch by 21 inch size is the most common. This type of sander is still light enough to be able to be used fairly comfortably, even on vertical woodwork. At the same time, the sander is heavy enough that the weight of the sander helps with its cutting action. We're going to look at more than just that size, although most of them are the 3 inch by 21 inch sanders.
The biggest problem with handheld belt sanders isn’t power, it’s the tracking mechanism. I have yet to use a belt sander which didn’t have enough power to do the job I needed it to. At the same time, I’ve used a lot of belt sanders where the belt couldn’t stay straight on the rollers. Even when I managed to adjust the rollers right to keep the belt in place when the sander was idle, as soon as I started using it, the belt started wandering off to one side. In one case, I actually had the belt cut through the side casing of the sander.
So, the biggest thing to look for in a belt sander is the tracking mechanism since you want one that works. Even though the power isn’t as important in these tools as is in some, it’s still important. Any power tool which doesn’t have enough power is more trouble than it’s worth.
Most handheld belt sanders are designed so that they can be set upside down and clamped to the bench top. While this isn’t as good as a stationary belt sander, it’s better than not having one. The better ones have some pretty good dust collection systems. These tools can create a lot of sawdust, so a good dust collection system definitely helps.
If you've got a lot of material to take off quickly, this four inch wide sander is perfect for you. Designed for long life, it has sealed bearings and a labyrinth air passage to help block out dust. Read Full Review
Makita takes the prize with their sanders tracking mechanism. This has to be the best tracking on the market. On top of that, the dust collection system actually works well. Read Full Review
This Hitachi almost took first place away from the Makita. It was a close call, but the Makita tracks as well as collects dust just a bit better. However, this tool is very comfortable and extremely easy to work with. Read Full Review
This sander has to be easiest one to control on our list. The handles seem to be just right for keeping the sander right where you want it. This model has great tracking too. Read Full Review
Best Benchtop Belt Sander:
When you need something bigger than a hand sander, most craftsmen turn to a benchtop belt sander. Not only do they provide you with a larger belt, but they run at a higher speed than a hand-held sander, allowing for more material removal. In fact, in most cases you’ll have to be careful that you aren’t taking too much material off.
Being bench mounted allows you to have both hands free to control the workpiece. Essentially, all bench mounted belt sanders (with the exception of 1 inch wide sanders) follow more or less the same design. They have a belt that can be swung either horizontal or vertical, with a fence for holding the workpiece perpendicular to the belt.
Becnhtop belt sanders also have a disk sander mounted to one side which is meant for smaller work pieces. Another thing you can do with the disk sander is to put fine sandpaper on it to clean up rough areas from the belt sander. The belt sander will take off material much faster than the disk will. If you buy an inexpensive belt sander, there's a good chance that the fence won't be 90 degrees to the surface of the belt. Even on better models, you need to check this before working to ensure its properly adjusted because I've had sanders where I had grind the casting a bit to make it work.
When looking at belt sanders, the most important factors are belt tracking, ease of belt change and power, in that order. It doesn’t matter how powerful your unit is if the belt is running off to one side or the other. The best units will have a separate belt tightener and belt tracking mechanisms, allowing you to adjust both. Lesser expensive units will have the best tightness automatically controlled by a spring. While this works, it's not as good as being able to adjust the tightness yourself.
Sanding belts will be marked on the back side, showing you the correct direction of travel. This is important when installing the belt, as a belt which is installed backwards will come apart quickly. The direction is determined by the lap point where the belt is glued together. A belt that is installed backwards will have the end of the cloth hitting the edge of your workpiece, which is what works it loose.
Belt sanders produce a lot of dust, so they all come with a port for dust collection. I wouldn't even bother trying to use a dust collection bag, if one comes with the sander. Instead, connect your shop vac or dust collection system right to the port on the sander to keep the dust down in your shop.
This is actually an industrial unit, from the biggest name in belt sanders and for sheer power, this one wins, hands down. It comes with a 1-1/2 HP motor, a 6 inch by 48 inch belt sander and a 12 inch disk sander. Read Full Review
This is essentially the little brother to the number one unit. While that one may be a bit too much for the average do-it-yourselfer, this one is much more practical. It still has a 6 inch wide belt, but comes with a 3/4 inch motor, and a 9 inch disk sander. Read Full Review
I like how they've repositioned the disk sander on this unit. That allows for you to work on much bigger work pieces, even bigger than other sanders of a similar design. Read Full Review
For those of us who can't afford Jet, this Powertec unit is a great option. This is the only lower priced unit I've seen that still has a 6 inch by 48 inch belt and a 9 inch disk. Read Full Review
Best Budget Belt Sander:
Belt sanders are used when you want to take a lot of material off quickly. These aren’t finishing tools, but rather rough work tools. If you’re planning on finishing the workpiece, you’ll probably need to follow the belt sander with a random-orbital or vibratory sander. However, if you want to rough shape a piece, remove rough spots, or sand off finish, nothing will beat a belt sander.
The most common size for handheld belt sanders is 3 inches by 21 inches, large enough to cut a fairly wide swath, while still being small enough to be controllable. A few manufacturers make larger ones which use 4 inch by 24 inch belts. While the wider belt helps sand larger areas faster, the tool is considerably heavier.
Power is an issue with these tools. Some users really like to lean on them, bogging the motor down which can cause gouging in the material, especially from the edge of the belt. To avoid gouging, keep the sander moving at all times. Even with it moving, you’ll have to realize that there will be sanded lines showing in the finished workpiece.
Another important issue is tracking. Some sanders are extremely hard to set the tracking on. Then, when you put the sander under load, the tracking goes out again and the belt starts creeping. To many people, this is the “make it or break it” issue for a belt sander. A sander with tracking problems causes lots of frustration, wears out belts quickly, and slows down your work.
Most handheld belt sanders are designed so that you can flip them over and clamp them in a vice which is extremely handy when using them to sand small pieces. Some can be flipped over on the workbench, without having to use a vice. In that case, it’s common to hold them in place with a C-clamp.
Belt sanders can vary extensively in price, with many units running $150 and over. In this list, I’ve tried to find units which work well, but are available for under $100. Please keep in mind that these can’t be considered professional tools at this price, and won’t work as well as a tool that costs three times as much. However, for the do-it-yourselfer or handyman who occasionally needs a belt sander, any of them will work fine.
This is a very unique sander, with a 2-1/2 inch wide belt. For tight spots, there's nothing like a compact tool and this is one of the very few compact belt sanders made. Read Full Review
The low-profile "racecar" shape of this sander makes it great for places where overhangs make it hard to sand. It’s just what you need for places such as under the toe kick of cabinets. Read Full Review
This 4 inch belt sander has a 10 AMP motor for plenty of power. This is the only four inch sander you can find in this price range. Read Full Review
This Craftsman sander is packed with features, many of which you won't find on a more expensive sander. I especially like the adjustable handle and the pressure LED to let you know when you're pressing too hard. Read Full Review