There are two aspects of woodworking that most people just cannot seem to get enthusiastic about – one is finishing and the other is sanding. Unfortunately, if you don’t do a thorough job sanding your project, the results of your finishing efforts may be less than stellar.
Man learned early that having the right tools makes the job easier (if not enjoyable) and throughout our history we’ve invented countless machines to make our tedious chores less onerous for ourselves. Go into any woodworking tool store and this is soon made abundantly clear by all of the tempting tools on display. If you are looking for something to ease your sanding woes, there are many products that will help make the job easier. On the ‘portable’ side they range from small detail sanders for fine sanding in tight spaces to large, heavy and aggressive belt sanders for serious stock removal. On the ‘stationary’ side are cantilevered and closed frame belt sanders that can be as small as an oven or larger than the average home workshop.
In most woodworking shops you’re likely to find a belt sander and a random orbital sander (ROS). Both are eminently useful tools to have on hand, when used for the purpose for which they were intended. A belt sander is ideal for rapid stock removal, while the ROS is unbeatable as an all-purpose finish sander. One major drawback for the ROS is that it has a round sanding base. In corners it’s practically useless. Which is where the sheet sander shines.
Sheet sanders come in three sizes, 1/4 sheet, 1/3 sheet and 1/2 sheet; as you would assume, the name comes from the amount of a standard sheet of sandpaper that is needed to cover the sanding pad. The 1/4 sheet sander is perhaps the most basic of all sanders, save for a block of wood wrapped with sandpaper. It has several advantages over an ROS – it’s lighter, easier to control with one hand, and sands less aggressively. While these sanders are fairly basic tools, there can be a wide range of variations in performance and ergonomics among the different models; choosing one that is uncomfortable to hold and hard to control will make sanding a tiresome chore that can leave your arm numb. Where possible you want to get your hands on several different models to see which one feels best ‘in-hand’.
Quarter sheet sanders are not expensive tools. The models we’ve surveyed here range from a low of $20 for the King to a high of $120 for the Makita model, with a mid-price of around $75. Like everything else in life, the expensive versions are more refined and have features that make them more user-friendly. While these features may be minor, some can make the difference between a sander you like to use and a sander that will be left to gather dust rather than make it.
These sanders all have the same basic parts; a motor with an on/off switch that powers a rubber pad onto which a quarter sheet of sandpaper is fixed, a clamping mechanism that holds the paper in place, a power cord, and a handle. Some sanders include accessories such as sandpaper and carrying cases, but these differences shouldn’t play much of a role in deciding which unit to purchase. The sander is what does the work, and this is what you should base your buying decision on.
About half the sanders ship with a couple of sheets of sandpaper as part of the package to get you started. It should come as no surprise that with one or two exceptions this is not a high quality abrasive paper. Besides, a couple of sheets won’t get you far with your sanding. At the same time you purchase your sander pick up some Norton 3X paper in various grits as well. The Norton 3X paper will cut more efficiently and leave a finer and more even scratch pattern on your work than the paper that ships with the sander. To cut the paper for the sander, place it upside down on a piece of plywood, divide the sheet into four quarters and use a utility knife and a steel ruler, or your shop scissors, to cut the sheet.
The sandpaper must be securely held in place on the sanding pad using some form of clamping mechanism. Most models use a section of wire with a lever; release the lever at either side of the sander and it lifts the wire from the edge of the pad. Slip the paper under the wire, re-attach the lever and then pull the sheet tight, and attach it at the other side. If the paper is too loose it has a tendency to tear easily. Bosch has recognized that this can be a bit of a chore and has designed the innovative Sheet Loc™ system. While it functions pretty much like a conventional lever system, the hold-down arm extends below the surface of the sander when it’s disengaged, making it easy to get the other end of the paper into the clamping mechanism. When the lever is released it automatically pulls the sandpaper tight against the pad. Two sanders (Bosch, Craftsman) offer the option of using PSA (stick-on) paper, while the Makita is the only one that enables you to use hook and loop paper.
Sanding creates fi ne dust and it is this fine dust that is most dangerous to our health. These units all provide on-board dust collection and all except the Craftsman and Hitachi include a paper punch to form the holes that allow the sander to collect the dust as it is created. After the paper has been attached to the sander, press the sander onto the paper punch and it will punch the holes required to collect the dust. This is a less expensive option than buying individual sheets that have been pre-punched.
There are different kinds of dust receptacles – a cloth dust bag (King, Makita, Milwaukee, Ryobi), a high capacity dust bag (Craftsman, DeWalt, Hitachi, Ridgid), canister (Black & Decker, Porter Cable) and micro filter canister (Bosch, Skil). Canisters can be a little more awkward when working inside cabinets than a flexible cloth collection bag. Even though most of the canisters would be located under your forearm, a cloth bag won’t risk scratching an adjacent surface, as it will simply fold out of the way in case of accidental contact. While all these sanders catch dust and are effective to varying degrees, we prefer the micro filter canister as it seems to capture and hold more of the dust. Nonetheless you should still supplement the on-board dust collection with some personal protective gear. Wearing a respirator will keep all dust out of your lungs and keep you breathing easy. An ambient air cleaner and a down draft sanding table can help keep your shop virtually dust free as you work.
Four models (Porter Cable, DeWalt, King, Ridgid) have adapters to connect to a shop vacuum, while you have to purchase an adapter for the Bosch. If you attach a vacuum hose to a sander you run the risk of pulling the hose across your work, and thereby marring the surface. Also, the weight of the hose can make sanding more strenuous.
Unlike a belt sander, these sanders do not require a lot of power. Motors range from 1.5 to 2.4 amps generating an average 14,000 orbits per minute. The pads spin in an orbit that ranges from 1⁄32″ to 5⁄64″, with most having a 1⁄16″ orbit. Because they only have such a small orbit, any irregularity in the grit of the paper will leave small pigtail-like swirl marks on the surface. You’ll find that 1/4 sanders are the least aggressive of all the models and remove material at a much slower rate than their random orbit cousins and this allows more control over fine work.
The power cords that come with these sanders are all reasonable, ranging in length from six feet (King) to a generous twelve feet (Black & Decker, Ridgid).
Longer cords are very handy if you don’t have an outlet next to your sanding station. In practice you will find that a longer cord gives you better control as the tension on the cord won’t be interfering with the movements of the sander. A practice we have found to be useful is to hang the power cord from above the work as this removes any influence of the cord on the motion of the sander.
Quarter sheet sanders are all held and manoeuvred with one hand and the size, shape and the material used on the grip area will play a major role in its ergonomics. The sander should fit in your hand comfortably and be easy to hold.
If your hand is too small and the grip is a bit too big you will quickly tire of trying to hang on to it, so find a model that fits comfortably in your hand. There are several options for the grips on these units. Most of the models have some kind of rubber coating on the areas your hands will hold. Only the King, Makita and Milwaukee models have grips made of the same plastic as the rest of the sander. Rubber grips reduce the transfer of vibrations to your hands making the unit easier to grip, and the rubber is not as slick as the plastic.
Vibration is a factor with all sanders and the best ones use different mechanisms to deal with it. The Bosch, for example, features a three point counterbalance system. Others (Hitachi, Makita) simply specify a ‘low vibration design’. Optimally you’d want to try a unit out before you purchase it. Unfortunately, most tool dealers are not equipped for ‘test drives’, so it is best to consult other users first if you want to avoid a return trip to the dealer. A question posted on the Canadian Woodworking Magazine Forum about the model you are interested in will usually provide some insight in relatively short order from any users of the same model. If you do a lot of sanding, then consider purchasing anti-vibration gloves, such as those available through Lee Valley Tools. They do a good job of making long sanding jobs less fatiguing.
An on/off switch is the only control that these tools have. Look for one with a switch that is large enough to be easily used and that it is placed so that it can be reached with your hand on the sander. There are two positions for the switches: either on the front of the unit so that it is activated using your index finger, or on the left side where your thumb rests. Either of these locations works well in practice and it is the style and size of the switch that is more critical than the location.
These switches are of three major styles: slider, pushbutton and rocker. Look for one that can be easily manipulated. If it is too small, recessed too deeply, or too close to your palm, it can be difficult for users with larger hands and fingers to manipulate.
For ease of control and maximum flexibility in tight spaces, you’ll find a quarter sheet sander a welcome addition to your finishing arsenal.
Note: Prices listed in this review were correct at time of printing, but may not reflect current prices. See links/retailer for updated prices.