Canadian Woodworking

Belt sanders: tips for selecting


If your main need for a hand plane is to flatten glued-up panels, you just might get by with a quality belt sander and a sanding frame.

I consistently stress to my woodworking students the importance of using hand planes for fine woodworking. Nothing can get a surface quite as flat, not even sanding. However, hand planes take a great deal of skill to use, never mind learning how to tune and sharpen them. I wouldn’t call a belt sander a replacement for a hand plane by any stretch. But if your main need for a hand plane is to flatten glued-up panels, you just might get by with a quality belt sander and a sanding frame.

A belt sander is handy for all kinds of general DIY work as well. If you need to grind something down in a hurry while building a deck or fitting some rough carpentry work, the belt sander might be the best tool. You can also use it for other grinding jobs like sharpening metal tools, so it’s not just for wood. Let’s take a look at the features you should look for in a belt sander.

You don’t need tremendous power for most sanding jobs, so I wouldn’t put this high on my list of needs. Of course, more power at the same price is always nice, so it’s still useful to compare motor amperages from one model to another. You’ll find amperages ranging from as little as 6 and as much as 10 or more.

As for weight, this is one tool where I don’t mind a little extra weight because I use a belt sander mainly in the horizontal position. Weight isn’t such a bad thing if you’re trying to hog down some badly misaligned panel boards. On the other hand, if you do a lot of home renovation type work and might need to use a belt sander vertically or even overhead, then pay attention to the weight ratings. A 12 to 15 lb. machine will be very tiring when used vertically, compared to a sander 10 lb. or less.

While there are some different sizes out there, most belt sanders fall into two sizes: 3″ x 21″ or 4″ x 24″. (Note: belt sanders are categorized by the size of the sanding belts they use, as measured by the width and length of the belt.) Replacement belts for both belt sizes are readily available. Personally, I own and prefer the 3″ x 21″ size. While the 4″ x 24″ model will make quicker work of a large panel, it is a much larger machine. Aside from additional weight, it is just a little cumbersome for my taste. Choose the larger model if you are going to use the tool to level large panels and you want a really heavy, industrial machine. Choose the smaller model if you’re likely to use the machine in a wider number of circumstances and especially for any vertical or free-hand on-site work.

The older belt sander I own has only one speed: 1100 feet per minute (fpm). For the limited use my sander gets, it has always served me well. Many models now have variable speed, which can range from about 500 fpm to about 1500 fpm. Some models have two distinct speeds, while others have a dial to give you any in-between speed that you want. Having variable speed is useful if you will use the sander on a wide variety of materials. What might work well on hard maple could be too aggressive on pine. If you work primarily with hardwoods, a single speed machine working at the mid to high end of the scale will work just fine. Take the variable speed option if the price isn’t much more. But if your budget is tight, a single speed will still fit the bill. You can still control the aggressiveness of a single-speed sander by changing to a finer grit belt.

Take a close look at the machine you’re considering and how the belts are changed. Most belt sanders allow you to change belts very quickly and easily by pulling a lever to take the tension off the belt and pushing it back in to re-tighten. After putting the new belt on, you’ll also have to track the belt, much like tracking a blade on a bandsaw. Some machines say they have automatic tracking, while others have a knob that you turn until the belt stays in the middle of the platen (the metal plate that supports the belt between the rollers). Manual tracking isn’t a big deal – turn the knob one way and the belt starts to move to the left. Turn the knob the other way and the belt moves right. Run the belt sander upside down while you turn the tracking knob and you’ll have it tracked in the center in just a few seconds.

If there’s one thing a belt sander does well, it’s to produce a lot of sawdust. While no belt sander will catch all the sawdust, many do a respectable job of collecting dust in an on-board dust bag or canister. Make sure the bag is large enough that you don’t have to empty it too often. Once the bag is over half full, it isn’t as effective. You should also look at how easy it is to remove the bag and reattach it to the machine. Some belt sanders even allow you to remove the bag and connect a shop vacuum hose directly to it, so that is worth looking at if you plan to use it often.

Don’t underestimate comfort in hand operated power tools (and that includes decibel ratings). You might use a belt sander for a good stretch of time, so be sure that it feels comfortable in your hands. Pay particular attention to the shape and location of the handles and switches. Some models have handles that can be set to several positions or even removed to get into tight spaces. Also, look for a button to lock the power on. It’s annoying to have to hold the trigger for long periods of time. And remember to make sure the machine is turned off before you plug it in. Unless you’re at the starting line of a belt sander race, these machines can do a lot of damage in a short time.

You’ll find that most belt sanders have one or both sides completely flat, allowing you to sand right up against a vertical surface. Some have a three-wheel design, allowing a larger platen in between the front and rear wheels. This gives a larger usable sanding area at any given time.

ridgid belt sander

One accessory that I consider essential is a sanding frame. It is a frame which holds the belt sander just above the work surface. Turning a dial gradually lowers the sander towards the surface. So by barely touching the surface, the frame allows you to sand just the high points within the sanding frame area. The larger footprint of the frame makes the belt sander work more like a hand plane, in terms of flattening ability. The frame also prevents tipping and gouging. This accessory is so important to me that I wouldn’t purchase a belt sander that doesn’t have a sanding frame available. For construction type work, you won’t need it.

Belt sanders are simple machines and they don’t vary from one model to another quite as much as other tools. Still, be sure to buy one that is comfortable and suitable for your needs. Above all, buy the best quality you can afford and the sander will give many years of good service.

Note: Prices listed in this review were correct at time of printing, but may not reflect current prices. See links/retailer for updated prices.


Black and Decker DS321
Bosch 1274DVS
DeWalt DW433
Hitachi SB75
Makita 9903
Milwaukee 5936
Porter Cable 352VS
Ridgid R2720VS
Craftsman 25722
No Longer Available
Skil 7500
Ryobi BE321VS

Last modified: September 29, 2023

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