Belt Sanders: Buying Guides, Best Belt Sanders and More

Belt sanders are powerful tools designed to grind away material. They are most commonly used for shaping or finishing tasks on wood but that's not the only application they can be used. Many still use belt sanders for steel and other materials - like boat hulls!
Belt Sanders: Buying Guides, Best Belt Sanders and More

If you’re looking to take on a project that requires a lot of sanding, grinding or finishing you’re probably realizing you have to do a lot of this rough work by hand. Lucky for you, there is a power tool that does most of the hard work for you.

A belt sander can be used on multiple surfaces and materials types such as: wood, laminate or steel.

If you already know what you’re doing, just find the right tool. Skip ahead and take a look at our reviews of the best belt sanders for each type.

What is a belt sander?

Belt sanders are considered a multi use tool since they can be used on a wide range of materials and tasks. They can be used to trim, sand down very rough surfaces, level surfaces and even be used to freehand edges, rounding or shaping.

Belt sanders are able to smooth and trim wood, steel and many other surfaces by running an abrasive belt powered by a motor. This belt runs at a very high speed making several passes on whatever material you’re sanding in just a few seconds.

Unlike orbital and vibrating sanders, a belt sander sands in a linear motion meaning you can sand with the grain and get a very good looking result. These are a must-have tool in any shop, especially a woodworking shop, and is considered a great investment.

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How to choose the right type of belt sander?

If you’ve never purchased a belt sander or used one before you’re probably scratching your head trying to figure out what to look for when buying a belt sander. A belt sander comes in many forms as manufactures of sanders find new ways to apply the abrasive belt for various applications.

There are two types of belt sanders currently in the market:

  • Stationary Belt Sanders or Benchtop Belt Sanders
  • Handheld Belt Sanders
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Stationary Belt Sanders or Benchtop Belt Sanders

A stationary, or benchtop, belt sander works just like the name sounds. These are usually bolted or clamped in place and the material you’re grinding gets brought to the belt sanding machine.

  • Typically have wider and longer belts making jobs faster.
  • Typically used for harder materials like hardwood or metal.
  • It’s not always easy to bring material to the sander.
  • Not as easy as a handheld sander to make arbitrary trims or shaping.

In some cases, this type of sander is used in combination with others, otherwise known as combination belt sanders. A common combination for these is to use a belt sander with a disc sander allowing you to use it for more applications without having to switch or find a new sanding machine.

If you’re shopping for a stationary belt sander you should keep your eyes open for these key features:

  • Has an iron or aluminum body construction.
  • Has a wide belt for easier sanding on larger pieces of material.
  • Has an adjustable table for different sanding angles.
  • Has oscillating sanders that move the sandpaper belt perpendicular to the direction of the spin to improves the quality of the grinding.
  • Has adjustable belt frames so you can adjust the belt angle from horizontal to vertical.
  • Has dust ports to let you attach dust control accessories.
  • Has included sandpaper discs or belts so you can use the tool right away.
  • Has platform guides to help you shape metal or wood to the desired angle.
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Handheld Belt Sanders

A handheld belt sander is a very common tool and is readily available at most hardware stores. They are much cheaper than stationary belt sanders and are typically the best DIY sanding machine. Unlike the stationary sanders you can take this portable belt sander wherever you need to and is often used to trim or smooth out wood pieces.

  • Portability and mobility to sand where you need to.
  • Great for DIY projects or non-professional use.
  • Not as good for larger projects.

Handheld belt sanders are freehand sanding tools and it is completely up to the user to guide the sander along the surface. Making trims and shapes is a lot easier with a handheld belt sander compared to the stationary counterparts. These sanders offer a lot of versatility since it can be used on almost any surface. If mobility and portability are your biggest priorities then a handheld belt sander is right for you. These are perfect for onsite projects like furniture or house renovations.

If you’re shopping for a handheld belt sander you should keep your eyes open for these key features:

  • Has comfortable grip designs to avoid hand fatigue and injury.
  • Has dust collection features.
  • Has a simple sandpaper changing system.
  • Has a lightweight body so it is easier to maneuver.
  • Has noise reduction features.
  • Has switches for continuous sanding without having to grip the switch.
  • Has a long and thick power cord.
  • Has a two-step switch activation to avoid accidentally turning on the sander.
  • Has variable speed adjustment.
  • Has tracking adjustment features to adjust the tracking to keep belt loops straight.
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What to look for when buying a belt sander?

The best belt sander is one you can use for a long time and won’t have to replace after just a few projects. If you’re an avid DIYer or even looking for something for your business the primary two things you should look for is power and durability. A belt sander is often one of the cheaper types of sanders in the market so if you do have replace you won’t be losing your bank account. Fortunately since they are cheaper it’s easier to find several choices that meet different budgets.

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Running an abrasive belt takes a lot of power, especially if there is a lot of pressure being used to push down on the sanding device. A good belt sander needs to have enough power to grind down and smooth material without slowing you down.

A corded power sander has an electric motor and is rated in Amps (A). A battery-powered portable sander has a motor and is rated in Volts (V). The battery storage capacity is usually given to you in Ampere-hours (Ah). A stationary or benchtop belt sander is rated in Horsepower (HP) or Amps (A). These are good things to note when you go to look at belt sanders. Understanding the terminology will help you make the right choice.

Typically you will find that most handheld belt sanders are corded and will range somewhere between 5 and 12 amps. If you find a batter powered one you’ll most likely run into one that is 18 volts. If you’re in the neighborhood for a stationary belt sander you’ll see many with the same amps as a handheld but some might be rated in horsepower and that’s usually around 3-5 horsepower.

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The size of your belt sander is more important if you’re leaning towards a freehand belt sander. This will affect the portability and ease of use. There are two sizes available for handheld belt sanders and they are (in inches): 3×21 and 4×24.

A 4×24 belt sander is wider by one full inch and can be very difficult to maintain for a longer period of time if someone has smaller hands. Any tool that carries belts of this size is mostly used for grinding whole boards. The smaller, 3×21 inch, sander is typically used for more delicate sanding.

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The faster the belt runs on the sander the more passes it can do for any given amount of time. That doesn’t mean a sander with a high feet-per-minute (FPM) is the best choice since a faster belt often causes the user to have less control. Control is a very important component of sanding and making sure you have the best finish.

A handheld belt sander with speed selection or variable switches can help reach a desired rate of grind without having to push the sander down too much into the material. If you’re pushing down too hard you will cause your body more stress and go through belts much faster. A higher FPM does mean that it will take less time to grind away whatever it is you’re using a sander for and is something to keep in mind when purchasing a new belt sander.

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This is something most people tend to ignore or neglect when buying tools. Purchasing a tool is often seen as an investment in whatever it is that you’re doing whether that’s buying it for your job or working on things at the house. Because of how belt sanders are used and how often in the sanding process these types of sanders are used it is advisable to purchase belt sanders from a trusted manufacturer. These manufacturers ensure longer belt sander life and longer use and many offer good warranty terms.

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What do you use a belt sander for?

A belt sander has a wide range of uses and materials it can be used for. Typically you will see a belt sander used for refinishing wood, refinishing aluminum or steel, fixing interior or exterior doors, sharpening tools, smoothing out or rounding edges and corners or even for your random quick sanding project.

If you’re trying to refinish wood it will only take a couple swipes from a belt sander and some stain to get rid of old stains or imperfections in wood. Many of our users use belt sanders to refinish wood tables and chairs giving them a restored newer look without having to buy a new table set. If you’re using it for wood you typically will work with three grit stages: coarse, medium and fine.

If you’re trying to refinish aluminum, steel or other metals a stationary belt sander can come in handy. You should avoid trying to freehand sand metal. Be aware that as you sand metal you will create sparks so you’ll want to make sure you’re wearing protective gear and your workspace is clean.

A great use for a belt sander around the home is to fix doors that won’t close as easily as they did when you first moved in. In some cases it’s a sign of the house settling or even humidity. You’ll start to find that the door will scrape against the door frame and will either be hard to close or won’t close completely. A belt sander can take off 1/8th of an inch in a matter of seconds and in most cases that’s all you need to get your door to close smoothly.

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Belt Sander Maintenance

They key to extending the life of any tool is proper maintenance. If you take care of your tools and regularly service them, or even service them after each job, they will last you a very long time. There are a few key things you need to keep in mind when maintaining your belt sander: pay attention to the belt, clean out the drum, inspect the plugs, check the drive belt for issues and be mindful of the wheels.

It’s very easy to think of a new project and grab the belt sander and go without doing any proper inspection before use. The abrasive belt protects the drum from debris so you should leave it on your sander when not in use. If you’re not using your sander, or even just taking a break, you should loosen the tension on the abrasive belt. This will cause it to not mold to the shape of the sander which may cause markings when you use the machine again. Just make sure that when you go back to using it you tighten the tension back up as a loose belt can slip but a belt that’s too tight will wear out faster.

If you did get debris in the drum you’ll want to use compressed air to blow it out. It can damage the machine if the debris stays in there and is ran with debris in the drum. After each use you should remove the drum cover and clean it out.

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Safety Tips for Using a Belt Sander

A belt sander is a relatively safe tool if you’re using it appropriately and have the right protection gear you should almost never get hurt. However, it’s very easy to neglect basic safety precautions and wind up hurting yourself or others. You should take these safety steps before using a belt sander:

  • You should wear hearing protection.
  • You should always use dust collection devices and wear a mask.
  • You should always wear protective eye wear.
  • You should unplug the tool before doing any maintenance.
  • You should always clean your area before working with metal to avoid any sparks starting a fire.
  • You should make sure the trigger or switches are off before plugging in the sander.
  • You should make sure your work is secure before applying the sander or any pressure to the sander.
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