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A belt sander is an electronic hand tool that takes all the work out of sanding wood. It consists of an encased motor that drives a circular belt, much like the running belt of a treadmill but in miniature. Sandpaper, cut in a long strip to fit over the belt, attaches tightly to cover the entire surface of the belt. When the motor is switched on, the belt turns. The tool can be placed on a rough wood surface to quickly sand an entire area without applying significant pressure or manual circular movement.
A belt sander is a woodworker's best friend, indispensable for many jobs that would take long hours, or even days, to complete manually. Belt sanders not only finish wood, but can strip paint from wooden cabinetry and furniture, resurface old or stained wood, and smoothly round edges and corners. It's a virtual certainty that every homeowner will use or need a belt sander at one time or another.
There are a few features to look for when purchasing a belt sander:
Power: Amperage determines the power of a belt sander, but this is somewhat misleading. Much depends on how a particular belt sander converts amperage to power. Belt sanders are rated for feet-per-minute (fpm), which refers to how many times the belt turns. The average belt sander runs a 3-inch x 21-inch belt (76mm x 533mm). Downward pressure eventually slows the belt. A good belt sander will have a high fpm rating coupled with a high power rating. Generally, the more power and fpm you can afford, the better.
Variable speed: A belt sander equipped with variable speeds can be useful for finishing work. At lower speeds, sanding progresses more slowly, making it easier to halt work at the right moment, such as when approaching an adjacent level surface that requires a flush finish. Be sure to check the placement of the speed control switch. If it isn't convenient to adjust while your hands are in place on the belt sander, you probably won't use it.
A sturdy release lever: The release lever flips up or down to release or secure sandpaper on the belt. If you switch grits often, or just use the belt sander frequently, choose a belt sander with a solid release lever mechanism that will stand up to years of use.
Tracking control: This control knob aligns the front roller to keep the belt centered. Some tracking knobs only make coarse adjustments, so that even a small turn sends the belt too far in one direction or the other. Others have the opposite problem, requiring several rotations before making any visible difference in the placement of the belt. Properly calibrated tracking controls make a belt sander much nicer to use.
Hand positioning: Everyone has individual preferences about this feature, but in general, if the hands are too close together the tool can be uncomfortable to use. Also, some people find that if their hands are in-line they have less control over the belt sander than with a staggered position.
Dust collection: Experts recommend a belt sander that has a system for collecting the dust created. It not only keeps the job site cleaner, but it's easier on your lungs.
Noise: The final consideration is noise. Some sanders will be louder than others, and none are "quiet." However, if you find the perfect belt sander and the sole drawback is noise, you can always consider earplugs al long as you won't be using the sander on a daily basis.
You can look for a belt sander at your local home improvement center, hardware or department store. They are also available online.