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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.
This tool is often 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. There are a few features that consumers should 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 sander converts amperage to power. These tools are rated for feet-per-minute (fpm), which refers to how many times the belt turns, and the average one runs a 3 x 21-inch belt (7.62 x 53.34 cm). A good belt sander will have a high fpm rating coupled with a high power rating. Generally, the more power and fpm a shopper can afford, the better.
Variable speed: A sander equipped with variable speeds can be useful for finishing work. At lower speeds, sanding progresses more slowly, making it easier to halt the work at the right moment, such as when approaching an adjacent level surface that requires a flush finish. Users should be sure to check the placement of the speed control switch. If it isn't convenient to adjust while a person's hands are in place on the sander, he probably won't use it.
A sturdy release lever: The release lever flips up or down to release or secure sandpaper on the belt. People who switch grits often, or just use the tool frequently, should choose one 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 quite 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 easier 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 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 the user's lungs.
Noise: Some sanders will be louder than others, and none are "quiet." Someone who finds the perfect tool but finds that it's quite nosy can always consider earplugs as long as he won't be using the sander on a daily basis.
Belt sanders are fantastic for removing a significant amount of wood. You have to be careful though, because if you are using a coarse grit and keep the sander in the same spot for a few seconds; it will carve out more of the wood than you intended.
If you are working on an important project, you might use a less aggressive tool, or use a finer grit. (Yes, I learned the hard way.)