There are several power tools in my shop that are indispensable. Of course there are the usual tools such as an electric drill, a circular saw, and a jig saw, but the most valuable to me over the years has been my 4 x 36 belt sander with a six inch circular sanding disc attachment. The brand and model I currently use is the Delta Shopmaster,
although I’m sure that there are others of equal quality and value out there. For me, it was a matter of local convenience and an acceptable price. In fact, I’ve bought two of them in the last ten years. Here’s why.
I’ve been in various aspects of construction and woodworking for around 35 years. Sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time. The past decade has been mostly dedicated to smaller handyman jobs, furniture building, and arts and crafts projects. In all areas of my work, portability is of prime importance. The size of a 4 x 36 benchtop sander makes it easy to haul with me to a job, move to the back porch to work in the sun, or set on a portable work station in my shop. Weight is not a particular factor, and no matter which brand you end up with, the total footprint of the machine is minimal.
What you gain with a tool such as this is ease of use, flexibility of use, and with a little inventiveness some uses beyond what the manufacturer would tell you. Most typically, the average craftsman would use the main sanding surface with the “stop” or “fence” in place to keep small pieces of wood from shooting across the shop unexpectedly. However, using the rounded open end of the belt is a great way to add contouring to any piece of lumber in your hand, or smooth out that concave section of your project.
For more versatility, most sanders of this general design allow the belt table to be stood vertically for doing more critical end grain sanding or prolonged edge work. Because this size machine is so easy to move around and reposition, the intrusive edge of a table top or other obstacles is seldom an issue. Often I’ll move my sander toward the edge of my bench, optimizing the best work angle for a particular project. Then I’ll secure at least one corner of the base to the workbench with a “C” clamp to keep vibration and the force needed for sanding from moving it out of place. (Rubber feet don’t always keep a tool like this in position.)
A sander of this size generally has a quick release feature for ease of changing belts. The disc sanding attachment (if supplied) isn’t always as easy, but with hook and loop sanding pads everywhere nowadays, this is changing rapidly. The sanding disc supplied with a particular model can vary from 4 inches to 6 inches in diameter, so know what is best for your type of work when looking to purchase.
Sanding belts come in many grits, from very coarse to very fine. You will learn over time which belt best suits each situation and when to change from one to another. One optional purchase that you really should add is a rubberized belt cleaning “stick”. They look like a large art-gum eraser, and they will extend the life of most sanding belts 3 to 5 times by cleaning out belt debris, thereby minimizing burning and plugging of the belt surface. They only add a few dollars to the total cost, but will save twenty times that amount by delaying new belt purchases.
Now for the bonus features. I’ve used my sander for many items beyond wood, including (but not limited to) plastics, brass, rubber, steel, aluminum, and the occasional fingernail and knuckle. (Please use caution with any power tool.) I’ve even been known to put a quick edge on a chisel or redress a screwdriver tip. Each of these materials addresses the sanding surface in a unique way, so if you venture outside of the wood realm, be careful. Just because something is made of plastic doesn’t mean that it won’t get hot when sanded. Use vice grips or pliers when handling small objects to minimize scrapes and burns. Metal items get very hot very fast, and can rip a belt to shreds in the blink of an eye. Again, use caution at all times when doing creative sanding. Know your machine and your own limits when using any power tools, and always wear eye protection. Refrain from wearing loose clothing or unbuttoned sleeves, as they can get wrapped into the sanding belt or disc very quickly.
If I haven’t scared you off with the safety warnings and you’ve read this far, then you are probably thinking of purchasing a benchtop belt sander. Know also that most manufacturers have larger models that incorporate a 6 x 48 inch belt and an 8 inch sanding disc. These would be for the more serious woodworker, but might be suitable for your project(s). The smaller sanders start at around $130. Most reasonable in my opinion. I wouldn’t be without one.