Stroke Sanders and Wide-Belt Sanders

      More thoughts on the choices in production sanding equipment. March 13, 2007

I have a small one man shop. I create one-off pieces (built-ins, A/V centers, vanities), so no mass production here. How useful are widebelts and how do you use yours? Are those 15-16" open end Taiwanese ones any good? How about a fixed 25" sander - will it be too limiting?

Forum Responses
(Solid Wood Machining Forum)
From contributor A:
The first tools I bought were a table saw and a planer. The third tool was a 43" X 75" widebelt. It is one of those tools that you can't afford to buy, but you cannot afford to not buy one. I wouldn't waste my time with a small sander - you will outgrow and end up buying it twice. As far as brands, there are only a couple that I know of made in the states. Midwest Sandwright is one. I have no idea what they cost. Pick a brand; if you can afford it, it was made overseas. If you can't, it is made in either Germany or Italy. Don't buy an open end sander. Those are the biggest pieces of junk I have ever seen, I don't care what brand it is. With all of that said, look at getting a stroke sander. Used, they are cheap. They are reliable, small, repairable and they will do everything a wide belt will do. It may take a little bit longer, but it is an option. I wish more people used them, but they are being replaced by widebelts it seems.

From contributor R:
My shop does custom kitchens, about one a week. We make all our own doors. We got a small (20") wide belt sander from Mini-Max about 2 years ago, mainly just to run the doors through after they have been glued up. It not only saves time, it does a better job than anyone can do by hand or with a stroke sander. We have a big stroke sander, which is great for tabletops and such. But the belt sander gives you perfect thickness throughout each door and throughout the project.

That said, if you're doing all kinds of work, then you probably can live without one. It's a pretty expensive machine as things go, and I wouldn't take a chance on a very old one. You can get acceptable results with a stroke sander on a limited number of pieces, but you need to develop a light touch. It's very easy to suddenly take 1/8" off the corner of a door if you're not careful, because it all depends on your touch. On the other hand, if you're sanding a lot of solid slab tabletops, a stroke sander can't be beat.

Bottom line - I think a wide-belt only makes sense in a production situation.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your input. Here is my situation/thinking. I make all special pieces - no two are ever alike. I could be making a mantle one week and then an A/V center the next and then a built-in the next. While I am now using Festool sanders with their dc hookup (works well), I am considering a faster sanding method for preassembled parts.

In the past, I have waited and bought more industrial equipment down the road and made do with what I have. Unless I move my shop location, a big widebelt will never fit space wise. The biggest I could get away with is a 25". How about those taboo words "drum sander" for parts and the occasional veneer or wild grained woods?

From contributor A:
We had a drum sander when I first started out. I bought it to sand a big load of trim. It worked fine for that because all the pieces were the same thickness. When it comes to changing thicknesses for a project, you have to be careful. With the steel/aluminum drums, they are so hard that it is easy to burn the wood and ruin the sandpaper. Also, you can't get a platen on them, so you will never get a really good finish sand out of them; you will always have to go back and hand sand.

It is very true what contributor R said about strokes, but having to develop a light touch isn't something to shy away from. The same can be said for table saw, hand planes and chisels. You need to develop a feel for all of these tools and many more to be able to use them effectively. My vote is still stroke for the reasons mentioned above. No, they are not meant for production work, although I know large shops that use an army of them, but it doesn't look like you do production work. They both have benefits and fallbacks and each needs to be evaluated based on your needs. Same goes for the drum sander.

From contributor I:
I've used stroke sanders and widebelts extensively for 35 years and I'd recommend a stroke sander as a good inexpensive sanding machine for a small shop. It does take a bit of practice for delicate sanding, but well worth the effort. Excellent for veneers. A local world class marquetry expert uses one for his marquetry work. The key to using a stroke sander is to spend the extra time doing your glue ups so you are only sanding planer marks off. You can also sand curves, like mouldings and such, with a stroke sander using flexible belts.

From contributor C:
If you are competing with Broyhill, Bassett, Vaughan-Bassett type furniture, buy a wide belt. If you want to finish sand quality furniture, buy a stroker.

But not all stroke sanders are created equal. Buy an Oakley Model D Single Belt. That is the best stroke ever made and they are going for nothing at auctions simply because there were so many of them sold to begin with. If your work has a lot of swells and curves, such as swell or serpentine drawer fronts, mouldings, etc., then get both the D for flat panels, doors, etc., and an Oakley Model G-2 for the curved items and mouldings. The G-2 is the hand block with the idler tightening pulley up above. This enables the operator to fit the belt and the block to the curves. No company in your field should be without one.

At auction, either will be so cheap you can buy both and never miss the money. Just look carefully at the stroker arm and pad carriage on the D. They are not cheap to replace. You can probably buy a machine in good condition for less than the stroker mechanism new.

From contributor G:
Shopfox and Grizley both have nice low cost wide belts for a shop such as yours. They work great and we don't seem to have any problems. I think stroke sanders are on their
way out, for what you are doing. Our stroke sanding is done by hand with a random orbital palm sander. The widebelt takes off the planer chatter, and the palm sander takes off any remaining scratches and finishes to grit. We never level doors in the widebelt because it leaves deep scratches in the rails. Mill frame and door stock to .800 inches in widebelt and then you will palm sand very little. Will not need to level anything. Proper preparation of frame and door stock will save time and produce far more beautiful finishes with much less hand sanding.

From contributor J:
I think there is some very good advice in these posts. I have used a few different widebelts in other shops but have never tried a stroke, so I can't comment on that. I do think widebelts are far superior to drum sanders. You have much more flexibility with them. However, I am also a one man shop doing the same type of work as you are. I bought the Powermatic dual drum sander and it works pretty good for my needs, and for the price. I use mine for sanding doors and drawer fronts to thickness, sanding any type of flat moldings, and occasionally sanding figured woods to thickness. If cost is your biggest concern, I would recommend this machine.

However, if space is your only limitation, I would have to recommend a smaller widebelt. You can buy smaller machines like the 24" or 37" that don't take up the enormous footprint of those 40"+ machines. And price-wise, they are affordable.

I bought mine because of limited resources and plan to upgrade in the future. Sometimes guys on this forum forget what it's like to live check to check, and simply not have the ability to buy once. It doesn't matter how much sense it makes to buy the best machine if you can't pay for it. I would love to have a bank say go ahead and buy whatever you need, but that just isn't the real world. Sometimes you have to buy what you can afford and upgrade later.

From contributor A:
This thread brings up some good discussion. The big reason I keep filling it up with words for the stroke sander is they do seem to be going the way of the dodo. Like a lot of tools, they are leaving for larger, faster machines. You can see the same thing in professions. How many of us just do cabinets or just do doors or just do furniture? Now how many do it all and do a very good job of it? I think I build a nice door and a good cabinet, but I am no furniture maker. All professions are becoming more and more specialized just like our tools.

The problem with that is that we forget how to use our old tools correctly. Take hand planes. I can take a 5 piece door and hit the seams where the stiles and rails meet with a hand plane faster then you can run them through a wide belt. And, since the door material was sanded prior to assembly, through a wide belt, I don't need to sand anymore after the doors are assembled. I use an old tool by all means, but I know how to use it so, for me, it is really quite fast. Someone said the problem with strokes is they are so sensitive and hard to learn. Damn right they are. But look at what you gain. There is nothing a wide belt can do that a stroke sander can't, but there are plenty of things a stroke can do that a wide belt can't. I hate to see someone get something they don't need just because they think they do need it. For what it is worth, I own a wide belt. I want to get a stroke, but it is not in the budget. Why did I buy the wide belt? Because I thought I needed it. How wrong I was.

From the original questioner:
This is how little I know of stroke sanders... Does the belt spin and move on a carriage assembly where the operator presses down on the pad with the pressure so desired? Or does the pad move also?

I have been doing research on what would serve me best, but I suppose I am not sure what my own question is. What would work the best for parts of various sizes (assuming flat)? I envision using it prior to assembly, of course. I have ruled out a big wide belt for now (money and space). A stroke sounds interesting and seems as if I could find a good deal, but I do not have the space for one. I know some of you say stay away from Tai/Chi open ended, but I have a lead on a lightly used 15" I could get for under 2k... Any thoughts?

From contributor G:
You know contributor A, sometimes you have to let go. I never owned a stroke
sander nor used one. I have owned and used drum sanders. The wide belt just works for anyone, and you don't have to spend weeks trying to learn how to use it. With gas prices going up and up, along with everything else, you have to get the jobs out quickly to make a profit. The wide-belt has helped us do this and improve quality at the same time.

From contributor R:
The answer depends on your situation. Every type of sander has its advantages and disadvantages. Contributor A, I used a stroke sander for years with fine results. But the reality of my business nowadays is that the sanding is done by hired help. They can feed it through a wide-belt and get perfect results on dozens of pieces. It's just not feasible on the stroke sander. If I were running a 1-man custom shop, I'd forego the wide-belt. But having 8 workers in the shop I can't imagine doing without it.

To the original questioner: after reading all this, try to figure out what's best for your situation. If you possibly can, visit someone with both kinds of sanders and use them for an hour. It'll clear your head.

From contributor A:
Sorry guys. I can be a bit stubborn. I think it may be the German in me.

From contributor I:
I still think the stroke sander would be a perfect addition to a small shop, but I would recommend a hand block type over the double belted fulcrum Oakley. The fulcrum pad takes a long time to develop sensitivity to using, but the hand block is more forgiving. On the other hand, the proper making of the hand block is critical. I learned from a 30 year veteran of the stroke sander and it really made a huge difference in performance.

Good idea to find other shops and try out different sanders. Stroke sanders are cheap and there are still shops using them. They can also be found in metal fabrication shops doing sheet metal and plaque casting. I don't think the stroke sander will ever really go away. It's just too versatile and inexpensive.

I do know of a shop that has a fulcrum pad stroke sander just sitting unused. No one ever really learned how to properly use it so it's been determined that it's useless. I do find woodworkers are more stubborn and opinionated than some of the other trades, like metalworkers.

From contributor J:
Before you go looking at that 15" open ended unit, you should ask yourself a couple of questions... First, why is that person selling it for so cheap? Sounds like they really want to get rid of it. Second and far more importantly, will it do what you need? If you think the overwhelming majority of your work will be within the 15" capacity of the machine, you may be okay. However, if you're like me and have to sand 18-24" and bigger doors frequently, I would advise against this machine.

Here's why. My first sander was one of those 16/32 Performax units. (I bought it while I was still working for another shop and just doing this as a hobby.) I thought it would be easy to just flip the pieces that were wider than 16" and send them through again. It just doesn't work as well as they claim. No matter how well you tuned it, you always ended up with a line telegraphing the overlap. With a bigger model like you're describing, this may be less obvious. So more important is that when you are trying to make money and have that kitchen full of doors, you really don't want to run each door through twice to do one side. You're essentially doubling your sanding time.

I guess my recommendation would be to figure out what you need for your work and then start looking for it. For myself, whenever I buy something that seemed like a good deal and I thought I could work it into the shop, it's always a bad purchase. It's much better to know what you need first and then start looking for the good deal.

I would stay with a minimum of 24" whether widebelt or drum, which as a small shop you can design your door sizes around. And if you want to cover all your bases, do what I do - find a local shop willing to sell you time on their widebelt. They pay the big bucks for the machine and I pay them for the rare occasion when my drum just won't cut it. Now if I could just find someone local with a good edgebander.

From the original questioner:
Thanks again for all your input. I passed on that Tiawanese 15" open ender and decided to wait to get a more serious machine that I know will perform without a doubt. Do not have the space for that stroker and I would say I am also limited to the 24-25 inch range. When and why did you decide that it was time to get a widebelt? I guess this is more for you small shop guys.

From contributor A:
When I started, I bought a Delta tablesaw and shaper. Next, I went to the bank and got a $20,000 loan for a wide belt. That is how important I thought it was. As I said, in hindsight, I wish I had gotten the stroke, but I won't go there again.

Don't buy a sander that is too small. You are going to kick yourself whenever you use it. My sander is 43" X 75". I rarely sand anything 43" wide, but it was only a little more than the smaller ones. Same goes for a lot of tools. Plenty of guys have bought a cheap air compressor at the Homey Dopey or wherever, thinking air is air. But when they really need a lot of air, they kick themselves for not getting the better compressor. You hate to have to buy a tool twice.

Anyway, to actually answer your question. I bought mine right away because I had worked in shops that had them and I had seen what they can do. I make, and had planned all along, to build doors. Knowing that, I figured I could run a door through the sander, two passes each side, and I am done. A lot faster than doing it by hand. I am talking passage doors here. Same thing for face frames, trim, even cabinet carcass parts. I put a fine belt in, run the cab parts through the sander and they look great. You want a sander with a platen for that, otherwise you'll sand through the veneer. I still wish I had gotten a stroke, but I don't regret the purchase. I couldn't afford the payments at the time, but I couldn't afford to not get the sander.

Time Saver has come out with the Speed Sander. I don't know anything about it other than it is supposed to be an inexpensive sander for the smaller shops. Probably a stripped down version of their regular sander.

From the original questioner:
Curious to see what you are doing that you felt a 43" was needed. Now I see that it could help with full sanding of face frames (assembled), custom passage doors and table tops, but is it needed for anything else? What would you say are your normal sanding needs? I certainly have made some purchases in the past 2-3 years, from a 10.5 slider, to a 16" j/p (with a horizontal mortising unit), to a sliding table shaper (power feeder and a lot of tooling), new dc and all run off of a RPC. I had the normal type stuff during my serious hobbyist days and sold them to defer the costs of the new industrial stuff. I have stayed with all MiniMax stuff and have some of their Formula line. Great stuff and a great company in my dealings.

My interest in a widebelt is of course to get rid of that time consuming ROS time. I have reached a point that I might be getting a lot of work - been there before, but this time it might just stick. This is my second job for now, as I am an architect first. As more work comes in, my time becomes more and more limited. I am sure you all went through this, but what made you decide to increase your machinery to match the work load? Did you land the jobs and say, "oh, how am I going to get this done?" or did you gamble and try to stay ahead of the game?

If I went to a 37" sander I would lose a lot of valuable space... not sure I could handle that. I am still working in my former two car garage. I have a decent amount of land and am in a rural area, so I could add on, but then that is even more money, even though I could do it myself. Evolution of business, I guess, and am trying to decide how to proceed.

From contributor A:
Passage doors/entry doors, cabinet doors and face frames were the primary reasons. See, we don't just build a kitchen for someone's house, we do the whole house, about 2-4 a year. We also make our own trim, which all gets sanded. I guess the primary reason I bought the 43" was so I never had to say, "I wish." I was going to spend the money anyway, so I went all out and I am sure glad I did it.

Do you plan on always being in your garage? If you move into bigger spaces, are you going to regret not getting the larger one? A 37" is only a foot larger than a 25". Are you really that cramped? If so, I would question the purchase in the first place. Like I said, I don't always use all 43", but it is there when I need it.

What about resale? I do not know of a professional shop that would buy a used sander less than 37". A weekend-woodworking-warrior would, but they are not going to pay what the equipment is worth. If you absolutely cannot fit it in, then this is a no-brainer - buy the largest that can fit, but prepare yourself to possibly upgrade in the future. If you can squeeze it in by making compromises, I would go that route. Even if something sat in front of it that blocked access to the full width of the machine, who cares. You only need the first couple of feet anyway, but the rest is there if you need it. At a shop that I worked at, we had a Timesaver 43" X 60" that we put on wheels. It was so we could squeeze the forklift by, but maybe a similar solution would work for you.

To answer some of your other questions, no, I didn't have the work for the sander, but I knew I could get it. I bought a SCM Selecta C edgbander. Do I need one that big? Absolutely not, but I got a good deal on it and it is there when I need it. I will get more work for it. It allows me to bid jobs that I otherwise wouldn't be interested in. What if you are asked to supply a door(s) and all you have is a 25" sander? Or face frames for larger cabinets like an ET center? Are you going to ROS all day long, not take the work or outsource the sanding? If you are like me, you will ROS all day and kick yourself for not getting a larger sander, then wish you would have outsourced the whole damn thing and not even worried about it. Plan for the future as much, if not more than, you worry about the present.

From the original questioner:
Well, work may be flowing in that will kind of force me into seeking the widebelt. I have decided for numerous reasons that a 25" model will suit me the best for what I do. I am looking at MM/SCM, Safety Speed Saw, Timesaver. Any other suggestions?

From contributor S:
I'm just about to get one myself, and have settled on the SDM-25 from Sunhill.

From contributor A:
Mine is a Northtech. An import, but so is every other brand. Good machine for the price.

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