Affordable Sanding Options for the One-Man Shop

In yet another take on a frequent forum topic, shop owners compare the pros and cons of drum sanders, wide-belt sanders, and stroke sanders.March 13, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I am a one man shop and build everything from custom furniture and built-ins to frameless kitchen cabinets. Right now I have a carbide helical head planer which works well but does leave little scallops (the nature of the carbide cutters it uses). I then sand these out with a Bosch DA sander (like a Festool Rotex), then finish up with a 5" RO. I'm thinking about adding a 24" drum sander to take the scallops out, or possibly one of the larger V-drum sanders like a 30" Flatmaster.

I don't have the budget for a wide belt sander. What I'm wondering is whether it's worth it to use a drum sander after a helical planer or if it will just introduce different surface issues that I'll then have to sand out with the handheld sanders?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From Contributor O:
First, do the numbers. Total up how many hours you currently spend sanding in a normal month and multiply that by 12 to get an annual number of hours. Then estimate how many hours would be eliminated if you had one a wide belt with a universal head or a drum sander.

Letís say you are at 200 hours for the year, currently. The wide belt may cut that in half - 100 hours - a guess. If you charge your shop rate of - guessing - $75 per hour to the 100 hours, you end up with a $7,500 figure. That is what you are now paying for a sander per year - a sander that you do not have. This is work you could be billing for, but can't because you are sanding another job. One would typically pay back machines in a five year period. Add incidental costs - belts, electrical and connections, and you easily have a $30,000 plus need for a sander.

My opinion - do not consider a drum sander - look here on WOODWEB for discussions about them and you will see they do not save time except in very few instances. They also create their own obvious mill marks that then have to be removed.

From contributor X:
I agree with Contributor O. Don't waste your money on a drum sander. If you can't afford a widebelt right now then just keep saving your money until you can.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the input on the sanders. If I could swing it I would be wide belt shopping, and in time that's likely where I'll end up. I wasn't aware that conventional drum sanders left much in the way of milling marks? Are these marks light enough that a RO with 150 grit would take them out? Right now I'm using 80 grit on my DA sander to quickly take out the scallops and then going up in grit from there.

From contributor P:
Don't overlook a small stroke sander. We used one in the shop and put everything through it. Paper changes are fast and they sand very fast and smooth. It only takes a bit to learn and you will love it. You won't follow it with an ro sander because the surface is just too good to touch - no swirls just straight sanding marks as fine as you want. Amazing what 150 or 180 paper will do, and very flat. It will change the quality of your work.

From contributor M:
Look around for a used Timesaver. I purchased a 36" single head at auction a couple of years ago for about $3K delivered. I've probably put another $1K into electrical hookup, a couple of small parts, etc. It is worth many times the investment. Parts are still available for most of the old timesavers (check before you buy) and there's not much that can go wrong. We used to sand entry doors by hand, which looking back was ridiculous!

From contributor D:
Iíll offer a second vote for a used 37" wide belt with a combination (drum and platen) head. I picked up an American made Halsty made in the 80's for about $3k. It's a heavy machine. Probably nearly a ton, and with a 20HP motor and 75" belts, it's a great machine for the money. If you're patient you should be able to find a similar machine for similar money. Once you have that you'll shake your head wondering how and why you lived without it (and once you graduate to a two head or three head machine, you'll wonder how you lived without that!) Avoid drum sanders at all costs. You couldn't pay me to put one in my shop.

From Contributor V:
I know no one likes drum sanders, but I have to say we have a dual drum that is of course no widebelt but it works just fine. I have no trouble with burning/streaking. You of course have to follow it up with an RO but itís very fast. Even at 3K for a widebelt I simply didnít have the time and didnít want to commit the cash to a widebelt. As mentioned, you have the cost of the sander, freight, supplying it with power, issues of adequate dust collection, and so on, as well as the footprint.

I rolled the dice and got a used dual drum for about $1300. Power was already there but if it wasnít it may have cost $150, and my dust collection can handle it. It was on-line in about 30 minutes after coming off the truck. For my small shop it is a major asset. While a widebelt would be an even better asset, for the place I am at the moment Iím glad I kept the 3-5k more I would have spent in the bank.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the added info, and I appreciate you chiming in Contributor B. I looked into a few local used wide belt sanders and you guys are right, they can be had for a reasonable dollar.

However, I checked with my electrician and a wide belt is not possible in my shop at this time, as I have a 100A single phase feeding my shop. Three phase will cost me just shy of $20,000 to run. Between the air compressor, electric heat, and 2 stage dust collector I don't have enough juice to run a very big widebelt; about 35A available for a sander if my compressor and heat kick on at the same time while my DC is on.

For those of you who feel that a drum sander is worse than no stationary sander, could you please elaborate? I can get what looks like a decent quality 24" dual drum sander like the general 15-250 M1 for a little over $2,000. On two occasions now I have not fully sanded out these little scallops from the helical head on my planer. It wasn't until finishing that they became evident - what a pain that is.

From contributor L:
Since you can't handle a widebelt at this time I'd go for the stroke sander before a drum sander. I got an old one for $300 at auction that works great. Far more versatile than a drum and leaves a surface ready for finishing. You can also sand the door frames so you don't end up with cross grain scratches. We run a 150 grit belt that leaves a nearly perfect finish.

From contributor Y:
Another vote for the stroke sander. We have a 10' one we got at auction for $400 and it is great! We have a 24" wide belt we paid $3k for at auction but would not give up the stroke sander.

From Contributor O:
Below is a link to just one of the excellent discussions on this subject that are available in the WOODWEB Knowledge Base. It does answer your questions about what problems you will encounter. The heat generated melts out the glue and puts it on the drum, causing a burn mark that then burns the wood. The drums will also nick, causing a mark just like a nick in planer knives. The drum sanders are meant only to take very light passes - lots of passes for the very slight gain in surface quality. The surface has new mill marks. Changing grits takes about 5-10 times longer on a drum than a wide belt.

My Performax two head had a repetitive mark that was impossible to eliminate from showing up, and then required copious sanding to remove. Drum sanded to 120 grit meant dropping back to 100 grit or even 80 grit with the R/O and working back up to 120. The cross grain scratches were the worst. We often never turned on the drum sander, preferring to just use R/O since it was so much quicker and easier, with better results.

In my experience the only folks that are happy with their drum sanders have either never worked with a wide belt, or do work of the type that a drum sander is well suited for. The current crop of drum sanders are designed for the serious hobbyist that is moving up and is trying - rightly so - to find solutions to their sanding problems.

As for power, think about a 3 phase generator. I am a bit opinionated, but the fact is you are already paying for a wide belt, but you don't have one. If the power won't handle it, then your next immediate goal is to relocate.

Professional shops require (demand) professional responses to the problems of growth. Start a relationship with a bank and get a line of credit. Do not abuse it. Use it like you would any other tool - to help you equip your business to be able to compete and be profitable.

Drum Sanders Versus Belt Sanders

From contributor D:
For what it's worth, I have a 20hp wide belt that I run off my 20hp rotary converter and also have single phase 100A service coming in. With the dust collector (5hp single phase) running and the wide belt, and lights, etc., I have never tripped the main. Electricians will say it's not going to work, but if you get a clamp around ammeter and see what motors are actually pulling you might be surprised.

From the original questioner:
I never gave a stroke sander much consideration simply because I don't have any firsthand experience with one. I'll start reading up on them. As mentioned before I don't have the power for a stroke sander, 40A goes to the heat (I live in the North) 10A to the DC, 15A to the compressor, plus lights, leaves very little for a large machine. I have no intention of leaving this location at this time, I simply have too much time and money invested into this place and have an excellent relationship with the landlord which translates into a more affordable overhead.

From Contributor V:
I have had the luxury of being around a wide belt and it would be my preferred method by far, no arguments there. I may just be lucky and havenít had the misery out of our drum sander and our volume, and pace, is low which helps. It is one of the handful of tools that having brought one in, I wouldnít want to be without. A widebelt would be even better, but sometimes it just is what it is.

From Contributor N:
I may be totally off-base here but I have a 15" Powermatic with the Byrd helical head and I was having problems with scalloping. I found that all I needed to do was adjust the chipbreaker and the scalloping was gone. Is it possible that you just need to spend some time adjusting your planer? I don't know if it will help with your specific planer but it might be worth looking into. Otherwise another vote from me on the stroke sander till you can do what you need to in order to get a widebelt. Don't even mess with a drum sander.

From contributor X:
As far as lack of power goes you can work around that. When you run the sander just shut the breaker off to the heater and whatever else you don't need on while running the sander. I have 200amps coming into my shop so I sometimes turn off the AC when I start up the widebelt and other machines are running.

From contributor L:
"As mentioned before I don't have the power for a stroke sander." A stroke sander doesn't take a lot of power - maybe a 5hp motor. If you are surfacing your stock, tune up the planer for the best surface before sanding.

From contributor R:
We have a dual drum sander that gets the job done fine for us. The trick with these is twofold. One you have to have the kind you can adjust the feed rate and also read the AMPS on, as long as you have that you can control the burning just fine. Otherwise it's like driving a car blind.

Two, get the Velcro drums and wrap them very carefully. If you buy new, take the ones off that come with the machine and save them and use them as templates for every time you put new sandpaper on. It's no drum sander, but yes all we do is clean it up with an RO at 180.

From the original questioner:
Contributor V, your comments are bang on with my sentiments. I am happily producing as a small shop and prefer to stay this way. I can feed my family without a lot of the stress attached with a larger organization and I really enjoy being the one working in the shop. Rarely will I go into debt for a tool or equipment purchase, it is just not how my wife and I run our lives.

Contributor L, thanks for catching that, I meant to say wide belt sander.

Contributor N, that's a great point about the chip breaker. Mine is fixed in position, but when I eventually upgrade my planer I'll look for that.

Contributor R, thanks for the points to look for when considering a drum sander.

From Contributor K:
I was in your position once upon a time, and bought a drum sander (didn't have the money for a widebelt). I suffered through sanding-out burns, lines, etc. from the drum. I did my research and figured out how much time I was spending sanding and pulled the trigger. I got a 36" widebelt and saw instant results. It cut my sanding time in less than half and I started only building components that fit in the sander (faceframes). I took a small loan out to pick up the sander - the $280 a month was a no-brainer. Here's the kicker - I made the payments by doing small jobs for other shops and off the street customers that needed things sanded. You will never wish you did not pick up a widebelt. I downright consider it a necessity.

From Contributor E:
I have used a 24" dual head drum sander from Grizzly for two years. I wrap the first drum with 80 grit and the second drum with 120 grit. One pass takes out planer marks then I just finish sand with 150/180. It significantly decreased my sanding time as everything was done with a random orbit prior. I have not had any problems with melting glue or marks left by the drum.

From contributor C:
Don't overlook the Timesavers smaller widebelt (smaller as in footprint size) Speedsander series. They have single phase motors on most models. I purchased one of these after fighting my dual drum for more than a year. Used ones can be found for 4-5 k.

From Contributor W:
The Timesaver speedsand and the Apex Easy sander can both be purchased around $8500. I am pretty sure both can be found in single phase 240 V as well. I believe they both have 15 hp motors which can easily do the job you need done with a little planning. Wide belts do trump drums in almost every way, but I understand the intimidation of the cost. They are a heavy expense for sure. If you have someone who is really versed on using a wide belt they can pay their own payments every month in time saved.