Usefulness of a 15-Inch Wide-Belt Sander

For a small shop, will a 15-inch unit do? Cabinetmakers consider the pros and cons. November 12, 2005

I am seriously thinking about stepping up to a wide-belt sander. Due to cost, floor space availability, and somewhat limited need (my volume is not that high), I am looking at the small units. Specifically, I would like any feedback on the 15" open end variety. Sunhill, General International, Grizzly are a few manufacturers. Like many offshore machines, the physical similarity between these machines causes me to think they are all made in the same factory. However, I also realize that does not make them identical.

In general, I'm a bit leery of an open end design due to concern about accuracy of potential deflection. However, the small footprint, power requirements, and cost make these units very attractive. In particular, I can envision most of my requirements falling under the 15" width, and occasionally a double pass would give me 30" - assuming the overlap is not an issue because of the oscillating belt.

There are a couple of cab shops in my area with big units (42" or 52") that I can get to run the very occasional piece that is wider than 30", but largely for convenience I would like to have some basic wide-belt capability in my own shop.

Does anyone have any comments? Also, there seems to be two types of these machines - straight roller/drum type, and the kind with a roller and platen. What is the difference, and which is preferable?

A cheaper alternative would be drum - single, double, oscillating etc. Most of the opinions that favor drum come from people that have never owned or used wide-belt. I don't recall reading any opinions from people that have owned both saying that they prefer drum.
Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
The usefulness of a 15" wide sanding area depends on your normal needs. For me, 15" would not be practical as I routinely need to sand 18" wide doors. On the occasion that I need to sand wider than 24" I send the panel(s) out to another shop that has a 42" wide belt. Check your work orders for specs and see if 15" will do most of your work. If it won't, then buy a wider sander of either type.

From contributor B:
I assume that you are a relatively small shop since you are considering an open-end. I used a Sunhill exclusively in a 400k/year high end frameless shop, and loved it. I didnít design any cabinet with a door over 30", so the only thing we routinely had to worry about sanding was the applied back panels on an island, which we just cross-grained with 220 to flush it, then went back to 150 with an orbital. We had very few problems with the overlapping of the two passes.

From the original questioner:
To contributor A: This is going to be a bit of a compromise situation, based on available funds, available power, and floor space. As I have no one particular demand, and am not high production oriented, versatility is important. My best guess is 15" open end would be ok.

To contributor B: Thanks, that is good to know. (see additional comments below)

Hereís an update - I drove down to Bellingham and Seattle a couple days ago to look at the Sunhill and Grizzly in person.

The two are virtually identical except for a couple of features. After crawling through them for a couple of hours I would conclude they are the same Ė that is, same manufacturer and same specs. The Grizzly, however, had at least two important advantages - it is a combination head design (platen), with the emergency stop bar across the front, and it has the outrigger table extension for running panels wider than 15". With the marginal price difference ($3k for the Grizzly, $2800 for the Sunhill), I would go for the Grizzly.

From a lot of reading and talking to people, the idea of a platen is sounding significant for my purposes. Because of the varied nature of my needs, this will not be a thickness sander only, or a finishing sander only. It is my understanding that for veneered work - plywood for example - the platen is favored. The greatest single operation I do is solid wood edging on plywood - quite common in the boat interiors that I work on. The ability to flush the panel with a wide belt would be valuable. With an A type head (drum only), it's my understanding that you could cut through the ply veneer quite easily, given the increasing non-flat quality of plywood today.

The downside of the trip was I got quite entranced by the 24" model - with the digital controls. The idea of dialing in .250" and pushing a button is very cool. In fact, my only remaining concern about the 15 inchers is the fairly coarse adjustment wheel - one turn equals 4mm. Thatís very touchy, and I would plan to put a digital readout on it, similar to the one I put on my planer and shaper. But $7k is just too rich for my blood at this time.

So my conclusions are that the platen is a very good thing for my situation, and the Grizzly unit is a good solution. To put this in perspective: the Grizzly is US $3050, which is about Canadian $3700. The General International available here is Canadian $8700 for the platen model.

From contributor B:
I commend you for researching this so well, nice job. I'd like to add that I'm sure it would have been very easy on the sander that I used (drum only) to burn through plywood (we only ran solid through it), and it wasn't very difficult to raise the bed just a little bit. Typically we only raised the bed like 1/8th turn or less between passes.

From contributor C:
Assuming that you have purchased the open ended design with the platen can you give us a report on how it is working out?

From the original questioner:
I have not yet purchased. In doing my research, I was somewhat seduced by the 24" Grizzly. The direct setting and digital readout, and combination head look very inviting. However this comes at quite a cost difference - approx $7k vs $3k for the 15". So I'm just stepping back for a bit, and watching the used market - auction sites and so on.