We purchase every product we review with our own funds—we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
When searching for a belt sander, it can look like all the options are the same. This is especially true if you’re not a tool expert. They’re just gadgets with sandpaper on the bottom, maybe with different aesthetic designs, right? Not at all. Belt sanders come with a host of features that makes each one unique. A motorized belt sander may feel like a luxury item if you’re just finishing an edge on occasion, but for larger projects a sander is a must-have. The fine-grit, fast-moving sand belt at the bottom of a sander can flatten and smooth any wooden surface. It’s a great tool to save elbow grease on larger projects, such as sanding tables, doors, or anything with a large surface area. Smaller models are great for projects with a lot of finishing work.
To help you sort through the different specs and features, BestReviews purchases and tests products to find the very best available. We don’t take free samples from manufacturers, so you can be sure that you’re reading impartial reviews.
In short, we’ve done the work of shopping around for you, and we offer expert analysis so you can find the best product for your needs.
If you want to pick one of the best belt sanders right away, refer to the product matrix above. But if you want to get to know more about belt sanders before dropping the money on one, below is your complete guide to belt sanders.
There are two major types of belt sanders: in-line and transverse. Neither is inherently better, but transverse belt sanders may be a bit easier to use effectively.
This design has a boxlike housing with a low center of gravity. The motor is parallel to the length of the sanding belt. It’s less likely to tip.
The motor of a transverse belt sander sits above the belt and across the width of the sander. Some of these have fans behind the motor; the fan can deliver dust to a dust bag. These tend to be heavier and easier to hold, since the weight of the machine adds pressure to the wood itself.
Sanders can be used with a wide variety of belts to address different project needs, like buffing, polishing, smoothing, reducing thickness of wood, and back-cutting joints.
Belt sanders come in various sizes. The most common are 2.5 inches to 4 inches in width. Lengths typically start at 14-inch compact varieties, typically going up to 24 inches. If you’re working on large surfaces, bigger tends to be better. However, if you’re aiming for vertical woodwork or a smaller touch-up job, look for a smaller machine. Many of the smaller machines are much lighter, making them easier to handle for precise touch-up and vertical work.
Many belt sanders also come with variable speeds. If you’re going for more precise touch-up work, variable speed machines are a better option. A lower speed means less of a chance of sanding down too far. However, for thick wood and large spaces, a non-variable speed machine does the job.
The PORTER-CABLE 362V boasts a motor right over the platen for a great balance while working. It also boasts a variable speed dial and a quick-release lever to allow fast changes of the sanding belt. Its 12 amp motor is one of the most powerful available.
If you suffer from allergies, or just really hate dust, a dust-collecting feature is something to look for in a belt sander. These are bag attachments that hang off the top or near the back of the sander, collecting dust as you work. It’s a good option if you’re doing large jobs – you’ll breathe less dust and have less to clean up.
The sanding frame is an add-on to many machines. It lines the outside of the belt sander, giving stability to the machine so that you sand evenly. It’s a great option for sanding beginners. Some sanders can fit them, some can’t, so be sure to check the machine before purchase if you want a sanding frame.
Some belt sanders come with an optional sanding shoe for more precise sanding depths.
The belt sander is a pretty simple machine. The sandpaper is attached to two cylindrical drums. As the drums turn, they move the paper. One drum moves via an electrical motor, the other is spring-loaded to keep tension on the belt. You hold the sander on the surface of the wood you’re smoothing out, then the grit of the sandpaper wears the surface down.
The belt sander is a tool that takes some know-how to work safely and properly, however. Here are some tips on how to work the sander:
Your first and foremost goal is to make sure you can move the sander in as smooth of a motion as possible. Check that the cord is well out of your way, and arrange your sanding surface to be as straight as possible.
If you work in a lot of tight spots, look for a sander with a narrow nose.
Hold the sander slightly above the sanding surface, so you’re coming at the surface with a smooth start.
Ease the sander onto the surface in a smooth motion, moving back and forth immediately. Move in the grain’s direction.
Don’t put pressure on the sander; just let the weight of the sander evenly add its own pressure.
Move in one long stroke, then move the sander to the side by half the distance of the first stroke. Repeating this pattern over the whole span of the wood ensures coverage of the sanding area.
Never go over the wood’s edge by one third or more of the belt’s length. The sander’s weight could cause a rocking motion, rounding the edge of your wood.
When you are done, ease the sander off the surface, then turn it off.
Front-grip sanders provide easier handling and precision.
The lifespan of a belt sander depends on how well you take care of it. Below are some tips for maintenance – follow these to keep your sander balanced and functional. Solid maintenance is a good way to prevent mishaps, such as the sanding belt snapping on you unexpectedly.
Check the belt on the sander itself for cracks, and ensure that the rollers are lining up properly.
The platen is the metal plate under the belt. Check it regularly. If it looks worn away, replace it.
Keeping the cord out of the way is one of the biggest challenges to a nice, even sanding job. Try looping the cord over your shoulder, or attach it to your forearm using a short bungee cord.
Keep an eye on the belt sander itself for debris, and vacuum out any recesses you can.
To protect the platen, attach a graphite cloth to it if your sander does not already come with one. These are typically backed with canvas and reduce friction against the machine itself.
Store the sandpaper belt in a sealed bag, away from moisture, humidity, and extreme temperatures. This protects it from becoming brittle and cracking.
The belt itself can get clogged with the materials it’s sanding down. To clean the belt, hold an abrasive cleaning block against the belt while the machine is on.
With a cut-off side profile and a body 13% more narrow than other sanders, the Black & Decker BR318 excels at sanding close to the edges of adjoining surfaces. It’s lightweight and easy to handle.
Belt sanders, like anything else, come at a host of different price tags. They tend to be found in three staggered price ranges of around $50, $100, and $200.
These belt sanders are smaller machines, generally 3” by 21” or smaller. Many of them come with dust collection bags as a feature, since it’s not an expensive add-on. These typically sand at one speed.
“Tracking” refers to setting an even sanding belt. Some sanders have automatic tracking and some come with an adjustable knob.
These belt sanders are the variable speed models. Machines in this category are usually still on the smaller side, around 3 by 21 inches.
Belt sanders in this price range contain bigger machines, like 4” by 24” and larger varieties. This range also has professional power motors. Full features like dust bags and quick-release belt-change levers are extremely common in this price range.
Q: How can I get the longest life out of my sander?
A: To get the greatest longevity out of your belt sander, make sure to keep up on its maintenance. Keep an eye out for anything that looks worn down or clogged with dust and debris. Vacuum out your sander as needed, replace belts when they start to look cracked or are sanding less efficiently, and use an abrasive cleaning block to clean the belt itself.
Q: How is a sander better than just plain ol’ elbow grease?
A: Elbow grease with a basic sandpaper block is great for jobs that take very light sanding, like adding distress marks to furniture for a vintage look. However, for larger sanding projects like doors, tables, decks, and the like, it makes sense to not wear your arm tired. That’s where a sander comes in.
Q: What’s the best way to hold and use a sander?
A: Have a firm grip on the sander where the handles are on that particular machine. Hold the sander straight, and never start the sander while it is touching the sanding surface or the sander creates an uneven spot as it kicks on. Move in long motions with the grain of the wood.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.