Drum versus belt sander

Pros and cons of two approaches to surface sanding. October 9, 2002

I run a small one-man shop, building cabinets and some furniture. I am tired of taking my sanding to a shop with a wide belt for hire. I looked at small open end drum sanders, then figured I would be better off with a dual drum 25 in model, but now I have discovered I can get a small open ended wide belt (16 in) sander for a little bit more. Can anyone offer pros and cons?

Forum Responses
I run drum sanders. I have used belt sanders, which are a lot faster, but I'll stick with my drums. A lot of people have trouble with drum sanders, but I think they are quite easy to use. I have one for 60 grit, one for 120 grit. I have the Delta's.

I run a three-man shop (including myself). I simply could not operate my place without my wide belt. Mine's a 37 x 75 import (Chinese) sander and it has made me a living for almost 20 years. We bought it brand new for $12,000. I think you can buy the equivalent nowadays for around $10,000. It was a very wise purchase. I haven't seen the open-ended machines but imagine you would give up some accuracy with one. Also, mine uses a common belt size and they really are pretty cheap. We used 8 belts last year. I'd drive a Yugo if I had to, just to keep my wide belt going.

Don't take this decision lightly. Yes, a wide belt is a lot more money, but you also get a lot more machine. I don't really group the machines together like I have seen others do in the past. I use my drum for relatively accurate finer passes. But it is S-L-O-W. Keep the speed in mind. The time spent waiting for the wood to feed through a drum would probably be paid for by continuing to outsource. Try to negotiate a better price before you sink that much money into a wide belt. I just don't think you will replace your wide belt work with a drum as much as you think.

I run two drums also. I like them for the mobility and because they donít take a lot of space. They give me great service and a respectable finish, but they have to be operated slowly and with constant attention to vibration. When I get more space, I will definitely get a widebelt, 37" or larger. Heavy stationary and the finishes are a lot more consistent. A definite product upgrade in less time is an investment.

We purchased a Woodmaster drum sander a little over a year ago. There are days I wish I could have found the funds for a wide belt, but with time we are doing better with it. We also looked at the open ended machines but opted for the heavier stationary one. We went with w 50" that should do almost anything we need. Another consideration is power - the larger belts require 3-phase.

I use a 37 x 2 Performax sander in my shop and could not function without it. The downside of a drum sander is it can burn if you do not get the feed right. A belt sander runs cooler with less burning. For what it is worth, I used my drum sander to surface mill table tops (with 2 36 grit drums). For a challenge I surfaced a 2" thick x 36" wide x 18' (yes, foot) long ash work bench top for a customer. It took two special made tables added to the machine.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I own a Delta 18" drum sander and have regretted its purchase for the two years I've had it. I run a one man kitchen shop but have worked in larger shops that had a 36" AEM wide belt. What a machine that is! Now I'm in the market for a 24" wide belt in the 15 hp range. In some instances I think it makes sense to spend the money up front and have the capability to tackle a wider range of problems down the road. With regard to the three phase issue, someone at the Fine Woodworking site suggested researching a past issue that had an article about converting a static converter to rotary using a 5hp motor... we'll see.

Comment from contributor B:
I recently aquired the new General International 37" double drum sander for my small window and door shop. Price is always an issue and a comparable wide belt would be at least 3 times the cost. We have found that it is slower, but for the money it can't be beat. I used an SCM single belt for quite some time through one of my counterparts and although feed is slower, the two drums save time with fairly accurate machining of the components initially. For the money, these "little engines that could" really pull their weight and I would not hesitate to purchase another. Also, the tech support that I get from GI is awesome and that really says a lot for the small shops just getting into sanding. Don't go for anything less than the big machine, as they don't seem to cut the mustard with high-end products.

Comment from contributor C:
I purchased the Woodmaster Tools 50 inch model, the 5075 with a 3 phase motor, and found it to be utterly underpowered. At first, they supplied it with a 7.5HP motor and when I inquired about the lack of power, they sent me a 10HP motor. I found myself having to take off less than 1/128th of an inch at a time, otherwise the motor would stop. This was on Alder panels, less than 25 inches wide.

The second thing was the bed on the 50 inch model was over 1/16th of an inch off from one end to the middle to the other end. To adjust this required the machine to be dismantled down to its frame. When the second motor went out, I sent the machine back for service and instead of fixing the machine, they just sent me my money back, saying that they couldn't deliver what I was looking for in a wide drum sander. In the end, I was very disappointed with the machine and now I am looking at a wide belt sander or another drum sander with more HP.