How to Use a Belt Sander

No other sander beats a belt sander for rapid material removal, yet some are capable of detailed work, too. We look at how to get the best results from these powerful, versatile tools.
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A handheld belt sander will rip through old paint or varnish in minutes. It can smooth flooring or decking at remarkable speed, and rapidly flatten rough lumber and boards. Yet while often seen as a heavy-duty tool, a mini belt sander is light enough for more delicate work. There are also benchtop belt sanders that can be used for fine shaping and finishing.

The key to getting the most from any belt sander is understanding its capabilities. In this article we look at the different types of belt sander models, and share how to use a belt sander for both rapid material removal and for projects where more precision is required.

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2 Types of Belt Sanders DIYers Should Know

Belt sanders fall into two basic categories: handheld belt sanders that can be easily taken to the workpiece and bench models where the work is taken to the stationary machine.

1. Handheld Belt Sander

Amazon how to use a belt sander handheld belt sander SKIL

Handheld belt sanders are commonly used for DIY and remodeling tasks. They can be moved back and forth across large surfaces, rapidly stripping old finishes from doors, tables, beams, or joists. Their ability to remove material quickly also makes them ideal for flattening rough boards or initial sanding to remove imperfections.

Handheld belt sander sizes can vary considerably. A wide belt sander is usually a woodworking tool, and it invariably includes a dust bag. Those with narrow belts (also called power files) can often be used on metal, and may not have a dust bag.

Some woodwork enthusiasts build a stand for belt sander use. These either invert the tool, turning it into a light-duty bench sander, or mount it sideways to create a basic belt sanding table. Plans are widely available.

Our Recommendation: Skil 7510-01 Belt Sander – Get at Amazon for $59.99
The Skil belt sander is a feature-packed, budget-friendly belt sander that can tackle a wide range of DIY and home woodworking projects.

2. Benchtop Belt Sander

Home Depot how to use a belt sander amp corded belt and disc sander

As the name suggests, a benchtop belt sander is usually fixed to a bench. The belt can run horizontally, and it can also be tilted at any angle up to 90 degrees on many models. In addition to sanding flat surfaces, they are often very useful for shaping.

Many models also incorporate a disc sander on the side of the machine. This comes with a sanding table that can often be tilted up to 45 degrees and a miter guide. Combining these two features allows for compound angles to be set, thus increasing the range of belt sander uses. These are generally woodworking tools, though changing the abrasive allows some to sand metals.

Our Recommendation: WEN 6502T Belt and Disc Sander – Get at The Home Depot for $120.35
With its cast iron base for stability, powerful 4.3-amp motor, 36-inch belt, and 6-inch disc, this is a durable, pro-grade tool that offers excellent value for money.

Important Belt Sander Parts

Knowing the purpose of the various parts helps build an understanding of how each belt sander functions, and thus the user can get the maximum from the tool. Some parts are common to both handheld and bench sanders, but there are also key differences.

Amazon how to use a belt sander parts of a belt sander labeled drawing
  • Belt: The belt sander gets its name from an abrasive belt that runs around two rollers, one of which is driven by an electric motor.
  • Belt tensioner: Both types of belt sander have a tensioning lever that allows for quick changing of belts once worn.
  • Handles: Handheld belt sanders have two handles: back and front. These allow for maximum control.
  • Trigger or on/off button: Handheld belt sanders have a trigger in the rear handle, and often a lock-on button for constant running. Bench sanders have a simple on/off button.
  • Dust port: All belt sanders have dust ports. Handheld models typically include a collecting bag. Benchtop models can be attached to a shop vac or other extraction system.
  • Tracking control: This feature ensures that the belt remains centered on the rollers. Control is automatic on some belt sanders.
  • Pressure indicator: The most user-friendly handheld belt sanders have a light that illuminates when the correct amount of pressure is being applied.
  • Variable speed motor: Handheld belt sanders may also have speed control for improved performance and manageability. On bench sanders, the belt and disc may run at different speeds but they are not variable.
  • Disk & table: As mentioned above, most benchtop belt sanders also have a sanding disc and table. These add versatility, and they allow for accurate sanding of small pieces.

Belt Sander Safety Tips

Using a belt sander safely is largely a question of common sense. However, these tips will help avoid unnecessary injury.

  • Always keep a firm grip on a handheld belt sander using both handles. Don’t be tempted to just use the rear handle. Changes in material surfaces may result in sudden material grabbing or torque reactions that can cause nasty wrist injuries.
  • Never wear loose clothing when belt sanding, as it can get caught in the belt or rollers. Neckties, necklaces, and bracelets should be tucked inside clothing or removed.
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) warns that wood dust can cause respiratory problems, and allergic reactions. Always wear a dust mask and safety goggles.
  • Empty the dust bag regularly or attach some form of dust extraction for benchtop models.
  • Keep hands and fingers as far from the sanding belt as possible while working. Skin abrasions caused by sanders are very painful. Wear lightweight leather gloves (not wool or fabric) when practical.
  • Always turn off the power or remove the battery from a cordless belt sander before changing the belt.

Initial Setup and Calibration

Belt sanders are straightforward tools requiring little in terms of setup beyond fitting the belt and adjusting tracking on models that don’t do this automatically. That said, owners always need to read the user manual before starting.

It’s also worth spending time thinking about the right abrasive for each task. Sandpaper is not expensive, and has a dramatic impact on belt sander performance.

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How to Use a Belt Sander by Hand

Handheld belt sanders come already assembled. All that’s needed before starting is to attach the dust bag and fit the abrasive belt.

iStock-1340246837 how to use a belt sander Close up of carpenter using electric sander for restoration of old chair stock

STEP 1: Apply the rear edge first.

The best way to use a belt sander of this type is to lower the rear roller gently onto the surface, and let the front drop naturally as the belt rotates. Use a firm grip to maintain control. Applying the front roller first can result in the tool snatching at the wood, and it can cause deep gouges that can be difficult to rectify.

STEP 2: Press gently.

Heavy pressure isn’t required for efficient sanding. In fact pushing too hard can stall the tool, putting unnecessary strain on the motor. It might also burn the wood.

While a few of the best belt sanders have pressure indicators, most rely on user control. If material isn’t being removed as quickly as expected, more pressure can be applied, but this should be done progressively.

STEP 3: Check progress frequently.

Large handheld belt sanders are powerful machines that can strip through surface finishes or remove material extremely quickly, especially when the belt is still relatively new. It’s important to stop regularly to check progress, and avoid removing more than necessary.

Using a Belt Sander for Stationary Sanding

Stationary benchtop belt sanders often require some assembly, and it’s often easiest to assemble where the tool will be stationed.

iStock-1336057225 how to use a belt sander Craftsperson sanding wood block using combination disc belt sander

STEP 1: Assemble and set the belt sander in place.

Benchtop belt sanders may need some minor assembly. In addition to fitting the belt, the table and miter guide often need to be bolted in place. This is not complicated, and should only take a few minutes.

STEP 2: Use the correct workpiece presentation.

Always work against the direction of belt travel. This provides maximum control, and prevents the belt snatching the workpiece out of the hands. When using the sanding disk, rest the piece on the table, on the downward (clockwise) side of rotation. This prevents the danger of it being thrown into the air.

Don’t try to remove too much material in one pass. Using multiple passes avoids overheating and burning the work.

STEP 3: Check progress frequently.

As with any sanding task, check the work frequently. It’s always possible to sand off a little more. It isn’t possible to glue the sawdust back if too much is removed.

Belt Sander Maintenance Tips

Belt sanders are very easy to look after. The following two steps will maximize performance, and extend working life.

  • Sanding belts can clog quickly, reducing the cutting action, and often causing burning of wood surfaces. Rather than replacing the belt, its life can often be extended by using a low-cost belt cleaner like this highly rated eraser stick available at Amazon.
  • Sawdust and metal shavings can cause severe damage to the moving parts and motor of a belt sander. Always clean the tool after each use. A few minutes with a soft brush and vacuum is all that’s required.

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Final Thoughts

Belt sanders are not complicated tools, but the variety available sometimes leads to confusion. Handheld models are usually the heavy-duty option for stripping off old finishes from large pieces and flattening rough boards. Benchtop versions can also remove material rapidly, but offer the versatility for detailed work, too. Knowing the key features, important safety advice, and practical tips for how to use a belt sander will help tool users consistently produce their desired results. Even complete novices maye be able to master this tool category with minimum fuss.e