In this article, we are going to talk about how to use a belt sander with success. If you just bought this tool, or you are in the process of doing so, you probably want to learn how to properly use it, especially if you have no chances of making a mistake (for example if you need to sand a deck). These tools are big, powerful pieces of equipment, and they can remove a lot of material fast. That could be a good thing, but also a bad thing if it’s not the result you wanted! It’s surely better to learn a thing or two to avoid ruining your project.
In this article, we are going to talk briefly about what this tool is about, then we gonna dive into a step by step guide to explain how to use a belt sander properly. Then we will talk about specific cases you may want to learn about. Finally, I will list some tips and tricks that may come handy. Alright, let’s get to it!
What is a Belt Sander and What You Can Use It For
A belt sander is a powerful tool used for heavy-duty shaping and finishing activities. It is a simple tool; its main parts are an electric motor and a pair of wheels. The sandpaper is placed on top of them. The motor makes the drums (and consequently the sandpaper) roll. A belt sander can either be handheld or stationary. In the first case, you need to move the sander over the material, in the second case is the opposite.
As mentioned earlier, these tools are quite aggressive and can remove a lot of material quickly. Therefore, since they produce a lot of wood dust, they are provided with some sort of dust collection system (commonly, a bag attached to the dust outlet).
They come in different sizes, ranging between the small units suited for hobbyists, to very large models employed by professionals.
Belt sanders can be used for a variety of activities. For example:
- Trimming a surface to a certain depth;
- Leveling a surface (like a deck or an old tabletop). You can use a coarse grit at the start, and then move on to a finer one to finish the job;
- Removing paint or finishes from wood;
- Forming curves on small pieces of wood (in this case, you might need a stationary sander, or you can use your handheld sander as stationary);
- If you use a fine enough sandpaper, you can even get a smooth surface. Of course, the result is not comparable to what you would get with an orbital sander;
- With a proper belt, you can get a rough sharpening of tools like chisels and axes. Remove the dust bag and all the dust from the sander. You are going to make some sparks, and you want to avoid accidental ignition.
Another thing to consider is that you can use this piece of equipment on other materials than wood, such as aluminum.
How to Use a Belt Sander
Here’s a step by step guide on how to use a belt sander properly:
- You need to be sure that your board isn’t going to “run away” from the sander. To avoid that, place it against a stop, or above a no-slip mat. Don’t clamp the board to your working surface; you will have to sand around it, ruining your piece.
- Take a pencil and scribble a random line across the surface. This way, you will be able to keep track of the surface’s portion that is already sanded and you will have a uniform rate of material removal. After the marks are gone, scribble again.
- The goal is to go from a side to the other of your board in one pass. To do this, the cord needs to be out of the way. You don’t want it above your working table. Put it over your shoulder and down your back.
- Turn the belt sander on, wait until it gets to full speed. Hold the sander with two hands, one on the trigger, one on the handle above for stability.
- Lower the sander slowly on your wood. Let the back wheel touch first, then the front one.
- The belt sander will do the work itself. Drive it forward, in a straight line. Then move it back, along the same line. That’s one stroke. Move on the side and do another one. You want every pass to overlap about half the previous one.
- Keep the tool moving all the time; otherwise, the sander will trim too deep, leaving a notch into the surface. You don’t want that to happen.
- Start by applying light pressure on the surface. Let the sander do the work. Frequently stop to check progress, and adjust based on the results.
How to Use a Stationary Belt Sander
The main difference between a common belt sander and a stationary one is that the latter is fixed in place, and you move the material over it. It means that you will use this tool for different kinds of projects, like shaping small pieces of wood and rough sharpening of tools. In this case, you will need to hold the material against the belt to get the form you want.
If you already have a belt sander and you need a stationary one, but you don’t want to spend more money, there’s an easy fix. You can convert your belt sander to stationary. Basically, you need to clamp your belt sander resting on a side to your workbench. Then, turn the machine on and lock the trigger to have continuous motion. Make sure that the sander is firmly fixed before turning it on.
How to Put Sandpaper on a Belt Sander
When using a belt sander, it’s always better to check the sandpaper’s condition frequently. You don’t want it to ruin your project. If you need to change the sandpaper on your belt sander, follow these steps:
- Unplug the belt sander from its power source. You don’t want it to accidentally turn on and risk an injury.
- Unlock the tension between the drums. Usually, there’s a lever you need to flip to do this. If you have a spring-loaded model, you need to push the front wheel against a hard surface, like your working table.
- Remove the old sandpaper from the rollers, and put the new one on. You may have noticed that there are arrows placed on the back of the sandpaper. You need to remember to put the new belt on with the arrows pointed in the direction of the belt sander’s spin.
- Unlock the lever to put the belt under tension again. The front and back wheels will move in opposite directions.
- Now turn the belt sander on, and check if the belt is slipping on the wheels. In that case, you need to adjust it by using the knot placed on the side. Some models have an automatic centering system. In all cases, you want to keep the belt centered.
That’s pretty much all there is to know about changing belts on a belt sander. Now let’s get to specific projects you may want to use your sander on.
How to Sand Hardwood Floors with a Belt Sander
A belt sander can also be used to revamp wooden floors. The basic steps we wrote down before are still valid; in this case, before you get to work, you need to consider the current state of your floor. Take a look at the floorboards. If they are still in good shape, you will need to sand them along the grain to get a smoother surface. If they are uneven and/or marked, you will need to sand them diagonally first, and then along the length of the floorboard.
Before you start sanding, remove all the furniture from the area you will work in. You don’t want any dust to end up on it. Open the windows to properly ventilate the room, but close all the doors that lead to other parts of your property to avoid dust leakage. Get 2/3 different sandpaper grits. You will start with a coarse one, and then you will use a finer one (typically, a 120 grit) to finish.
Now you are ready for sanding.
If your floorboards are in bad shape, you need to sand them diagonally first. For this step, you will need a coarse grit: this is a leveling phase. Start in one corner of the room, turn on the sander, wait until it reaches full speed, put it on the floor and start sanding. Move it across the area towards the opposite corner. To avoid indents, lift the sander off the floor before touching the skirting board. Turn around, and repeat the process. Remember to overlap your last pass.
After you have sanded all the floor, check the result. If you think it’s adequate, move to the next step. Otherwise, move to an adjacent corner and sand the room another time. Make sure to cross the previous passes at a 90 degrees angle.
Sanding along the grain
After you finished sanding diagonally (or if the floor was in good condition in the first place), it’s time to sand along the grain. Put on a finer grit (80 or 100), and sand along the length of the floorboards.
Start in one corner of the room, and move all the way across it. Before touching the skirting board, lift the tool from the floor. Turn around and repeat the process until you covered all the area. If the result doesn’t satisfy you, get a 120 grit belt and sand the floor one more time.
At the end of the process, take care of the corners of the room with a handheld sanding block.
A couple more things to remember:
- You don’t want to turn the sander on while it rests on the floor. That’s the recipe for a disaster (i.e. a small divot or a large hole in the worst-case scenario);
- Always keep the sander moving. Lift it off the floor as soon as you finished your pass;
- Sanding an entire room is hard work. Consider getting help from a professional if you have no experience with a belt sander.
How to Use a Belt Sander on a Door
If you want to sand your door to give it a revamped look, then you can follow the steps in the paragraph “How to Use a Belt Sander”. Obviously, you will need to remove the door from its hinges and place it on a horizontal surface to work on it. Start with a coarse grit to remove paint or heavy marks, and finish with a 120 grit.
But you are probably here because of your door giving you and a hard time every time you open or close it. Chances are that the door or the frame are not properly squared. This can be caused by swelling of the door, settling of the house, or more commonly from poor installation of the door or the door frame.
To fix this, you can use the belt sander to level your door properly. Follow these steps:
- First of all, you need to define where your door needs to be sanded. To do this, get a scribe tool and set it to 1/8 inch. Close the door. Place the scribe tool to the point where there’s the largest gap between the door and the door jamb. Move it up and down, while the blade rests on the door jamb. This way, the pencil will draw a line on the door where you need to sand it down. Do this also on the top and the bottom of the door.
- Remove the door from the hinges, and place it on a couple of sawhorses. Clamp it down. Remove the doorknob if it gets in the way of the belt sander.
- Begin sanding the side of the door, and keep at it until you reach the line you drew before. Make sure to keep the sander flat to avoid ruining the door’s edges.
- Sand the door with finer sandpaper to get a smooth surface. Clean it with a cloth. Apply a finisher if you want to.
- Put the knob back (if you removed it) and hang the door back at its place.
How to Remove Paint with a Belt Sander
As I said before, it’s pretty common to use a belt sander for removing paint. The aggressiveness of these tools will speed up the process. Be careful, though. You will also remove some of the wood surface with a belt sander. You may have to look for alternative ways to do the job if you want to preserve the wood underneath.
Using a belt sander to remove paint doesn’t require a lot more additional knowledge than the basic process. Refer to the paragraph “How to use a belt sander”, and keep in mind these 2 things:
- Start with heavy-grit sandpaper to do the roughing part of the job. As soon as you see the wood surface under the paint, change it to a medium one. This way, you will preserve more of the wood surface.
- If you think that the paint may contain lead (this is common in older houses), hire a professional.
Prepare yourself for a sweat. Sanding large surfaces requires a lot of effort. The result will be worth it.
Belt Sander Tips and Tricks
- Make sure that your clothes don’t get stuck in the sander. Roll your sleeves up, close the zip of your jacket. If you have long hair, pull it up.
- Always wear eye protection and a mask for the dust. Your lungs will thank you.
- Since these tools can get quite loud, it’s a good idea to also wear ear protection.
- Hold on the belt sander tightly: since it’s a powerful tool, it will grab the wood quickly and try to “escape” your control. Try to move it at an even pace, along the wood grain. Don’t stop in a spot, keep it moving all the time. You don’t want to get an indent.
- When you get to the end of your board, don’t go too much beyond it with the sander. Just enough to get the sand done. If you go too much further the sander will tilt under its weight, rounding the wood’s edge. You can avoid this by placing a scrap of wood at the end of your board.
- Keep the belt clean. If the belt is clogged, the sandpaper won’t be able to cut even if it’s still sharp. Use a cleaning stick to remove the dust stuck between the sandpaper’s grains. You can get one of those at your local store. Avoid using over 120 sandpaper grit.
- To move from a pass to the next one, don’t lift the sander from the surface, but go in a zig-zag motion. Remember to overlap your passes.
A belt sander is one of the hardest tools to master. A good result depends a lot on the user experience. It will take a lot of trial and error to get the technique right.
Before working on your actual project, take some time to practice on pieces of scrap wood. Sand them with your belt sander, and check them with a level to see if you did a good job.
Other than that, I hope that this article was somewhat helpful. I think that at least some of the tips will come in handy.