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Random Orbit Sanders (Palm-Grip)

Random Orbit Sanders (Palm-Grip)

(Note: This article first appeared in ShopNotes No. 23, September, 1995.)

We bought two random orbit sanders for the shop a few years back. And while each sander is different (one is held by the body; the other has a pistol grip), both sanders do exactly what they promised.

One of the best things is they remove material quickly. That's because their sanding pads spin like a disc sander. At the same time, the pads orbit in a random motion that leaves the surface nearly free of swirl marks.

Because this dual action is such an efficient method of sanding, several manufacturers have come out with their own random orbit sanders. And unlike the sanders we bought, many of them incorporate a more compact body that's designed to be held with a palm grip.

TEST CRITERIA. To find out which of the palm grip sanders is best, we bought all the models that were available (mid-1995), see table below.

Sander Price Telephone Number
Porter Cable 333 $79.95 800-487-8665
Ryobi RS-112 $49.99 800-525-2579
Black & Decker 2771 $79.95 800-5446980
Wen 15 $40 800-462-3630
Sears 27714 $39.95 800-290-1245
Makita B05001 $69.95 800-487-8665
DeWalt DW421 $79.95 800-433-9258

Some of the tests (like sanding a rough-sawn board until it's smooth) showed how fast the sander could remove stock. Other tests showed us whether the sander left cross-grain scratches or swirl marks.

TEAM. Like our other tool reviews, we put together a team of three people with different woodworking experience to test the sanders. Cary is just getting started in woodworking. Steve is an advanced woodworker. And Ken is a professional carpenter and cabinetmaker.

Of course, having three different viewpoints can lead to having more than one "best" sander. But that's okay. This way, you can use the comments of the person whose experience is closest to your own to help select a sander that's best for you.

Q: These sanders come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Which one provides the most comfortable grip? And how does the grip affect your control when sanding?

Ken: Depending on the sanding job, I change grips back and forth. When I'm working in a tight spot, holding the body of the sander gives me the best control. But if I'm sanding a large area (or for a long period of time), a top grip is more comfortable. Since I can grip the Porter Cable, Black & Decker (B&D), DeWalt, and Makita sanders either way, they provide the best of both worlds.

Cary: I found the Sears and Ryobi sanders were extremely comfortable to grasp by the top. But they're fairly short. So when holding these sanders by the body, I was always worried that the sanding disc was going to slice my hand.

Stave: The Wen sander is the exact opposite. It's so tall that when I grab it by the top, I'm too far away from the workpiece to have much control. While the body grip is comfortable, it forces me to hold my arm parallel to the work surface which is more tiring if I'm doing a lot of sanding.

Q: What about the on/off switches on the sanders?

Cary: Each sander has a rocker switch. And they're all located right under the top front edge within easy reach for a right-handed or left-handed person.

But there's one thing I liked about the switches on the Ryobi, DeWalt, B&D, and Sears sanders. They have a rubber "boot" that seals out dust. And that's a definite plus for me considering the amount of dust that gets kicked up.

Steve: That's not such a big deal to me. In fact, compared to the positive click you get when turning on the switches that aren't covered, they felt a bit mushy.

Q: I also noticed some differences in the power cords. What did you find here?

Ken: It's just a small thing, but I've found that the power cords that have a plastic jacket (like the ones on the Ryobi, Wen, and Makita) tend to kink and take on a "set" when you store the sander. I prefer the flexible rubber jackets on the other power cords.

Cary: The length of the cords is more important to me. (The Sears, DeWalt, and B&D have 10 foot cords, the Makita and Porter Cable have 7 foot cords, and the Wen and Ryobi have 6 foot cords.) Using a sander with a short cord is like walking a dog that yanks at the end of it's leash. And searching for an extension cord is just a nuisance.

Q: Let's face it. The most important thing about a sander is how well it performs. What were you looking for here? And how do these sanders stack up against each other?

Stave: When it comes to performance, I'm after one thing: a sander that removes stock quickly. Of all the sanders I tested, the aggressive sanding action of the Makita is what sticks in my mind. It chewed through wood twice as fast as the other sanders. (The Makita removed stack the fastest, the B&D, Porter Cable and DeWalt were tied for second place, the Sears and Ryobi came in third, and the Wen removed stock the slowest of the group.)

Cary: It was too fast for me. The Makita is so aggressive, I think it's a bit difficult to control. And that starts to wear me down if I'm working on a large project.

Besides, removing stock fast, I want a sander that runs smooth -- especially when I'm sanding over a long period of time. The Porter Cable, B&D, and DeWalt provided just the right combination of smoothness and speed. In fact, these sanders operated so smoothly, it surprised me how fast they knocked down the small "steps" between boards on a glued up panel.

Ken: Another thing I liked about these three sanders is they have a special brake that slows down the spinning of the pad when it's not in contact with the wood.

So even with the sander running, I can set it down on the work piece without creating a gouge. That speeds things up considerable when I need to check my sanding progress.

All the other sanders tend to skid when the disc first makes contact with the workpiece. So I have to turn off the sander, make sure the pad is in contact with the wood, and then start it up.

Cary: Even though I couldn't make a soft landing with the Sears and Ryobi sanders, I was still impressed with the amount of material they removed in a short time. But the vibration produced by the sanders made my hand start to tingle.

Steve: Not half as much as the Wen -- it bucks around like a bucking bronco. In fact the only way I could keep the sanding pad in contact with the wood was to use both hands. And even then my hands and arms went numb after only a few minutes of sanding.

Q: What did that do the the quality of finish on the surface? Were their any cross-grain scratches or swirl marks?

Ken: Like you'd expect, the Wen left significant scratches and swirl marks. But with the other sanders, I only noticed a few slight scratches.

Q: Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a random orbit sander?

Steve: I don't think so. Granted, these sanders don't leave an absolutely swirl-free finish. But it's nothing that a small amount of hand sanding won't quickly remove. Which is something I do anyway, not matter what sander I'm using.

Q: Besides the basic operation of these sanders, what did you notice about the pads and the sanding discs?

Steve: The biggest thing is how the sanding discs attach to the pads. The Black & Decker, Sears, and Wen all use pressure sensitive adhesive (PSA) discs.

With these, I just peel off the protective paper backing and stick the disc on the pad.

All the other sanders have an interlocking hook and loop system. The back of these discs is covered with a fuzzy material that sticks to the sanding pad like a cocklebur.

Cary: Although the PSA discs cost only about half as much, the hook and loop systems have a definite advantage -- the discs are reusable. As long as there's still some grit left, I can remove a disc and slap it back on as many times as I want.

But when I take off a PSA disc, sawdust either collect on the back so I can't attach it again, or the adhesive is too weak to attach it a second time.

Ken: One last thing about PSA discs. I left one on overnight and it nearly "welded" to the pad. The only way I could remove it was by scraping off tiny pieces of sandpaper.

Q: We can't talk about sanders without mentioning dust. Which sanders do the best job of controlling dust?

Steve: Overall, I'd have to say the hose on the Makita sander provided the best dust collection system. One end fits over a dust port on the side of the sander. The other end attaches to a shop vacuum that draws in nearly all the dust through holes in the sanding pad.

Cary: But dealing with a hose that snakes all over over the place is a pain for me. Not to mention that it costs an addition $30 for an 8-foot hose.

Steve: Well at least it gives you the option of picking up the dust. With the Sears, Ryobi, and Wen sanders, there's no built in dust collection system whatsoever.

Ken: That's not the case with the Porter Cable, DeWalt, and B&D sanders. Each of these comes with a canister that collects dust after it's drawn up through holes in the pad.

At first, I thought these canister would get in my way while sanding. But when I'm working in a tight spot, the canisters can be pivoted around the body of the sander.

Cary: The only problem I have with the Black & Decker and DeWalt is when I tip them over to change discs the dust dumps out of the canister and back into the sander. When I turn on the sander, plumes of dust blow out.

The Porter Cable gets around this with a plastic check valve that's installed between the canister and the sander. The valve opens as dust is being blown into the canister. Then it drops shut to keep the dust for getting back in.

Cary: Controlling dust is important to me. So I eliminated the sanders without dust collection right off the bat. But then the decision got tough.

What finally sold me on the DeWalt was the smooth operation. Yet it still removed stock fast and gave me the best control of any sander. If I could just slap on a check valve, it would be a perfect tool.

Steve: I think sanding is a chore. So when it comes to picking a sander, the faster it works the better. That's why I chose the Makita.

It's a strong running sander that "hogs" off wood. Even though that makes it a bit harder to control, it's worth it to me to get the job done quickly.

I'd even spend a few extra bucks to buy the dust collection hose.

Ken: Since I sometimes sand for hours at a time, the Porter Cable is an easy choice. There's almost no vibration, so fatigue doesn't become a factor. But this smoothness is deceptive. It still cuts plenty fast for any of the work I do.

And the pivoting dust canister is handy when you working inside a cabinet or sanding into a corner.

(c) 2002, August Home Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

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