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Tool Test: Drum Sanders

Tool Test: Drum Sanders
By Tom Caspar; Art Direction:Vern Johnson; Photography: Lead Photo by Bill Zuehlke, all others staff, unless otherwise indicated

Raise your hand if you like to sand. Anybody? I didn’t think so. We all like to get this chore over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. A drum sander may be just what you’ve been looking for.

We tested eight drum sanders and one basic, wide-belt sander, all priced under $2,200 (Fig. A). That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sanding machines, however. You can easily spend a lot more.

If all a drum sander does is save time sanding, is it worth it? We’ve heard dozens of stories from folks who have taken these machines way beyond simply sanding a board. Their uses seem limited only by your imagination. Even if you’re not in the market for one today, this is a machine that’s definitely worth taking a closer look at.

How Drum Sanders Work
Drum sanders are pretty simple machines (Photo 1). A powered conveyor belt feeds wood underneath an open box. This continuous belt is made of a non-slip material and is driven by a fairly small, slow-speed motor.

Inside the box there’s typically a rotating drum powered by a much larger motor. The drum is wrapped with a continuous strip of sandpaper (Photo 2). A single grit of sandpaper won’t serve all your sanding needs, of course. You need easy access to the drum and a quick-change system to install rolls of coarse, medium and fine paper.

On either side of the drum, there’s a pair of pressure rollers. Unlike a planer, these rollers are not powered. Their job is to press the wood against the conveyor belt. Without the pressure rollers, the sanding drum would shoot your wood right out of the machine!

Drum sanders come in three different styles: open-end, closed-end and double-drum. Before we cover the differences between these styles, let’s take a look at what they have in common.

What Drum Sanders Can and Cannot Do
Drum sanders have a powerful appeal (Photo 3). They are surprisingly versatile and can be the single answer to many shop problems (Photo 4). However, they can’t perform miracles. Let’s take a hard look at what a drum sander realistically can and cannot do.

Drum sanders have a larger range of capacity than most jointers and planers. First, there’s the extra width. You can work on material from 24- to 32-in. wide with the drum sanders we tested. Second, there’s the short stuff. Drum sanders can safely manage material as small as 2-1/4- to 9-in. long. Third, very thin pieces are no problem. For example, you can remove bandsaw marks from 1/16- to 1/8-in.-thick resawn wood.

Surfacing rough lumber is something of a mixed bag with a drum sander. The extra width capacity can be a godsend for super-wide boards. Some drum sanders can take the cup out of a board (warp across the width), but few work well in removing bow and twist (warp down the length). A long-bed jointer is far better for these jobs.

Jointers and planers remove wood relatively fast, while drum sanders have a much slower pace. They rarely take off more than 1/64 in. at a time.

A drum sander can certainly produce a smooth surface, but not necessarily a uniformly flat one. It’s not unusual for a drum sander to create very shallow dips across the width of the stock at random intervals. These dips are hard to see, but they’ll show up under a finish. They can be sanded out by hand later.

Tear-out is never a problem with drum sanders. You’ll get a smooth surface whether you’re surfacing highly figured wood or evening up a top composed of boards with grain that goes in opposite directions.

Drum sanders can remove saw marks from the edges of face-frame stock, but some round over those edges. (Crisp, square edges, such as the kind you get on a jointer, are necessary for tight, invisible glue joints.)

Drum sanders can save a heck of a lot of time in finish sanding, but most of the time you have to finish up sanding by hand. All drum sanders leave a visible straight-line pattern of scratches. These scratches may not be objectionable on coarse-grained wood, such as red oak, but they stand out like a sore thumb on fine-grained wood, such as hard maple.

Shop Requirements
Is your shop ready for a drum sander? There are a couple of things to consider that may cost you some extra bucks (Photo 5). First, drum sanders are one of the few machines that absolutely, positively must have adequate dust collection, or they just won’t work. A portable 1-hp two-bag dust collector ($250 to $350) hooked directly to the machine is a minimum.

You may have to upgrade the electrical service in your shop. You’ll need at least 20-amp service to your drum sander, maybe more (see Chart, page 50). Your dust collector should go on a circuit other than the one used for the sander. Many drum sanders require 230-volt service for their huge motors.

Finally, take into account the size and weight of these machines before purchasing one. All drum sanders can be put on mobile bases, but when you add infeed and outfeed tables they take up lots of room; far more than a portable planer. Some machines are very, very heavy. Getting one up or down stairs is a real challenge.

Performance Features
We’ve divided the features of drum sanders into two broad categories: performance and convenience. Performance features affect the results you get; convenience features affect how user-friendly the machine is. You’ll find a report card on how each machine fared in the chart on pages 50 and 51.

Drum sanders come in three styles, but the style should not affect the performance. We found that all the machines could produce a surface free of ripples and with barely detectable sanding marks, if operated with care.

In fact, proper operation is more important than any single feature. To get the best results, you’ve got to choose the right grit of sandpaper, set the right depth of cut and dial the conveyor belt to the right speed. Brother, did we make a lot of mistakes at first! We’d expect anybody using a drum sander for the first time to have trouble too, regardless of the model. Skill comes with experience.

We expected every machine to produce a board or panel with crisp (not rounded) edges and no snipe. In search of the perfect board, our tests showed that the following features affected the performance of each machine.

• Adjustable pressure rollers. All drum sanders produce snipe under certain conditions. The key to reducing snipe is to fine-tune two pressure-roller settings: height relative to the drum and foot-pounds of pressure. (Height is more important than pressure.) Unfortunately, not all machines have these adjustments.

• Hard drums vs. soft drums. Hard drums (Photo 6) excel at producing boards of a precise, uniform thickness. Soft drums produce a surface with slightly less detectable sanding scratches. Our tests showed that hard drums generally made flatter edges on face-frame stock than soft drums. Does it matter for other applications? Probably not if you’re sanding a door or a top. But it does matter if you’re sanding surfaces that will be glued together, such as the laminations in a turned bowl.

• Hard vs. soft conveyor belts. Our tests also showed that machines with hard, abrasive-coated conveyor belts performed better at taking the cup out of boards and panels than machines with soft, rubber-coated or PVC belts (Photo 7), especially on thin stock. The non-slip surface of a conveyor belt keeps a board from being thrown out of the machine by a sanding drum. All the belts work fine, but soft, rubber belts and PVC belts require more downward force from the pressure roller than hard, abrasive belts. That downward force can squeeze the cup out of a board or panel before it hits the sanding drum. When the board exits, the cup returns.

• Variable-speed conveyor belt. The wider the range of speed available, the better. Variable speed lets you optimize the feed rate to a given depth of cut (Photo 8). Increasing the feed rate also prevents the burning of heat-sensitive wood, such as cherry.

Convenience Features
Some woodworking machines are a dream to run; others are a nightmare. The results may be the same, but which do you look forward to using? The following features make a drum sander user-friendly. See the chart on page 51 for our ratings.

• Speed and power. In commercial shops, speed is essential to making a profit and may legitimately be the single most important factor in choosing a drum sander. For home shops, speed is a convenience, but not a necessity. Larger motors generally mean you can get the job done faster (Fig. B, page 44). You can take a deeper cut with coarse and medium grits and set the conveyor belt to a faster speed.

• Sandpaper attachment. Each drum sander has a slightly different method of attaching the sandpaper to the drum. Once we got the hang of it, most were quite easy to use (Photo 9). Some required more dexterity than others, however.

• Good manual. Usually we don’t make a big deal about owner’s manuals because there are many other good sources of information. Not so with drum sanders. When things go wrong with your setup or technique (and they will!), you’ll want to turn to a good troubleshooting guide.

• Depth-of-cut adjustment. Very small adjustments to the depth of cut of a drum sander can make a big difference in results. Typically, you advance a crank handle only one-quarter or one-eighth of a turn. That level of precision calls for a crank that’s easy to turn and large in diameter.

• Independent switches. We preferred machines with independent switches for the conveyor belt and drum. This feature helps you judge a critical setting: the depth of cut on the first pass. That’s best done with the conveyor belt on and the drum off, but there are other ways. (Scales aren’t precise enough on any machine to simply dial in a setting for the first pass.)

• Drum-angle adjustment. Don’t count on your drum sander being perfectly set up out of the box. You’ll have to adjust the tilt of the drum so it’s perfectly parallel to the bed. That’s easy on some models and not so easy on others. You may use this feature often on open-end machines (Photo 10). When you sand stock that’s wider than the drum, you should tilt the drum a few thousandths of an inch higher on the outboard end to avoid lap marks. Tilt the drum back parallel when you’re done.

• Double-drum height adjustment. The rear drum of a double-drum machine should be easy to adjust. The difference in height between the front and rear drums has to be set just so for optimal performance. Coarse grits require a larger height difference than fine grits. We’d prefer a scale to let you know where you’re at in making this adjustment, but none of the machines we tested had one.

• Extension tables. Infeed and outfeed extension tables help you avoid snipe on long, heavy stock. Roller stands are impractical for most machines because the bed, not the drum, is adjusted up and down. Some machines don’t offer extension tables at all.

Single-Drum, Open-End Sanders
Open-end sanders are well suited for small shops. They take up relatively little room, run on a 115-volt circuit, yet have a large capacity.

Open-end sanders can handle a glued-up top or door that’s up to twice the width of the drum (Photo 11). Sand one half first, turn the piece around and run it through again. Does it work? Yes, if your machine is tuned up right. The drum should be tilted ever so slightly. You’ll make a very slight crown in the center, but you won’t get any overlap marks. You can readjust the drum to sand perfectly parallel with the table again when you’re done.

The downside to these machines is their slow speed. You can’t take a very big bite with coarser grits, nor can you feed the work as fast as you can with larger machines with bigger motors. And if your work is wider than the drum, you do have to flip it around and take a second pass.

Both ends of the drum are supported in these sanders. This allows the drum to be longer than the open-end machines. You can sand a panel up to 25-in. wide in one pass (Photo 12). That’s wide enough for most cabinet doors and sides, but not wide enough for large tabletops. For these, you have to sand one half at a time and glue the two halves together.

These machines require less adjustment than open-end sanders. Once you’ve set the drum parallel to the bed, you’re done.

This category is where the power wars really start. The machines we tested are the two least expensive machines in a large field where horsepower, capacity and price go up and up (to over $4,000).

Double-Drum Sanders
The whole idea of a machine with two drums is to get work done twice as fast (Photo 13). You can put the same grit on both drums or a medium grit on the front drum and a fine grit on the back drum. With the two-grit setup, you can take a coarse-grained species of wood, such as red oak, straight from the planer and pretty much have it ready for hand sanding after only one or two passes. All this work requires a lot of power. Double-drum machines have 2-hp or larger motors and require 230-volt service.

The downside to having two drums is that setup is much fussier. The difference in height of the rear drum relative to the front drum has to be just so, and that difference varies from grit to grit. We’re talking thousandths of an inch here. For optimum performance, drums with coarse grits should have a larger height difference than drums outfitted with fine grits. All this bother is only a one-time deal if you leave your double-drum machine set up with the same two grits all the time. But if you use a wide variety of grits, you’ll want a machine with an easily adjusted rear drum.

A drum sander can be a real time-saver. It’s capable of doing far more than just smoothing glued-up panels, but it’s not a replacement for a planer and jointer. You can get along fine without a drum sander, but buying one will surprisingly expand the range of woodworking you can do in your shop.

Whether it’s an open-end, closed-end or double-drum machine, no single type of drum sander is the best. Each design can fit very well in different kinds of shops.

Two yardsticks can help you sort out the field: performance and convenience. We’ve graded each machine by these measures in the chart below. Unfortunately, it’s clear that no single machine scores high in all categories. Before you buy a drum sander, the question to ask yourself is whether you’d rather have a machine that performs many jobs very well, but slowly, or a machine that performs fewer jobs very fast.

We reviewed sanders that were priced under $2,200, but there are many more expensive models available. For $2,500 to $10,000, you can get closed-end or double-drum machines with more powerful motors and wider capacity. These machines allow you to process work faster than most of the sanders we tested, but the results may not be much different. By and large, these sanders require 30-amp service and a 230-volt circuit.

Two new double-drum sanders were not available for our test, the Grizzly 24-in. #G1066Z, $1,600 and the Woodtek 25-in. 109-352, $1,200.

If you’re looking for both faster and better results from a sander, a wide-belt machine may be the right fit for you. With the single exception of the Woodtek open-end sander included in our chart, they start at about $3,100. Wide-belt sanders use a single sleeve of sandpaper rather than a continuous roll. That makes paper changing a bit faster, as shown at left. Wide-belt sanders also require at least 30-amp service and a 230-volt circuit.

Many wide-belt sanders leave a less-visible scratch pattern than any drum sander. Their heads oscillate back and forth, so you don’t get rows of straight-line scratches. The belt is pressed to the wood by a large, flat platen rather than by a round drum, so you won’t get random dips. (The Woodtek model doesn’t have either feature, however.)

Fig. A Price of Drum Sanders in this Test
Drum sanders are fairly expensive tools. The most basic models cost about the same as a fully equipped contractor’s saw. However, these machines can greatly expand the capabilities of your shop.

Grizzly G1079 Performax 16-32 Plus - $500

Delta 31-250 Grizzly G1066 - $1,000

Woodtek 959-802 General Int’l 15-250 M1 - $1,500

Performax 22-44 Pro Woodmaster 2675 - $2,000

Performax Shop Pro 25

Drum, roll of sandpaper, pressure roller, conveyor belt
1 Four major parts keep a drum sander humming. The drum itself is a long tube wrapped with sandpaper. A powered conveyor belt feeds boards under the drum. Free-spinning rollers on either side of the drum press down on the wood, holding it tight to the conveyor belt. When the board contacts the drum, friction from the belt prevents the wood from kicking out of the machine.

2 Wrap a long roll of sandpaper around the drum and you’re ready to go. One grit is rarely enough to get a job done, just like in hand sanding. It’s not unusual to wrap and unwrap three different grits for a single job. Choosing the right grit to start out with is crucial.

3 Drum sanders are versatile machines. You’d never think of passing this door through a planer, but a drum sander can both even up its joints and prepare it for finishing. All the sanding scratches go in straight lines, however. Further sanding by hand with a random-orbit sander may be necessary, particularly to remove cross-grain scratches.

4 A drum sander can supplement your jointer and planer by extending the range of wood you can mill. We tested each machine’s ability to surface extra-wide boards, remove the cup from warped boards and panels, remove saw marks from surfaces for glue-up (such as the edges of face-frame stock) and accurately thickness thin, resawn boards.

5 Is your shop ready to handle a drum sander? You’ll need a 1-hp or larger dust collector, a 20-amp or larger circuit and possibly 230-volt service. The larger models also take up quite a bit of floor space and can be very heavy to move.

6 Sanding drums may have either a hard or soft surface. Hard drums make a precise, flat surface on your wood. Soft drums produce a surface with fewer visible sanding scratches, but they round over edges. That’s potentially a problem if you’re sanding a surface for gluing, such as a stacked lamination or the edges of a face frame.

7 Conveyor belts come with hard or soft surfaces. Hard, abrasive-covered conveyor belts require less hold-down pressure. That improves a machine’s ability to sand the cup off a glued-up panel or thin stock. Soft-rubber belts can’t scratch a delicate surface and are easier to track.

8 A variable-speed dial for the conveyor belt lets you fine-tune the performance of your machine. Smaller drum sanders have a slower maximum rate of speed than larger machines, so you can’t push work through as fast.

More power. More capacity
Introducing the new FEIN Turbo III Portable Vac. The new 9-77-25 makes dust-free sanding and wet/dry cleanup easy and practical. The perfect size for big jobs, the Turbo III features 14.5 gallon capacity, an automatic on-off switch and a three-second hose-cleaning delay. The powerful two-stage motor offers bypass cooling to prevent electrical damage and prolong the life of the motor. And with 10% more suction power than the Turbo II, it can run two 6" or one 8" Random Orbit Sander.

For more information and the name of a local dealer, visit us at or call 1-800 441-9878. Finishing is just the beginning.

Fig. B There’s a wide range of power in drum sanders. More power generally means less sanding time. You can run boards at a faster feed rate and be more aggressive in the amount of stock you remove using coarse and medium grits.

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9 Changing paper on a drum sander can be a real chore. We preferred designs that make the job easy, such as this Performax tool (it holds the spring-clamp open) and the hook-and-loop system on the Woodmaster.

Drum Sanders
Drum sanders can be finicky to set up. We like machines with multiple points of adjustment that are easy to get at, such as this Performax drum-angle adjustment handle.

BW-6R Jointer
Acclaimed a “best buy” among 6"Jointers
by a professional woodworking publication
• 3-knife cutterhead • Jackscrew knife adjustment
• New fence tilts both ways, quick and easy adjustment. 3 positive stops

• Enclosed stand • 1 HP motor
• Rabbeting table and ledge
• Surface ground tables
• Pushbutton switch
• Cast iron wheels

TSC-10C Table Saw
With features such as a large working surface, powerful American made motor and sturdy construction you’ll see we didn’t spare quality to make an economical table saw
• Miter gauge with T-slot groove
• Cast iron extension wings
• Magnetic switch • Quick release plug connection on motor
• 4" dust collection hook up • Large 27" x 40" table
• Beveled front table edge for smooth miter gauge operation
• 1 1/2 HP American made motor
• Comes with VEGA¨ U-26 fence (shown)

BW-002A Dust Collector portable, compact
Unit can solve your dust collection problems at a very low cost
• Two HP, single phase motor • 1059 CFM • 43.5 gal. collection bag
• Bag attached with quick release metal straps • Metal impeller (not plastic)
• One 5" or two 4" dia. hose inlets • 1 micron filter bag

BW-15P Planer
• economically priced yet built like big professional planers, it offers absolutely vibration free finishes
• 3 HP motor
• 3 v-belt drive from motor to cutterhead
• Table moves up and down
• cutterhead stationary for smoother cuts
• Sturdy 4 leg non-rocking stand
• Extended stock support rollers
• Anti-kickback fingers across entire width
• 3 spring chip breaker
• Heavy cast iron construction
• Magnetic switch
• Jackscrew knife adjustment

BW-15BS Bandsaw
• don’t let its low price fool you, this amazing bandsaw is designed and built to provide trouble free operation cut after cut.
• Heavily ribbed, cast iron c-frame
• Cast aluminum wheels with rubber tires
• Non-rocking steel floor stand
• Miter gauge
• Motor mounted directly to cast iron frame for smooth operation
• 3/4 HP motor
• Two blade speeds: 2000 or 2600 SFM

Open-end sanders
Open-end sanders can handle stock that’s up to twice the width of the drum.

Delta 31-250; $810
Delta has packed extra features into its open-end sander. It has an additional 2 in. of drum length over the Performax 16-32 Plus, can run at two different drum speeds and is the only machine that accepts an inflatable outboard drum as an accessory. This accessory is perfect for freehand sanding of curved parts.

The extras are attractive, but the Delta didn’t score top marks on the basics. The rollers aren’t adjustable, the table is awkward to level and attaching the sandpaper requires good dexterity and finger strength. Its motor seemed a bit weaker than the motor on the Performax 16-32 Plus and it draws fewer amps.

Performax 16-32 Plus; $800
This machine has less capacity than the Delta 31-250, but it scored higher on our performance and convenience tests. It can do everything a drum sander should be able to do except turn out a high volume of work in a short time.

Unlike all the other drum sanders, this machine has a fixed bed and a drum that moves up and down. That means you can use roller stands for additional support of large stock. We took that idea one step farther and mounted this sander in our Ultimate Tool Stand (AW #82, page 48). Now it can handle big, wide and heavy stock almost as well as the larger machines.

Performax 22-44 Pro; $1,950
Extra capacity in an open-end machine comes at a pretty stiff price, but this beefed-up machine will handle a wider top than any other we tested. The adjustment for tilting the drum worked quite well.

In addition to extra capacity, the strength of this classic machine is its versatility. It scored well in all of our tests except one categoryÑspeed and power. We wish a version with a bigger motor was available.

The casters ($70) and extension tables ($100) shown above are optional accessories. This machine is also available in kit form for about $1,350.

Single-Drum, Closed-End Sanders
Closed-end sanders can handle stock up to 25-in. wide in one pass.

Performax Shop Pro 25; $2,200
Although limited in power, the Shop Pro 25 can handle all the jobs we asked of a drum sander. It’s ideally suited for a small, non-production shop where each project may require a new task. This sander will surface oversize rough lumber, even up cabinet sides and precisely sand resawn, thin stock. All that and it only requires a 115-volt circuit.

The advantages of this sander over its close cousin, the open-end Performax 22-44, are extra width for sanding in a single pass and fewer adjustments to worry about. Unlike an open-end machine, the drum is always set parallel to the bed. Once you’ve tuned up your machine, you’re always good to go.

The casters ($70) and extension tables ($100) shown below are optional accessories.

Woodmaster 2675; $2,000
This machine is built like a Sherman tank. It’s been in production for many years with the same basic, proven design. You want power? This is your sander. You can hog off wood in the coarse and medium grits with ease, even at full width. And you can run the conveyor belt at a higher speed than most other machines. This robust machine handles big and heavy stock better than any other we tested.

Changing paper is easy with Woodmaster’s hook-and-loop system. There are no slots or springs to mess with, but you do have to wrap strapping tape around one end of the drum.

The hook-and-loop system has its drawbacks, however. We had to stop the sander and re-wrap the paper after a few passes to take up any slack. The paper is a bit more expensive and its backing cushions the drum, making it softer. Edges can get rounded, which isn’t good for surfaces that will be glued together.

Double-drum sanders
Double-drum sanders save sanding and set-up time by using two different grits in one pass.

Grizzly G1079; $750 & Grizzly G1066; $1,100
These are very similar machines. They differ only in capacity and power, and you get a lot of power for the money with the G1066. If the idea of a double-drum machine appeals to you, these are the least expensive models out there. They’re good values for a shop that can put them to a dedicated use, such as sanding doors or parts for assembly. One set of grits should be all you need.

There are some downsides to the pair, however. It’s a challenge to change the paper. The conveyor belt does not have variable speed or an independent on/off switch. The conveyor belt is made of PVC and requires a fair amount of hold-down force, so these machines don’t do well at removing cup from a warped board or panel. It’s difficult to change the height of the rear drum relative to the front drum. These are the only machines we tested with drums that rotate in the same direction as the conveyor belt, making a climb cut rather than a shearing cut. This increases the chances of the drum skipping across the surface of a board if you take too deep a cut.

General International 15-250 M1; $1,700
This is a serious new entry into the field of drum sanders. It’s more expensive than the Grizzlys and comes with better features (changing paper is much easier, for example), but it’s still priced well below other double-drum sanders.

The conveyor belt is variable speed, but doesn’t have an independent on/off switch. You can adjust the height of the rear drum, but we wish the height adjustment had a simple scale. The depth-of-cut crank works very smoothly and is generously sized. However, one quarter turn raises the bed significantly more than on other machines.

The height of the pressure rollers cannot be adjusted, but the amount of force they deliver can be. At least that’s half the battle in dealing with snipe. Eliminating cup from a warped board is still a problem, however, because the machine’s rubber belt requires a fair amount of downward roller pressure. Unfortunately, infeed and outfeed extension tables are not available.

Performax 16-32 Plus; $800
This compact machine is easy to use and performs a wide variety of jobs well.

General International 15-250M1; $1,700
This new double-drum machine gets the job done quickly without much fuss.

Performax 22-44; $2,200
This open-end sander has a wider range of capacity than any other we tested.

Woodmaster 2675; $2,000
You get amazing power and speed with this closed-end sander, a perennial favorite.

You Should Also Know About...

RBI Model #900-1440 38-in. closed-end sander
$3,750, (800) 487-2623.

Woodtek 959-802 12-24-in. open-end, wide-belt sander

Reprinted with permission from American Woodworker magazine, ©2002 Home Service Publications, Inc., an affiliate of The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Suite 700, 2915 Commers Drive, Eagan, MN 55121. All rights reserved.