For flattening and smoothing wide panels, as well as reducing stock thickness without grain tear-out, you just can't--ahem--beat a drum sander.
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drum sander photo

Although considered a luxury item by many, a drum sander proves invaluable for working with wide panels or figured wood. But that's not all. Trust us: Once you get a drum sander, you'll find yourself using it on virtually every project. To help you decide if a drum sander is right for you, and which one to buy, we tested five models priced under $1,200—two closed machines that handle stock up to 12" wide, and three open-ended units that sand twice as wide as their 10-18" drums.

Closed-ended machines, such as Grizzly's G0459 and its near-twin Shop Fox W1740, can't sand anything wider than 12". But the fixed bearing mounts on each end of the drum make it nearly impossible to deflect the drum up or down. So once set up, they should continue to turn out parallel surfaces. On the other hand, the drums on the Delta 31-260X and two Jet machines (10-20 Plus and 16-32 Plus) are cantilevered, leaving one end open. This enables you to sand panels twice as wide as the drum simply by turning workpieces end for end after each pass. For example, the 10" drum on Jet's 10-20 Plus benchtop model can sand a panel up to nearly 20" wide. (We found in testing that we came up 18 " to 14 " short of achieving the full width.) But over time, too-aggressive cuts can spread the open end slightly and produce panels with crowned surfaces, or the drum can sag slightly and cause gouges in the overlapped areas.

We tested each machine with various-width panels of red oak, cherry, poplar, and pine, removing up to 164 " per pass, and found that most machines deflected no more than .004" across the workpiece width anywhere along its length. (Each unit has adjustments to restore parallel alignment should it become an issue.)

As important as accuracy, the finished surfaces produced by these machines impressed us. We were rewarded with surfaces easily finished with light work from a random-orbit sander. We got the best finishes with feed rates of 6 feet per minute (fpm) or less.

  • Wrapping gets tedious. Ideally, changing sanding belts would be as easy as swapping blades on a tablesaw. But it's not. With all five machines, you wrap narrow abrasive belts with tapered ends around the drums. The Grizzly and Shop Fox units use hook-and-loop-backed belts that grip the drum. With the remaining models, you secure one belt end in a spring clip inside the drum, then wrap the belt tightly, and finally clasp the other end in another clip. Operating the clips can be clumsy, and it takes some trial and error to find the right starting points on each belt.
  • You still need power. Using a new 60-grit belt, we found we could remove 364 " from a 12"-wide workpiece at a 6-fpm feed speed on all five machines (although that cut exceeds the manufacturers' recommendations). And with finer grits that cutting depth dropped off.
  • Support proves helpful. None of the sanders comes with infeed and outfeed tables to support long workpieces, but Jet sells optional tables. Unlike the Jets, which have fixed tables and drums that adjust up and down, the others have fixed drums and movable tables. This setup makes it nearly impossible to attach shop-made supports.
  • Avoid dust clouds. These sanders produce so much fine dust, it's critical to have good dust collection. Not surprisingly, 4" ports worked better than 212 " ports, which struggled to corral the dust with either a shop vacuum or a dust collector hooked up.

Top Tool: Jet 16-32 Plus
Top Value: Jet 10-20 Plus

Learn the results of our testing of the Delta 31-260X, Grizzly G0459, Jet 10-20 Plus and 16-32 Plus, and Shop Fox W1740 in the May 2009 issue of WOOD magazine.