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Recommendations for tabletop belt sander


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Hi folks.  I hope I'm not duplicating an existing thread by accident...

 

One of the parts of blade making I'm liking the least is the sanding.  Right now I'm hand sanding after filing, and it takes forever and my thumbs hate me. :-)

 

I've discovered that there are tabletop-sized belt sanders available for, in some cases, under $100, or not much more than.  (Amazon has a number of them.)  This seems quite tempting, and definitely within budget.  It would also safe gobs of time.  But... are they any good?

 

A few I found, about which I know nothing:

 

Anyone have experience with any home tabletop-sized belt sanders?  Are there any that are worth anything?  Any to recommend?  Any to avoid?  I don't need something with grinding level power, I think, although if it can manage that, yay.  I'm mainly looking for something to do finish sanding and polishing.

Thanks for any recommendations (even if the recommendation is to run far away).

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That is a rather difficult question to answer because, while I have one it has never been used for anything other than some handle work. 

Draw filing, (search " drawfiling site: bladesmithsforum.com") is going to be you best method for shaping, without a belt grinder. There is nothing much to be gained by trying to use a small belt sander for finishing. IME at best you might be able to use it for, if you filed well, maybe two grit levels and even then the short belt will pose problems with heat and all it takes is one hard piece of grit making a couple of laps on the belt to undo all of the gains. 

Hand sanding/polishing has yet to be replaced with anything that acheives the same results. If there was a motorized shortcut we'd all be doing it, especially for the price of one of those sanders.

Some people have success using a Harbor Freight angle grinder to speed the filing. Some of us use inexpensive home made buffers to finish after sanding, despite their danger.

Good files and proper technique will go a long way towards making the "paperwork" easier and of course that has its proper techniques too.

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These are not exactly what you would want. They are way under powered. I know you are not looking for HP but it is somewhat important. Also the belt speed is another thing to look at.  The very low speeds wont be good for polishing. Some of the attatchments for a bench grinder is good and this may be something to think about.  It is a little more expensive but runs a little faster and the power is not robbed by the disc you will hardly use.

 https://www.gamut.com/p/belt-grinders-horizontal-vertical-single-speed-42-in-belt-lg-MTk0MzA1

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You may want to make/purchase a sanding block so your thumbs hate you a little bit less.  You waste a bit of sandpaper, but it helps make hand sanding a much more "pleasant" experience.  They also help to minimize the risk of developing tendonitis over time.

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Vern: I'm already doing draw-filing for the second pass.  We have a large belt grinder at the forge I go to that I use for shaping and removing the hammer marks, after which I draw file to perfect the shape.  That's then followed up with hand-sanding at several grits from 60 up to 400 (pre-heat treat) and then again to 1500 (post-heat treat). 

The draw filing I know is going to be super-hard to replace with a machine, despite it being a painful and time consuming process.  I did try a friend's round sanding belt on a piece of throw-away steel and it worked very well, aside from being miscalibrated and so introducing lots of bumps back into the metal.  That's why I'm looking for something to shorten the sanding part, since both draw filing and sanding are several hours each, which I'm not keen on making a regular practice. :-(

 

Alex: I have a small block I'm wrapping sand paper around; it's not a large block but it does the job, and a larger one would make it difficult to work on smaller pieces of metal, I imagine.  (This is what the instructor at my local forge recommended.)  It's still a very slow process that hurts my hands.  Either I'm doing it extremely wrong or I'll have to switch up tools.

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The best...or at least on of my best time saving investments was/is a random orbital for 86'ing grinding marks.

Once they are gone with 180 grit from 220 up is a breeze. It depends on the blade size obviously but 4 to 6 sanding disks is usually all it takes.

There are about .50 ea when ya buy em in a 50 pack. I am sure its paid for itself with wet or dry paper.

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If you read that thread I linked, you'll see there is a trick to drawfiling using files of descending size and cut.  By the time you finish drawfiling with a 6" mill smooth, you're ready to start with 220 grit paper.  I wrap my paper over a 1x1/4" bar of mild steel about a foot long.  Gives a nice pair of handles to keep your fingers away from the blade.

The random orbit sander trick is a good one too.  When I do that I get a roll of adhesive-backed paper.  Just cut, peel, and stick.  I don't use it that often because the vibration disturbes my carefully arranged piling system of junk on the bench and I can't find stuff afterwards.:lol:

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1 hour ago, Larry Garfield said:

"86'ing"?  I am not familiar with this term.

 

But yeah, that's the use case I have in mind.  400/800/1500 grit isn't too hard, relatively speaking, but the lower grits take for-bloody ever to get everything properly smooth.

86'ing = Getting rid of....or getting thrown out. lol  I have bought so much sand paper from the ace by my house they all have my phone number memorized.

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I use a harbor freight 4x36" belt sander. I modified it, the pulleys that come on it are both 1 inch OD, IIRC. I replaced the drive pulley with a 3 inch, so i now have 3 times the speed. Still not as good as a Bader, but it works great in my opinion. I do 0 hand sanding, since i have every grit between 36 and 1000 for it. 1000 grit, if youre gentle and move smoothly, applying little pressure, gives a better mirror finish than i have been able to achieve with 2000 grit hand sanding. And it takes at least 1/10 the time. 

Edited by Will W.
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10 hours ago, Alex Middleton said:

You may want to make/purchase a sanding block so your thumbs hate you a little bit less.  You waste a bit of sandpaper, but it helps make hand sanding a much more "pleasant" experience.  They also help to minimize the risk of developing tendonitis over time.

^^This. I got a semicircular 3M rubber sanding block, and my arthritic fingers are SO much happier now. I'm getting a better finish this way now as well.

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I use the same thing.  Actually, i have two.  I epoxyed a 3/16" plate to one of them for sanding on flat surfaces, and use the other one on blended or convex surfaces.  The only complaint i have is that you end up wasting about half of your paper.  It can add up pretty quick. 

Edited by Alex Middleton
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14 hours ago, Alex Middleton said:

I use the same thing.  Actually, i have two.  I epoxyed a 3/16" plate to one of them for sanding on flat surfaces, and use the other one on blended or convex surfaces.  The only complaint i have is that you end up wasting about half of your paper.  It can add up pretty quick. 

I don't think it wastes that much. One sheet of paper gives me four strips for the block, of which just a couple inches per strip, where they tuck under each side, is  unused. Much safer too, as the block keeps my fingers a couple inches above the edge(s).

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Thanks, folks.  Seems like there's several "better than what I'm doing now" options, only some of which involve electricity. :-)  (I've not ruled out the electrical approach, but it seems there's lots of opinions here.)

Alan: If I understand you correctly, you're doing several rounds of draw filing before you do several rounds of sanding?  That's interesting... given that draw filing is the other part that kills my hands and takes forever.  (Likely at least partially due to "you're still doing it wrong" factors.)  Are there any good tutorials for how to make that part easier?  I'm assuming that one is harder to replace with power tools if you want it done well.

Kreg: If I can ask, why a random-rotation sander over a belt (either fixed or handheld)?  That seems to me like it would be harder to ensure is properly flat, and wouldn't give you clear directional lines so you know when you're "done" with a given grit.

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2 hours ago, Larry Garfield said:

 

Kreg: If I can ask, why a random-rotation sander over a belt (either fixed or handheld)?  That seems to me like it would be harder to ensure is properly flat, and wouldn't give you clear directional lines so you know when you're "done" with a given grit.

I haven't used an RO sander on steel but I wouldn't want to know how many hours I've spent using one on wood. 

You have to understand what you are actually doing when you sand/polish steel. You are making a surface that is made up of progressively finer scratches until they disappear to the human eye. The reflection of light is perceived as uniform or smooth with no visible scratches.

When you are sanding by hand every time you change to a finer grit you should change the direction you sand in by 90 degrees. This, for lack of a better term, "cross cuts" the scratches of the last grit size. The long scratches catch the eye so cutting them down crossways makes the surface appear more polished as thebgrits get finer. The random orbit sander, used at the right point does not leave long directional scratches so it is easier to "erase" the "swirly" scratches with directional sanding by hand.

Sorry for the poor wording. I didn't have enough coffee this morning.

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Larry, that is indeed what I mean.  Being arthritic myself I also understand about the fingers, so yeah, you're probably doing something harder than you need to.  

The best video tutorial I have seen is in the first set of Arctic Fire videos up in the Videos and Multimedia subforum in which Don Fogg drawfiles a dagger blade with a crappy old double-cut file and still makes it work.

I actually push the file away from me rather than draw it towards me, that way I don't have to curl my fingers around the skinny file.  Always use a file handle, too.  Gives you a bigger thing to grip.  I push because that way the handle is in my right hand, which is the one with gimpy fingers.  The only other advice is let the weight of the file and your hands do the work, don't bear down on the file.  That both bends the file a bit, making true flats impossible, and greatly increases the risk of pinning.  That's when a little chunk of blade steel gets stuck in the file teeth and takes out a deep gouge down the blade, which takes forever to get rid of.  Just letting the file glide over the steel removes smaller slivers that don't tend to get stuck as bad.  A little chalk in the teeth can help too, as does brushing out the teeth every few strokes.  

You can also vary the angle of the file from 90 degrees to 45 or more degrees to increase or decrease the aggressiveness of the cut.  It's still draw filing because the file is mostly perpendicular to the blade.  Push filing or "normal" filing does take more pressure and hurts my hands a lot more.  

Don't get me wrong, I still use a belt grinder to get everything as close as I can to finished.  I just find filing to give me a flatter surface, because I guess I'm just not that good with a grinder...

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Kreg: Yeah, I'm familiar with the cross-cutting for sanding steel.  That's why I'm concerned that with an RO sander it would be harder to tell when you're "done" with a given level.

Alan: If I can ask, how long does filing usually take for you?  I'm working on a chef's knife in 5160 right now, and I'm past the 12 hour mark on filing.  Which I take to mean either my grinding skills suck balls, my filing skills suck balls, or both. :-)

I'm also left handed, which complicates many things in this right-privileged world...

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Being a lefty, you would then hold the file handle in your left and pull towards yourself.  Although the longer I do this, the more I find myself being ambidextrous with the detail work.  I can actually push-cut engrave with my left hand equally badly as I do with my right! :lol:  And I file with whichever hand is best suited to the task playing the dominant role.

As for filing time, well...  for a typical 10" blade straight off the grinder, call it anywhere from half an hour to 1.5 hours.  That's starting with the 16" mill bastard (the 14" Simonds Nu-Cut if it really needs heavy stock removal), then the 12" mill bastard, then the 6" mill bastard, 6" mill 2nd cut, then 6" mill smooth.  The big file does the bulk of the work, the others just smooth out the ripples it leaves behind.  For instance, if a blade takes me an hour to drawfile, 30 minutes of that will be with the big one.  By the time I get to the 6" smooth, it only takes maybe 3 or 4 minutes max.  The choice of files and the order they're used is critical.  If I were to start with the 6" smooth right off the grinder, it would indeed take me a couple of days to get everything flat.  I suspect any ball-sucking that's going on is due to the choice of file, in other words.;)

A tomahawk may take two or three hours or more because of the increased complexity and the use of push-filing to get some of the necessary details cut in.  A double-edged blade takes twice the time as a single, and a sword takes whatever it takes.

If true flat and relatively painless finishing of flats is your main goal, look into a disk grinder.  Not cheap, but mounted with the disc horizontal and with variable speed drive they can produce a finish that may only need hand-sanding if you insist.  I'm cheap and only a serious hobbyist with no more space for tooling or I'd have one myself.  

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OK, yeah, I'm definitely doing something wrong then. :-)

I'm using a bastard cut, I think 12"?  Double-cut.  I bought a new one yesterday to make sure of what I was working with, and it was still about 3.5 hours last night of watching it remove metal and still not getting to everything.  (That's after several rounds previously with a 10" bastard, I think it was.)  It's definitely working based on the amount of black dust I've got on the floor afterward, just... very very slowly.  I can barely see any change visually as I work.

I'm also still in hobbyist mode (day job is something else entirely), but spending 10-20 hours filing is definitely out of scope for a hobby.  I'll check for the videos you mentioned and see if that helps.  If not, I may just give up and get a power sander/grinder.  Looks like there were some better recommendations up-thread.

Edited by Larry Garfield
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Hmmm...  You should be getting a pile of shiny filings, not dust.  Are you picking up the file at the end of each stroke, or riding it back and forth?  If the latter, that will ruin a file in short order.  They only cut in one direction. 

You might also have crap files.  That's about all you can get these days, especially at big box stores.  If they're Mexico-stamped Nicholson they are not files, they're file-shaped soft objects poorly fed through the machine that an annealed knife blade will easily take the teeth right off of in a single stroke.  Brazil-stamped Nicholsons are slightly better, they will actually cut some steels.  Craftsman are made by Simonds and are good.  Whatever that brand is that Lowe's sells with the hexagonal tang is crap.  

New old-stock USA-made Nicholsons are great, Simonds are great, and I've heard good things about Pferd and Bahco/Sandvik.  If you can afford Swiss-stamped Grobet you can afford a servant to polish your blades for you, but they're the best there is. India-made Grobet are in the same league as Brazilian Nicholsons from what I've heard.

Edit: letting any file ride backwards over the blade will dull it quickly, as will any scale on the blade.  If you don't have a belt grinder, use an angle grinder to get all the scale off or soak it overnight in vinegar and wipe the scale off.  Heck, even a broken grinding wheel off a cheap hard-wheel grinder will take the scale off quickly if rubbed vigorously over the blade.  For that matter, scale will also eat the abrasive off a belt, so it's a good idea to remove it by whatever means you have no matter how you plan on finishing the blade.

Edited by Alan Longmire
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I've done mostly single direction, but since it's double-cut I've also tried both directions a few times.  I get about the same result either way.  (Isn't that the point of a double-cut file? Or if it's still single direction, might it be that I'm left handed so using the whole thing backwards?)

And yeah, the files I have are from Hope Depot.  The new one is Nicholson, but I don't know what country.  It was about $9.  (I have no perspective to know if that's decent or "may as well be made of soap".)

Scanning Amazon right quick, wow, I can definitely see a price difference with those brands. :-)  I see a couple of sets from them.  Is there one in particular you'd recommend?  (Home Depot has only Nicholson and Husky, which I'm going to assume from price comparison you'd categorize as "file-shaped soft objects".)

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Nicholson has been foreign-made file-shaped objects since around 2012 or so.  Another win for bean-counting over quality, sigh...

Double-cuts only cut in one direction, they just cut rougher than single cuts.  Structured double-cuts like the old Nicholson Magicut, Simonds Multicut, and Simonds Nu-Cut cut as fast as ordinary double cuts, but leave a much smoother finish.  Somewhere I have a picture of what coarse drawfiling residue should look like, I'll post that when I find it.

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