When you work with wood, especially large pieces used in carpentry and flooring, you need appropriate-sized equipment to eliminate rough surfaces. For most woodworking shops and production lines, a wide belt sander (also sometimes referred to as a wide belt sanding machine) provides the dimensions, power, and versatility needed to smooth and finish everything from doors to floors.
If you’ve never worked with one, you may wonder, “What are wide belt sanders and how do they work?” In this blog, the abrasive specialists at Fintech Abrasives outlines how these powerful sanders work and what you should do to get best results with your project.
What is a Wide Belt Sander?
As the name implies, wide belt sanding machines are larger belt sanders with widths that are typically 13 inches or more. Wide belt sanders are a common feature in modern workshops and industrial factories. You can use them to sand wood and composite boards like particleboard, pegboard, and MDF, to a specified thickness and finish. They can also be used for:
Preparing wood surfaces for a special coating
Sanding down rough surfaces
Leveling uneven pieces of wood
Stripping old paint, varnish, and other coatings from the workpiece surface
How Do Wide Belt Sanders Work?
Most wide belt sanders operate the same. A height-adjustable table sits beneath the wide abrasive belt. You should raise the table so that the space between the table and the belt is slightly less than the thickness of the wood you're sanding. You can then place your wood on the table bed where the conveyor will run the wood through the machine. The abrasive belt sands the wood to the specified thickness as it passes through the machine.
The width of a wide belt sanding machine allows you to sand wide pieces of wood, but you can also run multiple smaller pieces of wood through the sander at the same time. As a general rule, the more of the bed you use, the less you’ll want to sand off with each pass through the machine. Trying to remove too much material at one time can lead to belt tracking issues, wavy surfaces on the workpiece, or belt burning.
What Are the Benefits of Wide Belt Sanders?
When you do a lot of woodworking projects, belt sanders save a lot of time. They do a fast job of removing and leveling wood and can quickly smooth the roughest boards. When you need to switch from a coarser to a finer-grit abrasive, it’s easy to do so, so you have a lot of versatility when working with wood.
Other benefits of wide belt sanders are as follows:
Quickly Cover Large Surfaces: Wide belt sanders have the advantage of allowing operators to sand large surfaces in less time than if they were using handheld sanders. While portable sanders are useful for small jobs, wide belt sanders are better equipped for the challenges of high-demand production environments. If you face tight deadlines and have a lot of stock to sand, you’ll probably want to invest in one of these bigger units.
Digital Calibration: A digital thickness gauge provides operators with precise measurements, making it possible for them to perform highly accurate finishing. Moreover, wide belt sanders with digital thickness gauges are easy to calibrate and retain memory automatically, ensuring consistency across operators.
More Versatile: Since they are easy to configure, wide belt sanders support a wide range of applications. You can change the abrasive belt to achieve different results on the surfaces you’re working with. For example, some types of wood are softer than others and require a different type of abrasive. Other woods have a combination of both soft and hard areas, and the ability to switch belts when needed can help you process them properly.
Consistent Results: Wide belt sanders provide more consistent results than portable belt sanders. A manual sander can easily oversand a surface due to the power of belt sanders. Wide belt sanders eliminate the need for a steady hand, which makes consistent results easier to achieve. Consequently, these tools are ideal for replicating results in large batches.
Finding the Best Wide Belt Sander for Your Application
When picking an industrial wide belt sander, you should consider the application to ensure the sander can handle the materials you are working with. You should consider the width of your largest pieces and the infeed height necessary to pass them through the machine. Other considerations include:
Production Lines: Wide belt sanders usually have an adjustable feed table, but there are also ones with height-adjustable rollers. Having this feature makes it easy to integrate these machines into a production line. The feed table could align with the conveyor or table before it, and the head could be adjusted according to the piece's height.
Calibrating: To calibrate solid wood pieces, you'll need a belt sander with steel sanding rollers. You can use this feature to remove both hard and soft sections of wood evenly. If you're working with materials such as particle boards, rubber rollers are a better choice than steel rollers, as they’re softer.
Small Pieces: Small pieces can easily slip under the feeding belt. If you regularly handle smaller wood pieces, look for a wide belt sander with vacuum transport belts to hold the pieces in place and prevent them from slipping.
Irregular Shapes: Laser cameras and sensing rollers are useful features for applications involving wood pieces with irregular shapes. By detecting where a piece of material puts different pressure on the abrasive belt, these features can adjust the abrasive belt accordingly.
Vintage Wood: Your shop can benefit from cutter blocks and band saw aggregates if it works a lot with wood pieces that require a vintage or worn look. A sander with orbital sanding aggregates can also produce good results when restoring furniture with various grain patterns.
What is the Best Abrasive for Woodworking?
When you’re using your wide belt sander to process wood boards and panels, you want to ensure that you’re using the best abrasive for each type of workpiece, from raw to coated to semi-finished.
Aluminum Oxide: Aluminum oxide is one of the most commonly-used abrasives in woodworking shops due to its versatility and affordable price tag. It can strip away old paint and varnish and does an especially good job on harder woods like oak, maple, and walnut.
Zirconia: Zirconia sanding belts break down as they work, making them ideal for sanding down rough wood surfaces and removing sharp edges. They are also a good choice for sanding ceramic finishes off of wood floor boards.
Silicon Carbide: Silicon carbide is a hard abrasive that works effectively on both softwood and hardwood. Like zirconia, it’s also appropriate for sanding away ceramic finishes. The ability to remove material without high heat buildup makes it ideal for finishing stabilized wood.
Ceramic: Ceramic can be used for removing paint, primers, wood stain, and rough spots on wood. However, caution must be used to prevent scorching due to its aggressive cut and powerful performance. Being friable, ceramic constantly delivers a sharp cutting surface, increasing the already impressive longevity of the product.
Whichever abrasive you choose, make sure that you store the wide belts correctly before and after use. Storage temperatures should be between 60°F and 80°F, and relative humidity should be at least 45%. You’ll want to remove them from their original packaging at least 24 hours before use and hang them on non-metal racks so that they’re at least 4” from the wall and one foot off the floor. To prevent deterioration, keep your belts away from concrete floors and damp areas.
At Fintech Abrasives, we sell premium-quality wide sanding belts designed specifically for wide belt sanders. Their X-weight cloth backing supports continuous and/or high-pressure use without tearing apart and the open coat grain pattern does an excellent job of stripping, planing, roughing, and finishing on all types of wood.
Alternatives to Wide Belt Sanders
If you don’t have access to a wide belt sander, you have other options if you need to flatten or smooth a wooden surface. To accomplish this task, you can use a planer or a drum sander.
Planers consist of wooden blocks with blades that shave layers off wood. With a relatively low price tag, it provides a straight, uniform cut.
Drum sanders are powerful machines that can sand both wood and plastic. A small footprint and good performance make it a good fit for smaller materials.