Publication Date: September/October 2002
I've done my fair share of sanding through the years, but it
wasn't until I built boats that I learned the true meaning of
the word. Sanding projects were no longer measured in hours,
but in long, dusty days and even agonizing weeks. I quickly
learned to appreciate sanders that were not only powerful and
smooth, but also quiet, vibration-free, and fast.
Right-angle sanders see heavy-duty use, from jobsites and
cabinet shops to boatyards. You might use them to remove paint
one day, to finish a built-in the next, and to buff a fine
finish the day after that. We tested seven 6-inch, right-angle
sanders -- the Bosch 1370 DEVS, DeWalt DW443, Fein MSF636-1,
Festool Rotex RO150E, Makita BO6040, Milwaukee 6125, and
Porter-Cable 97366 -- to see which ones could finish their work
without finishing-off their operator.
I ran the sanders through a variety of boat-building tests in
my shop. I sanded hard polyurethane paint off a boat hull,
re-finished a mahogany interior, and finished a wooden rowing
shell. Then I took the tools to a construction project and used
all of them on a custom porch I was building. The tests
included both hard and softwood species.
Sanding quality and speed can depend as much on sandpaper as on
the sander, so I used the same type of 60-, 80-, and 120-grit
paper on all the machines.
Operation and Finishing
Milwaukee's tool ships with a pad that accepts peel-and-stick
paper. The rest of the tools ship with hook-and-loop paper.
Some contractors may consider the extra cost of hook-and
loop-paper prohibitive, but I think the time saved is worth any
extra cost. If, however, you want to convert to peel-and-stick
paper, Bosch, DeWalt, Makita, and Porter-Cable have adapter
accessories. The Fein and Festool tools accept hook-and-loop
paper only. Milwaukee's sander converts from peel-and-stick to
hook-and-loop with a conversion kit.
The finishing quality of all the tools was very, very close.
Choosing the right paper and speed enables any of these sanders
to leave a nice finish. If pressed, I'd give the Makita,
Festool, and DeWalt tools a slight edge in finishing quality.
But in addition to the normal random orbital action found on
all of the models, the Festool and Makita tools have another
setting that provides more aggressive action. Festool calls
this "combined rotary and eccentric action," while Makita
labels it "forcible rotation mode."
In both cases the pads rotate while adding an eccentric motion
to the action. This removes material faster than regular random
orbital action. It doesn't leave as smooth a finish and tends
to grab the wood, but it's a good feature. Changing modes on
these two tools did increase their sanding power, but the real
brute in this test was the Milwaukee sander -- it has power to
Except for the Milwaukee and Fein models, all the sanders have
variable-speed controls. This is an important feature for fine
finishing or when sanding between finish coats.
The Festool, Porter-Cable, Fein, and Makita tools have
connection ports for a dust collector or shop vacuum. Of
course, each manufacturer would prefer you use its vacuum, but
any sander, even those with dust bags, easily adapt to work
with any vac.
Only the DeWalt and Bosch sanders come with dust bags; however,
I had trouble with Bosch's bag falling off too easily. The
Porter-Cable sander has a rubber dust bonnet around the sanding
pad and comes with a convenient hose and adapter for standard
vacuums. Festool's dust port is at the back of the body near
the power cord, which is the most convenient location.
All else being equal, the more holes in the paper, the better
the dust collection. You can conveniently use either six- or
eight-hole paper on both the Bosch and Makita sanders. The
Porter-Cable and DeWalt tools use six-hole paper, Fein uses
eight, and Festool uses nine-hole paper. The extra hole at the
center of Festool's pad blows dust across the pad to the
perimeter holes and increases paper life by up to 30 percent,
according to the company. I couldn't tell if this was true
during aggressive sanding. Milwaukee has no provision for dust
Vibration, Feel, and Switches
In most tool tests I consider a tool's performance more
important than ergonomics. But since I use right-angle sanders
for long stretches, comfort is critical. In fact, I'd choose a
model that's quiet, vibration-free, and comfortable to hold
over one that's faster or even more durable.
The Makita and Festool sanders stand out as particularly
vibration-free and quiet, perhaps due to their larger size and
weight. The Porter-Cable sander is only a hair behind them. The
Fein and DeWalt tools are also good in this regard. But Bosch's
mechanical noise was unpleasant, and Milwaukee's vibration
level was the highest of the bunch; I could feel the effects of
this tool after an hour.
The tool bodies vary in shape from the short, bulky
Porter-Cable to the long, thin Festool. All the tools were
comfortable to hold with the following caveats: Fein's body is
well-shaped, but made of slippery plastic; Porter-Cable's may
be too thick for small hands; and DeWalt's switch falls right
under your palm. The Makita and Festool sanders felt the most
comfortable to me.
The heads on most of these sanders are shaped so you can hold
them one-handed, like a large palm sander. This is useful for
working on horizontal surfaces. I like DeWalt's rubber bonnet
for this task. I found the Milwaukee tool's head got too hot to
Six of the tools have sliding, lock-on, or rock-on power
switches. Only the Milwaukee sander uses a paddle-type switch
that you have to hold because there's no switch lock. This
limits the ways you can hold the tool. The Festool was the only
sander I managed to switch off accidentally. Its switch is
located right where my thumb falls and a little downward
pressure rocks it off.
The tools' cord lengths range widely. Fein's tool has a
much-appreciated 16-foot cord, Bosch's and Festool's units have
13-foot cords, and the others have 8- or 10-foot cords.
All the sanders have well-designed, comfortable side handles
that mount on the left or right of the tool heads. The Festool,
Makita, and Porter-Cable sanders came in carrying cases, which
is a nice bonus.
I'd be satisfied with any of these tools, but I do have my
favorites. Tool prices range from about $150 to $500, but I
didn't find that performance related directly to cost. In fact,
my top pick isn't the priciest. My first choice is Makita's
BO6040 because of its smooth, powerful, and pleasant
performance. The Festool Rotex RO150E is a close second; it's a
super tool and the only problem I had was with the switch
location. Porter-Cable's 97366 is right behind; it's a great
sander at a great price. DeWalt's DW443 comes next. I didn't
find much wrong with this tool, but the company could improve
the switch location. Fein's MSF636-1 left an excellent finish,
but I wonder why such an expensive tool lacks speed control and
has such an awkwardly shaped head. Bosch's sander noise was a
negative, as was the ease at which its dust bag fell off.
Milwaukee's 6125 sander follows them all across the finish
is a boat builder and writer in West
River, Md. He was an instructor at the Wooden Boat School for
Tools of the Trade has arranged with the companies in this test
to donate their tools to Habitat for Humanity.
This article is reprinted
courtesy of Tools of the Trade