Anyone who uses a corded belt sander knows one of its major pitfalls: the power cord, which seems to get either hung up or stepped on while you are sanding, resulting in a gouged work surface. I’ve even managed to ruin a couple of cords by sanding over them. That’s why I was excited to try out Metabo HPT’s 36V MultiVolt (model SB3608DAQ4) and DeWalt’s 20V Max XR (model DCW220B) 3-inch-by-21-inch cordless belt sanders. We often use belt sanders on our jobsites for tasks such as sanding cabinets and door edges, flattening joints in large glue-ups, and even rough-sanding floors on remodels. All of these jobs would be easier without the power cord if the battery life and power of cordless sanders could deliver results close to corded models, in the same way that cordless multi-tools, random orbit sanders, and trim routers now perform just as well as their corded counterparts.
Over the past few months, my team and I used these new Metabo HPT and DeWalt sanders on several projects to see how they compared to my corded models. Power is important, of course, but I also wanted to test dust collection, belt tracking, and the weight and balance of the tools.
Dust collection. I don’t expect 100% dust collection from a belt sander, but I don’t want the sander to throw a cloud of dust in the air or leave a pile of sawdust on the sanded surface. Both sanders have swiveling ports that allow them to be hooked up to a vacuum (the DeWalt also has a wireless tool control to trigger the vac), and this approach worked well for capturing sawdust on both machines. For me, though, the vacuum hose is often more trouble than a cord, and I was pleased to find that the dust bags that come with both sanders worked almost as effectively as a vacuum system at controlling sawdust.
Belt tracking. Tracking means that the belt stays centered without adjustments no matter what is being sanded. We put this feature to the test on a 5-by-8-foot walnut butcher-block countertop that we had glued up and needed to sand the edges and ends of to get rid of saw kerfs and clamp marks. Any time you sand something less than the width of the belt (the slab measured about 2 inches thick), it can make the belt wander and tear up the belt edge. I used both sanders for this task, pushing hard on the walnut edges, and experienced no tracking problems at all.
Balance. The walnut butcher-block top was way too wide to run through my planer in one piece, so I had to build it in three sections and glue and clamp them together. That left me with two 8-foot-long joints to sand on a very expensive project. A well-balanced sander is the fastest way to evenly remove material for a task like this, but poor balance can ruin a project by leaving grooves (we call it digging a hole) that show up when the painter or finisher starts to work.
To sand these long joints, I start by flattening the joint with the belt sander held at an angle, then go back and remove the cross-grain scratches by sanding parallel with the joint. As I do this, I feather out 4 to 5 inches from the joint on both sides, which leaves very little sawdust on the surface. In my testing, both machines did a good job of smoothing out the joints enough that they needed only a few quick passes with a random orbit sander afterward.
Both sanders proved to be well-balanced, and while the weight of the sanders (due to their batteries) was a little challenging for edge sanding, the extra weight was actually helpful for a job like this countertop. I would rather deal with the weight than a cord, and it was especially nice not having to worry about running over a power cord when working with this expensive material.
Power. One of the most demanding tasks we worked on with these two tools was sanding high spots out of a floor on a remodel job. I outfitted both sanders with new, 50-grit belts and started my guys sanding with fully charged batteries. I equipped the DeWalt with the company’s Flexvolt 20V/60V Max 9.0-Ah battery, and the Metabo HPT with an 18-volt 8.0-Ah LiHD battery, and asked my crew to keep track of how long they could sand using heavy pressure on the sanders to remove maximum material. This wasn’t a perfect test, as they had to stop to check their work with a straightedge occasionally, but they found that both sanders would run at full power for 15 to 20 minutes of heavy sanding on a battery charge, not quite enough time for a spare battery to totally charge up. The dust bags on both units filled up without leaving excessive dust on the floor.
I also used the sanders on several small cabinet projects, sanding face frames and end panels. For this type of work, the power and battery runtime were more than adequate, and I had no problem sanding smooth and flat, with no tracking problems.
Overall, I was pleased with both belt sanders. For all but the most intense sanding operations, the battery life was fine, and these cordless models sanded just as well as my corded ones. If I had to choose one, it would be the DeWalt, which seemed to sand a little faster, but it probably is going to come down to which battery platform you are using already. With either sander, you could safely put your older belt sander on the shelf and stop hassling with the cord.
Jobsite photos by Gary Striegler; product photos courtesy the manufacturers.