Are Drum Sanders Worth It?

When it comes to wood working the topic of sanding and drum sanders is never far from the conversation. After all, the sanding process is the final step and the last chance a woodworker has to get it right before a finish is applied and any scratches that remain are now visible and exposed for all to see.

Are Drum Sanders Worth It?

Yes they are and there are several reasons why this is true.

  • They are accurate.
  • They can sand surfaces flat
  • They can handle end grain with ease
  • They can take many different grits
  • They can be operated by one person
  • They take up a small footprint.

That is the concise version of the answer from our perspective, however you might get something out of the expanded version below.

Drum sanders can be very accurate.

Vernier caplipers in use with woodwork.

In fact, it is not unusual to find a set of vernier calipers next to a drum sander; the same type that are used by metal lathe operators who have a set close by.

The ability for very fine adjustments with drum sanders seems overkill when you realize what a change in humidity can do to wood, but having the ability to be so accurate in the first place is pretty neat.

Personally, it seems crazy to pull out the verniers when sanding wood but I find myself reaching for them more often that not. When it comes to fine work drum sanders shine.

But…make no mistake, these machines cannot replace the planer for bulk wood removal and the speed and efficiency with which they do that.

Pro tip

Vernier calipers can be used, but remember that wood moves with humidity levels.

They can sand surfaces flat.

This can mean different things to some people. There is potential to use these machines as a planer of sorts but it is very easy to push too hard and actually cook the sandpaper.

The sandpaper is not cheap and overworking the fitted grit will be costly. Many of the newer machines have a feature that slows the speed of the feed belt if the load is too much and this saves some paper, but heat still remains if the operator is not cautious.

Several makes have what is termed an open end and this is describing the cantilever affect of the drum housing and how it seems suspended of the adjustment tower. What this does is it allows the operator to run wider panels through the machine than would otherwise be the case if there were no open end.

A wide panel can be run through then fed through again after reversing the panel. It effectively almost doubles the width of the panel that can be sanded.

For a small hobby shop these machines are great.

They can handle end grain with ease.

end grain cutting board being sanded

The drum sander has been the go-to tool of choice for the end grain cutting board builders because the machine just doesn’t care what way the grain is facing, it just sands.

This has allowed a lot of woodworkers to expand out into markets that were once the territory of the big business boys and now anyone with a small space and a few machines can compete on quality and price.

These machines are not fool proof but they certainly go a long way to helping an average woodworker become a better woodworker. When time is important, they really do shine and where end grain is concerned drum sanders are worth every dollar paid.

Pro tip

Drum sanders are a safer bet than planers when dealing with end grain.

They can take many different grits.

variety of sandpaper grits for the supermax drum sander

Drum sanders have the potential to sand wood panels and loose sticks up to 320 grit with comfort. They do work better when the grits are below 180 because the dust load can clog the finer grits quickly at times.

It is advisable to have a grit rubber handy to help clear the paper before it burns out from clogging and having said that, a good dust extraction unit is essential.

It’s not a like and it’s not a want, it is an absolute essential. The downsides of this, and yes that’s a plural, is the cost all adds up for a hobby, and the extra noise that these dust extraction units can create. But if you want the sandpaper to last for any reasonable amount of time then the dust extraction is really mandatory.

We have found the machine is most effective for removing bulk material with a 60 grit paper, and then we work through to 240 grit. We follow this with hand sanding with a random orbital and it works a treat.

Typing that has reminded me to emphasise the need to work your way up through the grits because for some reason the drum sander has a habit of making a 120 grit pass look like a 60 grit pass.

 The scratches left from each grit seem deeper than they should or would if you were sanding by hand. It probably has something to do with the pressure applied to the overhead drum as it’s spinning.

Pro tip

Drum sanders can be aggresive with leaving scratches. Change up your drum grits to save hand sanding later.

They can be operated by one person.

This is no small comment. In a small shop, space can be at a premium and filling it with machinery leaves little space for bodies when work needs to be done. It can be helpful if someone can be on the out table side when putting large panels through, but with general stuff a single person is easily able to cope with the speed of the feed rate.

Some makes have separate in and out-feed attachments that give some support if required but they do make the machine a larger piece of equipment than might be required otherwise.

They take up a small footprint.

When taking up any hobby, the space to do that hobby gets shared with other things that the typical family has going on. It could be a garage, a storage shed, or the spare bedroom. Woodworking is no different and could actually be one of the most space hungry hobbies you could start.

Each item that is to be made like new beds for the family, a new table for the family to share meals at or a new jewelry box for brownie points, the common thing with all of them is that specialist equipment is required to make these items and these pieces of equipment do take up space. So for the average woodworker who is looking to add a drum sander to the machinery collection, the question does come up.

Supermax drum sander

Are drum sanders worth it?

Absolutely YES.

If you could work out how to value woodworking machinery based on productivity per square inch of shop space, the drum sander would be up there with the best tools.

I have been around woodworking in some shape or form for nearly 30 years and have yet to find a single wood worker who does not appreciate the drum sander once one has made it’s way into the collection of tools and machinery.

They are great machines for what they do and the way they do it with such a small footprint. If you put wheels under it you can move it around to where you can get enough space to feed and catch the items you are sanding.

There are downsides here though and as I mentioned above they are the cost of the dust extraction unit and the noise that comes with a typical unit. For sure, some vacuum systems are quieter than others but that might be for another article.

If looking at puchasing a drum sander it could be time to upgrade the dust handling system as you go. Several choices stand out with one being loose flex lines and a wheel-around dust extractor, or another being fixed vacuum pipe throughout your shop with short flex hose at each machine.

So to finish up, if you have found this article looking for information on the benefits and downsides of drum sanders before you take the leap and go and buy one, I sincerely hope you found something in this article that can help you with your decision.

Hobbies can get expensive, but the rewards for all the family are huge when it comes to woodworking as a hobby.

Just for the record, a Supermax 19-38 sits in the workshop here, and it ain’t going anywhere. I’d be lost without it. If you are in the market for a sander and wonder what grit to start with, check this article out. What Is The Best Grit For Drum Sanders.

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