Smoothing With Electric Tools

If you choose electric tools you need two pieces of equipment: a belt sander and a finish sander. The choice of a belt sander is pretty wide open. (We use a Sears model.) But the finish sander is a more difficult choice. I would recommend a Rockwell Sjied Bloc Orbital Sander. It's expensive (about $75) and built for commercial use. But it's well worth the price — especially on a project like a table top.

If the table top is very rough you may want to rough plane it before starting with the belt sander. I've found that one of the best tools for smoothing larger surfaces is a Wagner Safe-T-Planer.

The Safe-T-Planer was discussed in Woodsmith Number Ten, Tools of the Trade. When this planer is mounted on a radial arm saw, it will do an excellent job of taking off the high spots on a large flat surface like a table top.

The belt sander is used next. Though the purpose of a belt sander is to take off wood, its not the motor that does the work. It's the grit on the belt. Your hand is not used to press down on the sander (that just makes the motor overheat). It's just there to guide the belt in the right direction.

What grit do you start with?

I would recommend an 80-grit belt. Coarser grits would remove more wood, but they would create large scratches in the wood. An 80-grit belt takes more time (and you'll have to change the belts more often) but you're less likely to run into serious trouble.

At first, hold the sander at a slight angle to the grain of the wood, about 30°. If you hold the sander at 90° to the grain (across the width), it will take off more wood, faster, but you may wind up with large ripples or waves on the surface. Holding it at about 30° takes off enough wood with less chance of causing ripples.

Hold the sander lightly, and keep it moving. The biggest danger is pushing the sander so it tips up on one edge and gouges out a deep scratch.

After the top is leveled, turn the sander to move with the grain, again with an 80-grit belt. Move it up and back, from one edge to the other (as if you were ironing). Stop every so often and check the surface with a long ruler or framing square. If there are any high spots I mark them with an "X" and slow the movement of the sander over these areas to take off more wood.

When you've got the table top flat, change to a 100-grit or a 120-grit belt to sand out the marks left by the coarser grit. Finally, use the Rockwell Sped Bloc to sand out all scratches left by the belt sander. I use 100-grit Garnet paper for the operation. If the Sped Bloc has left any swirl marks (it probably will) use a hand sanding black with 120-grit Garnet paper to get them out.

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