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 Quality
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 respect.
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 collection.
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 hold.
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 line.
Chris Kulczycki is a boat builder and writer in West River, Md. He was an instructor at the Wooden Boat School for 10 years.
Tools of the Trade has arranged with the companies in this test to donate their tools to Habitat for Humanity.