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How to improve on a good sander

My upgrade to the Festool 150/3

For years I have been using two Makita BO5021 5 inch variable speed random orbital sanders. They are not the cheapest sanders available that have their specifications, but were highly recommended on the Internet. There operation is smooth - I have not had any of the problems that I hear about hands going numb after long sanding sessions. Standard dust collection was very good, but I replaced their dust bag with a connection to a Fein automatic vacuum, and dust collection became excellent.

One Makita stopped working altogether, and the other spun the disk like a grinder if it was lifted off the work... set it back down without first waiting for it to stop, and you get a gouge (it could still be used, but with care not to lift without stopping). Basically both were both worn out - they had served long and well, and deserved an honorable departure.

Lots of people really love the Festool sanders, and since I retired to full-time woodworking, I was willing to make the investment in a durable tool. If I went with Festool, I was going to have to get all new abrasives anyway, so this seemed like a good time to move up from 5 inch to 6 inches. The Rotex sounded like it would do everything, so I was ready to take the plunge. Back in the days before everybody sold Festool, Bob Marino, my Festool salesman, discussed my requirements and suggested that I consider the 150/3 (even though it was only $260 rather than $440 - thank you Bob). This made sense since I have an excellent jointer and planer, a drum sander, and don't make "sculpted" items like chair seats. In fact, the overwhelming majority of my wood sanding is at 150 grit... prep is done on the other machines, and finer sanding, if any, is generally done by hand. So here is a comparison of the new and old sanders:

  Makita BO 5021 K Festool ETS 150/3
Orbit Speed 4,000-12,000 opm 6,000 - 10,500 opm
Orbit size 1/8 inch ~ 3.2 mm 3 mm ~ 1/8 inch
Power 2 amps 2.6 amps
Abrasive Standard 8 hole 5 inch Proprietary 9 hole 6 inch
Weight 3.1 pounds 4 pounds
Handles/Operation One or two hand, better with removable front handle off. One or two hand.
Street Price $99.95 $260.00

Looks like a winner. Days later I got my 150/3 with a box of 150 grit "Rubin" (the recommended paper for bare wood) and a box of 400 grit "Brilliant" (for rubbing out finishes)

The big wood test

When the sander arrived, it felt good and operated well. It was easy to hook to my Fein vacuum, with the rubber adapter available from Fein. Sanding was pretty slow compared to the old sanders, but the ease of use and finish were great. I got a box of 100 grit Rubin at the local Woodcraft to see if that would speed things up. Not much.

The first big "test" after I got the sander was building four queen size cherry beds with torsion box foundations (ok, two queen size bunk beds). The 80+ inch side rail and 60+ inch end rails were 8 inch wide plywood with hardwood edges. I had trimmed the hardwood flush with the plywood using a lipping planer, so now had to sand out the "jointer" type marks on three sides of each of the 16 rails. I grabbed the Festool and put on a new sheet of 100 grit Rubin. After 2 rails the sandpaper was dead, so I got a new sheet and did 2 more rails before the second disk was dead. Disappointed, I went to the hospice and grabbed the dying Makita sander, and put on a new 150 grit disk. After 10 rails, sanded faster than the Festool, the Norton disk was dead (but the little 5 inch disk had lasted 5 times as long as the 6 inch Festool disk). I finished the job with the Makita.

The Makita sanders got a stay of execution. I took both sanders in to the Makita service shop to be refurbished for $45 apiece. They had earned their keep.

The big finish test

I normally rub out my lacquer (or acrylic lacquer) finish with a ROS. The 400 grit Festool Brilliant paper worked good for the first pass, but that is the finest paper that I can get from Festool. (The "Titan" Festool papers sound great, but they are stearated and cannot be used with water based finishes.) Therefore I got Mirka Abranet paper (or should it be called "screen"?) at 600 and 800 grit to continue the rub out. Great results! (I had used the Abranet with the Makita sanders, too.)

Just one problem. After months (not years) the hook and loop sanding pad on the Festool had lost it's hooks. The sanding disks quickly became a Frisbee. So $34.50 later, I had a new Festool sanding pad and was back in business. Talking to the Festool managers at AWFS, they explained that the Festool "stick-fix" pads aren't really velcro... the hooks are extra long, so apparently went all the way through the Abranet, rather than just holding it, and the hooks were being sanded off. And I had just stocked up on 6 inch Abranet (ugh).

The Festool Upgrade

If the hooks are being sanded off by the Abranet, then how can I do the fine finish sanding? I didn't want to go back to the 5 inch Makitas, and Festool doesn't have a suitable paper! Numerous emails with Jeff Jewitt of Homestead Finishing (and publishing fame) finally confirmed that the Mirka 906GV "Backup Pad" ($39.95) is a replacement for the 6 inch Festool pad used on the 150/3 and 150/5 sanders and the old model Rotex (but not the quick change pad on the new Rotex). It has dust collecting holes for Festool paper, Mirka (and other "standard" 6 inch paper), as well as around 50 smaller holes for more efficient dust collection with Abranet. (One of the key advantages of Abranet is the dust collection over the whole surface of the abrasive, through the many small holes.) In addition to the traditional pad, it includes a thin interface pad - hook on one side, loop on the other, that can be replaced more cheaply than doing the entire sanding pad (I have seen replacement interface pad prices from $5.79 to $14.99 each, a lot less than the cost of a complete pad). I bought my Mirka 906GV from Jeff Jewitt, and have also seen them at Woodcraft - stock number 147513 (but currently not on their web site), and I am sure they are available elsewhere as well.

Nobody can believe I am having performance problems with my Festool sander. While I was at AWFS in 2007, the Festool Regional managers finally took me to the sander demo area, put some Rubin 120 grit on a 150/3, scribbled on a board with a pencil, and watched while I sanded the scribbles off. It worked fine, and the managers smiled knowingly as I sanded away. But it sure took a long time to get rid of the pencil marks. Apparently I am used to a more aggressive paper.

Alternate sandpaper

When I ordered the new Festool pad, I also ordered some of the Festool Cristal discs. They are considered aggressive, and only goes as fine as 120 grit. But I have been pleased with the results, and am was still putting the first sheet of 120 grit back on the sander many weeks later. It lasts FAR longer than the Rubin paper, and gives the performance I expect. I wish it were available to 180 grit or finer.

Now that I have a pad that supports other paper, I got some Mirka Gold 150 grit. It has a what Jeff Jewitt calls a modified sterate - one that doesn't interfere with water-based finish. It works well, lasts a long time, and is relatively inexpensive. I will probably buy more of this type paper.

Klingspor's retail store now offers disks with the Festool proprietary hole pattern. A few years ago a friend gave me a disk of their sterated paper which, unlike the Mirka sterate, caused the traditional problems with water based finishes. At AWFS they said they would be adding non-sterated paper, and reportedly their newer PS33W sterated paper does not cause problems. What is PS33W? It is not listed in their catalogs nor on their web site, nor could those in the Klingspor store explain it. It is referenced on some of the finishing forums as a type of Klingspor sterate abrasive without finishing problems, and is one of the codes on the back of the Klingspor paper I have used without problems. Apparently the Klingspor sterate has been modified like the Mirka sterate.

Festool 150/3 vs Festool Rotex

As noted above, from the description, I thought the Rotex was the perfect solution, but was "talked down" to the 150/3. Then I had a big sanding job... a 42 inch wide solid wood tabletop! My glue-up was good but not perfect, and the widest wide-belt sander I could find locally was 36 inches. So I borrowed a 6 inch Rotex from a friend. That was interesting, but it didn't leave me craving a Rotex - it was heavy and harder to control, so I ended up doing most of the rough sanding with a cheap belt sander. I am very glad I got the 150/3 rather than the Rotex - the 150/3 is FAR nicer to use, and perfect for most of my sanding needs. If I started by sanding rough wood (rather than using my jointer/planer), or if my work included sculpted pieces (like contoured chair seats), then I would probably love the Rotex.

Summary

Some people have wondered why I don't like the Festool. Even Festool has offered to take it back, beyond the "no questions asked" return period. Wrong. I do like the Festool sander - a lot - especially now that I have more options for sandpaper. And I don't have a "thing" against the Festool brand. When my only router died in mid-project, I bought a Festool 1400 router (great unit, lots of neat features, top-of-the-line, except depth setting isn't nearly as good as my DeWalt). And if I didn't have a European sliding table saw, I would look seriously at the Festool Plunge Cut saw with guide rail for sheet goods. My shop is not a pure Festool shop, but they do make good products.

I do wish you could buy Festool machines without the $50-$60 systainer... these are good tools that I use regularly, so they stay "out" in my shop, not in pretty boxes on the shelf. The empty Systainers just take up storage room in a remote closet (but I am keeping them in case I sell the units later). And the heavy duty cord that comes with the router works with the sanders (and is cheaper than the light-duty cord, if either needs to be replaced). So, as you see, my complaints are really minor!