If you wandered by our home’s little boatworks and asked what our most used tool was, I’d probably have it in my hand. It’s a DeWalt 5″ random-orbit sander and because it is cordless, I may not even be in the shop when you find me using it.

We started sanding decades ago and have never stopped, first by hand with bits of folded sandpaper and then with a square-sheet orbital sander. Along the way, we discovered that random-orbit sanders leave fewer visible scratches on our wood and fiberglass projects. For many years afterward, we used a single-speed Sears Craftsman random-orbit sander with a cord, knowing that it would wear out within the one-year warranty, and we’d return it for an exchange. We started switching to cordless tools as they became available, and five years ago we added the DeWalt 20V XR Max brushless random-orbit sander to our arsenal.

The DeWalt has been a good fit, literally. When I first started using the sander, I felt it was a bit big in my medium-sized palm, but I don’t even notice the size now. I can use the sander with either hand, and switch frequently to avoid fatigue. The sander weighs 1.9 lbs—a good weight for applying the pressure to a horizontal work surface and yet light enough for working overhead. The battery or the dust port can be used as an alternate handhold, especially nice when just the right touch is needed on small or delicate workpieces. The sander stands 5.1″ tall, 7.1″ wide, and the kit came with a 3-amp-hour (Ah) battery. Sanding discs are the 5″-diameter hook-and-loop style.

Photographs by the author

For completely untethered use, the sander has a dust collection bag. The 3Ah battery is compact for working in tight spaces and its light weight keeps the sander balanced over the sanding disc.

With the 3Ah battery the DeWalt can sand for well over 20 minutes, which is plenty for my taste, and the larger 4Ah and 5Ah batteries offer extended sanding time beyond that. The 5Ah battery is a bit bulky, can tip the sander on edge, and limits access to some smaller spaces. The 20V XR Max brushless technology extends run time and provides excellent power. The sander speed can be adjusted from 8,000 rpm, for softwood or faring compounds, up to 12,000 rpm, for aggressive sanding on harder surfaces such as hardwoods or fiberglass. At the high rpm setting I can remove a lot of material in a short period of time. The sander does an excellent job of pulling dust into its dust bag through eight dust ports on the disc, or a shop vac can be connected with a DeWalt adapter.

With the duct-collection bag removed, the sander can be attached to a vacuum system. The 5Ah battery has a longer life for each charge than the 3Ah battery, though it adds weight and puts more pressure on the edge of the disc directly below it.

Cordless tools are an excellent fit in the boatyard, eliminating the electrical shock hazard, and the portability of the tool allows me to work in a variety of locations. I prefer sanding long workpieces and tight spots without having to manage a cord and have not found myself in want of a corded sander for the past five years. The textured rubber grip on top of the DeWalt provides a secure grip which minimizes vibration.

The DeWalt sander comes with a three-year limited warranty; we are more than two years past that, and it’s still sanding.

Kent Lewis and his wife Audrey have messed about in over 50 different vessels over the past 28 years, and most of them needed some kind of sanding. Their boating and sanding adventures may be found at their blog, Small Boat Restoration.

The 20V MAX XR 5″ Brushless Cordless Random-Orbit Sander with a 2.0Ah battery, charger, and carry bag is manufactured by Dewalt and is available from stores and online retailers for around $150.

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