My main drum sander is a simple shop-made affair: a plywood box containing a salvaged motor fitted with a chuck to hold a 3″ sanding drum. With a 60-grit sanding sleeve on the drum, it’s a real workhorse when it comes to smoothing curves, but I don’t use it for finish work. Sleeves with finer grits are available, but they’re $4 apiece, hard to get on and off the rubber drum, and too stiff to smooth radiused edges. For finer work, I’ve been using sleeveless sanding drums. They are built around rigid foam cylinders and hold strips of common sandpaper. The exterior of the cylinder is padded with a layer of 1/8″ neoprene, and one end of the cylinder is fitted with a cast-aluminum flange and a steel axle. The ends of the sandpaper strip are tucked into a slot in the drum and led to a long, round hole where a length of steel oval tubing rotates to secure them. A lever is inserted into the tubing to rotate it, but a straight-bladed screwdriver will do the job just as well when that little lever included with the drum goes astray.
The literature describes the drum’s core as foam, but it is quite hard and very durable. I’ve had my 2″ drum for close to 30 years and it is still going strong. The system for holding the sandpaper was getting a bit loose, but a wrap of making tape around the oval tube cured that. I recently bought a 3″ drum; it appears to be made of the same materials, and I expect it will hold up just as well.
I made a plywood jig to tear 3″-wide strips of sandpaper to fit the drums. It has an alignment fence along one edge and a hacksaw blade at a right angle and loosely anchored with two screws.The toothed side of the blade does the tearing. I’ve made markings on the plywood indicate where I need to align the paper to tear off the strip I need.
The sheet sandpaper isn’t as durable as sanding sleeves and requires a lighter touch, but the flexibility of the paper and the cushioning of the rubber behind it allow the sandpaper to mold to the contours of the workpiece. I can sand rounded edges without making unsightly, unwanted facets. I spin the drums on my drill press when working small pieces; when I need to bring the drum to the work—e.g., for smoothing oar blades and stem heads, or sanding frame ends sandwiched between inwales and outwales—I chuck the 2″ sanding drum into an electric drill.
It is important to secure the sandpaper tightly on the drum. If it is loose, it will begin to pucker, the puckers will turn to creases, and eventually those will wear through. The damage occurs on the trailing end of the sandpaper, so even when it begins to wear out and tear, the drum will still pull it and do useful work. I can get a couple of strips for the drums out of a single sheet of sandpaper, so the cost is pennies per strip, far cheaper than the cost of sanding sleeves.
My oldest sleeveless sanding drum has been among the most-used and longest-lasting tools in my shop and does finish sanding on many projects much faster than I can do by hand.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats Monthly.
Sleeveless sanding drums are available in a number of sizes from several sources. I bought my 3″ x 3″ drum from Lee Valley for $23.50 plus shipping.
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