The Evolution of the Sanding Machine

Photo courtesy of PALLMANN

By RJ Symalla

In 1991, at the young age of 25, I climbed into the passenger seat of my older brother’s panel work van. At the time, he had been running his own hardwood flooring business successfully for a couple of years. I recall the first time I looked in the back of the van and saw the wide range of tools that my brother had collected and naively wondered why it took so many to simply sand a floor.  

The largest, most expensive (and as I soon found out, heaviest) tool in the back of the van was the 12’’ split drum sander. As is the case with many who are new to the hardwood floor industry, my only interaction with the 12’’ split drum sander was to aid in its transportation from the van to the jobsite. My brother always said, “It’s too important of a machine to have you run it.” I was relinquished to hours upon hours of edging, spreading wood filler, scraping corners, vacuuming, and everything except running the mysterious heavy beast. 

Each day I would watch and listen as my brother ran the 12’’ sander, trying to learn the sanding techniques and patterns he followed. I was well-aware of the sandpaper that was used with it, as one of my main responsibilities was cutting and folding individual sheets of sandpaper from the large rolls.   

One day, my brother turned to me and said, “It’s your turn to run the big machine.” Excited at the opportunity to learn this machine, the first thing I realized was that there was a skill set needed just to put the paper on the drum. A little overhang on the upper flap, and tight tuck of the lower flap before tightening, as not to create a hard line in the paper that could be transferred to the floor. If the paper was too tight; it would break. If the paper was  too loose, it would explode when the machine turned on, usually causing a wardrobe change. 

Over time, my skill set improved both in the application of sandpaper and sanding technique. In retrospect, I am thankful that we were sanding mostly new installation of red oak strip flooring finished with a natural oil-modified polyurethane to hide the many “sins” of my newly acquired sanding skills. Over time, the standards, both real and perceived, of wood flooring projects made me realize that the drum machine was only going to be able to produce a certain quality of finished floor. 

When I shifted from the passenger seat to the driver seat and took over the company, we had grown from production homes with strip flooring to custom high-end homes with inlays, darker stains, and various sheen options in finishes. The investment in an 8’’ belt sander soon became necessary. While our production of sanding square footage per hour went down, our quality of finished product improved greatly. The lighter, smaller size of the belt sander put a lighter scratch pattern in the floor, which caused significantly less time spent after with the buffer. My standard protocol for floors was operating the belt machine at a slight angle with 50 grit, followed by an 80 grit straight cut, and finished with a 100 grit screen on a buffer prior to stain or sealer. This was my go-to method for more than 15 years. 

Five years ago, I moved out of the driver seat, out of the entire van, and went to work as a territory manager for Pallmann (a German sundry manufacturer company). Unlike my previous move from passenger to driver, this move was completely different. In my new role, I have the opportunity to look at multiple floors, multiple sanding techniques, and a wide variety of equipment for wood flooring jobsites. This opportunity has given me a new perspective on sanding floors and a new perspective on the type of equipment needed to meet today’s customer expectations.  

Traditional belt sander technology has not changed much since it was first introduced more than 50 years ago. Belt machines today contain more horsepower and improved engineering of parts. The belt sander is designed to run with the grain of the wood, which can leave large areas that need to be sanded with an edger, orbital sander, or by hand. The belt sander is the traditional choice and most-often-used machine on wood flooring projects today by contractors. Skilled craftsmen produce exceptional results using this technology with the added steps of very precise buffing and hand sanding.

Typically, in the trades, technology does not change often, but when it does, it is usually revolutionary. During the past several years, multi-head sanders and attachments for buffers have gained popularity. Their concept is not new, but is an adaptation of the usually handheld random orbital sanders now being placed on larger stand-up machines. The multi-head sanders aid contractors after using a drum or belt sander in finishing floors to meet the needs of today’s consumers. They generally are quicker, produce flatter results, and provide a more-consistent random scratch pattern than screens and hard plates. What the multi-head sanders lack, however, is the power to flatten a floor on the first pass. Enter the revolutionary change in the wood floor industry of planetary sanders. 

Planetary sanders are making big strides in the industry. They provide a large sanding surface, random scratch pattern, and now are equipped with the correct power to sand a floor flat on the first pass leaving no need to bring in the big machine. This type of technology allows users to sand very close to walls, kitchen islands, and confined areas regardless of the wood direction. This significantly reduces edging and hand sanding work on a jobsite. Large scratches and imperfections are not placed into the floor, also reducing overall sanding time. The advancement of sandpaper technology pushes planetary sanders further allowing them to be used start to finish on the most-challenging refinishes or new installs.    

We are entering a new era in the wood floor industry that will allow wood floor craftsmen to keep pace with the ever-changing demands of consumers, improve overall working conditions, and provide exceptional results every time. The revolution is here!       

RJ Symalla is a Territory Manager for PALLMANN, a manufacturer of subfloor preparation, adhesives, sanding, surface treatment, and floor care. He can be reached at rj.symalla@uzin-utz.com

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