An Embarrassment of Sanders

We put more than 30 models to the test.

SHOP OWNER: Ellis Walentine
LOCATION: Springtown, PA

    Thirty random-orbit sanders?? Yikes! With that much abrasive power, who needs a planer?

    If you've followed our messageboards over the past month or so, you've probably learned that a few of us former AW editors are conducting a tool test of random-orbit sanders at my shop/studio in Pennsylvania. The results will appear in an article I'm writing for a (still) unnamed magazine later this summer. Here's a brief glimpse at the goods, the people and the process. It's a big responsibility and a lot of hard work, but the information we gain will be invaluable to woodworkers in the market for one of these tools.

    It all starts with planning and procurement. We try to answer questions like: Which models are most relevant to the readership of Magazine X? Of the umpteen variations available--with and without vacuum gadgets, optional pads, etc.--which ones will give us the most useful information? Once we've narrowed the field, our veteran product editor, Dave Sellers, logs a couple days of phone time just to order in the sanders we need. If we're lucky everything will arrive in time and intact. We also have to figure out how much sandpaper we'll need and solicit the abrasives manufacturers to supply paper for the test. That way, we'll be using the same abrasives for every sander.

Grinding away...     Next comes the setting of parameters. A careful perusal of the literature yields a lot of good--and sometimes conflicting--information about the tools: their specs, operating instructions, recommended uses and so on. We couple this information with our own first-hand knowledge of what matters to woodworkers, then we decide which specs and ratings we want to publish.

    Then, we get together and make dust--lots of it. The idea is for everyone involved in the evaluation process to get a good idea of how each sander feels and works. This gives us an idea of the range of performance and ergonomics across the board and allows us to set the ratings brackets. For example, once we decide which models are the best and worst, we can assign absolute ratings to those models, and scale the rest of the sanders to these benchmarks. That will give us an accurate representation of the relative and absolute qualities of all the tools; reduced to a "star" system, these become our published ratings. Often we'll compute overall ratings, too, taking all specs and performance criteria into account. We don't give up until we feel confident that we've accurately separated the best from the rest.

    Photography is next. Not only do we have to shoot each of the tools, we also have to single out interesting features to document. Armed with strobe lights and a medium-format camera, we set up a mini-studio right in the shop and spend a couple days arranging and shooting the tools.

    Then the real fun begins--assembling the article. It takes quite a bit of time and fact-checking to tell the story in a logical, useful and informative way. We write the text, compile the finished charts, thumbnail the article layout, edit and label all the photos, write captions, and draw final conclusions. When it's all together, off it goes to the editor for editing and layout. After a round or two of proofing, the article is ready for prime time...and we can start planning the next one.

    Hey, somebody has to do it!

...Ellis Walentine
CoHost, WoodCentral




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P.O. Box 493
Springtown, PA 18081