Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tool Review: Firestorm 5" Random Orbit Sander

Occasionally I will write a review of a tool I have used. In no way do I pretend to be a professional, as this blog should show, but I also have found some of the most helpful reviews to be by "average joes" like me. All the tools I will review should be within the budget for most homeowners and weekend warriors.

There are several different types of hand power sanders available on the market today. Here is a quick summary of the types of hand sanders and what they are used for:

  • Detail: These are used to sand in tight areas, such as corners or oddly shaped pieces of wood like carvings or detailed furniture.
  • Palm: These sanders come in two basic shapes, the square and the pointed. Their purpose is very similar to the Detail Sander except they are a little bigger and can sand more wood faster. They typically use either a 1/4 sheet or 1/3 sheet of sand paper that can be attached either by hook and loop or adhesive backing. When using a palm sander, it is important to go with the grain of the wood to avoid leaving marks.
  • Random Orbit: These sanders use circular pads that usually attached to the tool by a hook and loop system. The sander rotates the pad in a circular fashion, but also adds a second random motion to the pad. This special random orbit motion allows the user to sand wood in any direction without leaving sanding scars. Random orbit sanders require special sanding discs that have a ring of holes in them for dust collection. When installing a sanding disc, it is important to line the holes in the disc up with the holes in the sander's pad. This type of sander is very versatile and should not be overlooked.
  • Belt: These sanders use a belt of sand paper stretched between two rollers. They remove wood very quickly and are great for rough sanding. Their straight sanding path limits their use to sanding with the grain of the wood only, and their large and flat sanding footprint restricts their use to large pieces of flat wood.
The Firestorm (Black & Decker) 5" Random Orbit Sander, like all random orbit sanders, is a very versatile sanding tool. It is small enough to do a lot of detail sanding, yet powerful enough to remove wood quickly for fast rough sanding. Sanding discs are readily available in hardware stores and, when purchased in bulk, are quite inexpensive. Although you can find discs in just about any grit, the most common I have seen have been 40, 80, and 120.

What I really like about random orbit sanders is that you can lead them across the surface of the piece of wood in any direction you want to. I find that it makes keeping an even coverage of the work area easier which results in fewer sanding "hills and valleys" in the wood.

If you need to get into tight corners, random orbit sanders will not be of much use due to their circular shape. Also, if you need to remove a lot of wood very quickly a belt sander will probably be of greater use. However, if your budget only allows to have one sander, I would recommend a random orbit sander above any other.

So How Good is the Firestorm 5" Random Orbit Sander?

Priced at around $35, the Firestorm sander is very inexpensive. But, like the Skilsaw I reviewed earlier, this is one inexpensive tool that is not a cheap tool. The Firestorm has a motor that has plenty of power for any sanding job. Built into the sander is a brake that will stop the sanding disc too much pressure is applied. This brake features is nice because it helps prevent damage to the tool, the wood, and it reminds the user to let the tool do the work.

The Firestorm sander has a jug style handle, a palm sized top, and a comfortable neck. Having three convenient and ergonomic places to hold onto the tool is an extremely welcome feature. It ensures that no matter what position you may be in relation to the sander, you will still be able to comfortably control the tool.

Included with this sander is a small dust collection bag. By directing some of the sanding dust into the bag, the Firestorm helps keep the work environment a little bit cleaner, which is especially helpful when working in the house. It would have been nice if the dust collection was a standard size to attach to a shop vacuum or shop dust collection system, but you may be able to find an adapter to do just that.

A couple of other things I like about the Firestorm are the 12' long power cord and the sealed on/off switch.

I have really liked using this sander with one caveat: it seems as if the pad which the sanding discs attach has become less capable of getting a tight hold on the paper. On more than one occasion I have had a sanding disc fly off the pad. The hook and loop system is very similar to Velcro, and the pad on the sander would get clogged with remnants from old sanding discs. After cleaning the pad by gently running a soft wire brush through it, I was able to get the discs to stick a little bit better. I am not sure if this is an issue with the sander or the sanding discs I have been using.

What I Like

  1. Price
  2. Three comfortable places to grip the tool
  3. Ample sanding power
  4. Sealed on/off switch

What I Dislike
  1. Non-standard dust collection port
  2. Sanding discs do not stay attached very well

I would have nothing negative to say if I had not had problems keeping the sanding discs attached to the sander. I am still not sure if this is a flaw with the sander or the discs but I am leaning towards the discs I am using. Over all, this has been a valuable tool with a lot of nice features and a frugal price tag.

This Model's Rating
I like everything about this sander except the hook and loop pad. If I could find a replacement pad, I would have nothing negative to say about the Firestorm 5" Random Orbit Sander. I would still recommend this model to anybody who needs a decent sander that won't burn a hole in the wallet.

This Power Tool's Rating
Random Orbit sanders should be in every homeowner's tool closet and every woodworkers tool chest. It was the only power sander I had for a year that saw many projects and I simply cannot imagine not having one at hand. I recommend this type of tool to any DIYer who works with wood.

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