Next Generation Sanding
Up until just five years ago, painters had little choice but to use power sanders and abrasives that were designed primarily for raw wood sanding or general heavy layer disruption. Dust control was at best an afterthought and at worst, a joke. We had ineffective power tool options and did too much hand sanding.
Our industry now recognizes that painters have entirely different sanding needs than the rest of the world. We work in grits anywhere from 40-400 on a regular (often daily) basis, while we encourage our carpentry colleagues to stop at around 100 upon installation.
Better options for painters began to surface in 2011, when Festool rolled out a highly organized and integrated mobile prep system to connect sander and abrasive with a dust extractor (vacuum) all specifically designed to perform efficiently together in surface prep. They had 14 sanders of proven German heritage at the time.
At the same time, there was the emergence of a HEPA standard for painters, making lead paint (RRP) work safer in terms of both health and reduced risk of debilitating EPA non-compliance fines.
Paint contractors who have these types of tool needs are always on the lookout for what will come next.
What’s next is a new generation of Festool brushless sanders that have been bringing in lots of questions through the Prep to Finish “Technology in Painting” classes we’ve taught around the country recently for PDCA and JLC Live.
This piece puts answers to the most common training questions all in one place.
What’s New Now
Festool brushless sanders are a new line of random orbitals that are lighter and more powerful than the previous (and popular) ETS line.
Traditional power sanders have carbon brushes in their motors that are a primary source of friction and heat during extended use. Heat is not good for sanders, abrasives or surfaces being sanded.
The evolution from brushed to brushless motor technology is all about increasing the durability and lifespan of the tool, the fortunate byproduct being a complete redesign to a more compact performer.
In the Fall of 2015, Festool rolled out three new brushless sanders, adding to their random orbital ETS line. The new sanders are called ETS-EC sanders, and they are powered with Festool’s EC-TEC motor electronics, which were engineered and tested in their cordless drills and jigsaws prior to appearing in the new corded sanders. The concept is a wear free experience for the motor, because the sanders have onboard electronic sensors that constantly assess the amount of output or rpm required for the task at hand.
The new ETS-EC sanders come in three versions. There is a 5″ sander with a 3mm pad stroke, and there are two 6″ models – available in either a 3mm or 5mm stroke.
Our preview of the 5″ ETS-EC 125 sander was published in September of 2015, feel free to read that as well.
A Look at the 6″ Festool Brushless Sanders
For the most part, when we as painters opt for a 6″ sanding tool, it is because we are looking for efficiency on larger surfaces.
While technically a 6″ sander is only one inch bigger than a 5″, the number of passes we can eliminate on wider stock has a cumulative effect over time.
Serious tool decisions on higher priced models are based on the efficiency (profit) the tool delivers when used correctly. Efficiency often shows in the form of better handling and more compact designs. Fortunately, Festool allows 30 days for users to figure out if it works for their needs.
The question is often: How is the tool to work with for extended periods when you are focused on a priced task?
Tasks are priced in both time and money. Quality is a constant.
Handling: The ETS-EC sanders are in the style of european pneumatic (or air powered) automotive sanders. The handling gain over conventional random orbitals is that the brushless sanders are lighter, more compact and powerful.
Dust Extraction: The new design breathes better with improved ability to remove dust particles from the surface being sanded. This makes the entire range of grit sanding easier, with less vibration and fatigue. Most importantly, you can get to a quality result faster and cleaner.
Painters sand new and old painted surfaces all the time, and no trade needs the absence of dust as much as we do. When efficiency and quality finish can come together, we have to explore and harness that. Profit is the measure of how any prep or finishing system pays for itself over time.
Weight: At 2.6 lbs, these sanders are lighter than their ETS predecessors which were a taller and bulkier 4 lbs. By way of power, the new class runs at 400 watts and 3.3 amps, compared to 310 watts and 2.6 amps in the previous ETS line.
Festool brushless sanders are 22% lighter with 35% more power than their previous generation counterparts.
Market Check: For a quick 6″ comparison outside of the Festool sander family, a similar technology is the Mirka Deros, which peaks at 350 watts and is priced at $595 – that is, $110 more than the 6″ Festool brushless sanders.
Smart Enough to Avoid Trouble
“Trouble” in sanding usually means things like irregular surfaces, poor grit choice, uneven pressure by the user, or over-setting the extraction rate, for example. In these situations, less sophisticated sanders can vibrate, tip, become jumpy or suck to the surface.
The taller the tool when trouble happens, the more turbulence transfers to the hand of the user, who then tries to correct. In this moment, tool and user are no longer working together and the results show in the piece being sanded.
The lower profile design of the Festool brushless sanders puts the user closer to the surface being sanded, so feedback from the sander is instant. More importantly, the tool is likely to restore balance before the user needs to.
The electronics in the EC-TEC sanders sense vibration and automatically adjust speed to “dampen” the sense of turbulence at the surface, making for not only a better user experience, but a more efficient path to a smooth, quality result.
With the tool electronically detecting imbalance and irregularity, the sanding experience is more objective for the user – less guessing about what is happening between the surface and the tool, reducing the need for on surface correction.
Another new feature of the EC-TEC sanders is the addition of a dust extraction sensor which allows the sander to be programmed to only run when attached to a dust extractor. A good way for the tools to help paint contractors train themselves and their crews for safer and cleaner habits, while maximizing the tool investment.
Additionally, there is a pad break. You stop the sander, the sander stops. Every second counts.
Differences between the 6″ ETS-EC models
Here’s a case where two similarly styled sanders can be very different in their attitudes. They are both 6″ with similar specifications, with the notable exception of their pad stroke size.
ETS-EC 150 3mm Stroke: For wide (5 1/2″+) surface sanding to high grits (180-400+), this is a highly qualified option. Where the 3mm will shine is in flat work, vertical and overhead high grit sanding to prep for cabinet grade finishing. It’ll do it all day with excellent extraction and abrasive life.
The 3mm will go up as high as you want in grit for both paint and clear grade initial and in between coat prep sands. Also, it is good at sanding small scale drywall skims and patches on walls and ceilings because of its size, gentle nature, and dust extraction.
Not really powerful enough to jump in as a low grit material removal tool. While it could do that, it would be slower than what painters want in a 6″ sander for heavy removal of layers.
ETS-EC 150 5mm Stroke: Mid to upper grit sander that is also capable at the bottom and top ends of the grit stepping range. In other words, it’s wheelhouse will be on interior or exterior paint grade sanding where the prep range is 100-220 grit.
The 5mm will work competently at 80 grit on more stubborn “smooth- out” situations. It’ll also step up to 320 grit for a solid cabinet grade sand in a pinch.
For painters, the 5mm may be the more versatile option because it is easier to get finer work out of a 5mm stroke sander than to coerce a 3mm into being more aggressive. The 3mm isn’t powerful enough to step in as a low grit material removal tool. It is great at what its great at.
The 5mm is more likely to be used on a wider variety of general painting tasks, both interior and exterior, and is more suited to stretching outside of its wheelhouse.
The 3mm is a fine finishing prep specialist, while the 5mm is a highly efficient and versatile generalist.
6″ random orbitals may not be the first sander that most painters grab on a daily basis, but they do boost production on wider surface tasks. So it is important to be educated about all of the options and how smart engineering and design deliver a high level user experience, measurable in efficiency and quality.