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Shop Talk - Bench Top Power Sanders for Pinewood Derby Car Building
By Randy Davis

If you build more than one pinewood derby car per year, then you will
already know that shaping a car without some type of power sander is a
real chore. Just eliminating the teeth marks left by the saw is a
chore, much less trying to create nice curves and contours.

I have used many different power sanders, so in this shop talk I'll
share the ins and outs of the various products that are available (and
affordable) for the home shop.

A Word of Caution
With any power tool, precautions must be taken to avoid personal
injury. Always wear eye protection, tie up long hair, remove hanging
jewelry and tuck in shirts. Always read and follow the manufacturer's
safety warnings. Finally, power sanders produce a lot of dust. So,
where possible use dust collection equipment, and always were a dust


The first power sander I used was a belt sander, turned upside down
and clamped to a work bench. Let me tell you, this was a big step
forward from hand sanding, as you can really take off a lot of wood,
and can readily make contours.

Figure 1 - Belt Sander

But please note that I do not endorse this method of using a belt
sander, as it is not intended to be used this way. This method of
sanding introduces several problems. First, the sander wants to take
the car body right out of your hand and throw it against the wall (or
automobile, or whatever is in the way). You really have to hang on to
the car body. The second issue is that if you do not apply even
pressure on the block, you can easily end up with a lopsided block.
Finally, especially with thin cars, the tips of your fingers are fair
game for abrasion, so a lot of care must be taken.

Home Depot List Price: $50 and up

A big step up from a belt sander is a Belt/Disc Sander. These come in
several varieties, one of which is the Ryobi model shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Ryobi Benchtop Belt Sander
(Source: Ryobi website)

The Belt/Disc Sander is a bench top tool (meaning it is screwed down
to a work bench), so clamps are not required. The belt sander part is
equipped with a stop, so that the car body is not easily taken out of
your hand. The disc sander part is nice for sanding the back end of
the car and for making round corners. Since the disc is square to the
supporting table, you can ensure that a right angle is formed when
using it.

Of course, like the belt sander, the belt/disc sander can still remove
finger tips, and when using the belt, poor technique will result in
uneven cars.

Home Depot List Price: $119

A specialty power sander that can be used is the narrow belt sander.
It is much less common as it is not as useful as the belt/disc sander
(however, there is a combination narrow belt/disc sander available).

Figure 3 - Central Machinery Narrow Belt Sander
(Source: Harbor Freight web site)

The narrow belt allows you to sand straight edges that are inset into
the car body, such as on our Arrow design (Figure 4). However the
edge of the belt can cut into the wood, so you need to continually
move the car body back and forth across the belt, and apply minimal

Harbor Freight List Price: $50

Figure 4 - Standard Wheelbase Arrow


Another type of sander that is handy for building pinewood derby cars
is the spindle sander. The spindle sander has sanding drums of
various diameters that are used to create concave curves. For example,
a spindle sander would be used to create the side on our Detonator
design (Figure 6).

Figure 5 - Delta Spindle Sander
(Source: Delta Tools web site)

Figure 6 - Standard Wheelbase Detonator

Spindle sanders oscillate, that is, the sanding drum moves up and down
to maximize the use of the drum and to increase the sanding action.
They also have some type of dust collection, so less dust piles up on
the support surface and hovers in the air.

Spindle sanders are special purpose (like the narrow belt sander), so
unless you make cars with convex curves, it will tend to just collect
dust. But when you have a need for it, the spindle sander is a

Sears List Price - $300
(A less expensive model is available at Harbor Freight)

I have a confession to make; I don't use any of the products listed
above anymore. Several years ago I ran across the Ridgid Oscillating
Edge/Belt Sander (Figure 7), and it is the only sander I now use.

Figure 7 - Ridgid Oscillating Edge/Belt Sander
(Source: Ridgid website)

The Ridgid sander is a home shop version of a floor mounted
oscillating belt sander used at most cabinet shops. Back in high
school, I worked at a cabinet shop, and used a commercial oscillating
belt sander every day. So when I found the Ridgid sander, I knew it
was a must for the shop.

The sanding belt (which is a standard size used on regular belt
sanders) oscillates up and down, maximizing the use of the belt and
increasing the sanding action. It is square to the work surface, so
you can ensure that the sides of your car are square to each other. A
stop is included to keep the car body from flying away. The stop can
be easily removed so that the large diameter drum (left side in the
photo) can be used for rounding inner curves.

But that is not all. If the drum is too large, the Ridgid sander
easily converts to a spindle sander (Figure 8). It comes with five
different drums, and the parts to make the drums fit properly.

Figure 8 - Conversion to a Spindle Sander
(Source: Ridgid website)

As with any belt sander, care must be taken to avoid abrading a
finger. Also, dust collection is a necessity. This sander produces
lots of dust, and if the dust is allowed to collect in the area under
the oscillating belt, it will eventually clog up the machine. The
sander is equipped with a dust collection port in the back, which can
be attached to a shop vacuum or to dust collection equipment. Make
sure to do so.

Home Depot List Price - $200

Although all of these sanders have their purpose, I believe the Ridgid
sander is the best choice for most pinewood derby projects. It
combines the best features of a belt/disc sander with the benefits of
a spindle sander.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 11, Issue 11

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