A Tale of Two Sanders

It was the best of finishes, it was the worst of finishes, it was the age of exorbitance, it was the age of thrift, it was the epoch of German engineering, it was the epoch of Chinese manufacturing, it was the season of pleasure, it was the season of pain, it was the spring of jet dust extraction, it was the winter of clogged abrasive, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to woodworking Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the machines were so far apart, that some of the noisiest proponents of one insisted on it being placed on a pedestal, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I was in the shed one day, using the same random orbital sander (ROS) that I have for a few years – an $80 Triton, and my hands were really hurting from the vibration.  Irrespective of the risk on ongoing health problems from exposure to vibration (HAVS being a rather undesirable effect), what’s the point of trying to enjoy woodworking, when a tool is causing such a distraction?  So without even realising that it was on the cards when I headed down to the shed that day, at that point I decided that tool was being retired, immediately, and a replacement ROS was to be sought.

Triton ROS

Despite the range of brands available out there, I had no question which brand I was going to go with after having experienced them first hand at the Ideal Tools workshop.  Despite the premium price tag, I was going Festool.  The machines operate so smoothly, you almost don’t have to hold them, guiding them around the surface with a finger.  The only question I had was which model to choose.

I specifically wanted a random orbital sander, so I quickly narrowed my choices down to either the Rotex, or one of the two eccentric (ETS) sanders – the 150/3 or the 150/5.  That is where I started to run into a decision-making problem.  Just which one was the most suitable for my requirements?  It wasn’t like I could eliminate any on quality.  Price could have some bearing – the Rotex is quite a bit more than the ETS sanders, but then it is more versatile than the other two.  People who own one really swear by it, and that is very inspiring.

I was rather fortunate that I was given access to all three sanders to compare by Ideal Tools, which meant I was able to make a decision with full confidence, rather than choosing and hoping based on what I read on the net, or in the marketing materials.

Festool Rotex 150

The Rotex is called a 3 in 1 sander – being switchable between orbital and random orbital settings.  Orbital being used for bulk material removal, and random orbital for finishing, with the circular and elliptical motions simultaneously meaning that there is no swirl marks produced.  The 3rd action is polishing, but that I gather is more of a use of the tool – there is no specific setting unique to the tool for this.

Festool RAS115 "Termite"

I have the Festool termite (RAS 115), so bulk material removal is not something I have to struggle with, so I was particularly interested in its ROS use.  Handling it is rather different to other ROS, in that the centre of balance isn’t directly above the sanding pad, so operation has to be two-handed.  This isn’t as unusual to me than for some, because for a few years I was using the original Triton ROS sanding attachment which fits to an angle grinder.  I know how well regarded the machine is, so was really looking forward to trying it out for myself.

Triton ROS Attachment

After giving the unit a good run in both modes, I was still trying to ‘get’ why it is so popular with its enthusiastic supporters. That is probably going to be quite a bone-of-contention, but I didn’t.  “Get it” that is.  Controversially, I found it not unlike the Triton ROS fitted to an angle grinder, with the obvious upgrades – multi jetstream, variable speed.  On the other hand, the Festool Termite has a similar layout, and like my angle grinder is much easier to hold.  I found the body of the Rotex too bulky for me to feel like I had good control over the tool.  Bit surprised by my reaction, particularly given the feedback I’ve heard about the tool, but this isn’t a criticism of the Rotex, or its supporters – it just wasn’t for me.

So now I’ve turned to the ETS models, and other than the number 3 or 5 on top, they are indistinguishable.  The numbers represent the degree of eccentricity – either 3mm or 5mm.

Festool ETS 150/x

Both units are very well balanced – you can hold the handle, or just push the unit around the surface with a finger!  They are variable speed, and have the multi-jetstream dust clearing technology (which is both an air supply and removal system across the surface of the pad that clears away dust that has been created, and in doing so prevents dust buildup that results in heat buildup, and clogging of the abrasive.)  You don’t have to use abrasives that have the multi-jetstream holes, but obviously you loose the advantage of the system while you do.

In the end there was no question that it would be an ETS that I would buy, the final question would be which model.  The 150/3 is for very fine finishing, the 150/5 less so (by all of 2mm), and is slightly more versatile.  That is something I needed (when I was only going to end up with one of these), and I also found I appreciated the sanding action of the 150/5 more – the 150/3 just didn’t feel like it was doing enough (it being a fine finishing sander only) for my purposes. And still it has variable speed, and I can work right through the different grades of abrasive – up to 2500 if I choose.  (And I did take note of all the comments made when I first raised the question back around Nov last year!)

So that is what I went for in the end – the Festool ETS 150/5.  The brand new unit arrived recently, and I haven’t actually gotten it dusty yet – there is plenty of time.  I also got the Systainer for the sander, as well as a second one with the abrasives insert to keep all the different abrasive pads organised,

Abrasives Systainer

and a rollboard which goes under my slowly increasing pile of systainers to make it easier to move them around the workshop (until I find a more permanent location for them).

Festool Systainer Rollboard

All these were sourced from Ideal Tools, and thanks to Anthony for the opportunity to give the various models a workout before I made a final decision. (Oh, and when I bought it, the deal at the time (still current) was for a Festool Cooler Bag and set of BBQ utensils – quite handy for a Stu’s Shed BBQ!)

Festool Cooler Bag & BBQ Set

As to what happened to the old Triton ROS?  Dickens to it 🙂

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