Steel vs Rubber Drums on Wide Belt Sanders

Robert Philips

When purchasing a sander, one of the main questions to ask is what drum (or drums) should I use? Understanding the application process and what materials you are using is crucial to determining whether you should use steel, rubber, or both. Selecting the right drum can save you time, frustration, and most importantly: money.

Steel Drums are great when you want to be aggressive with material and working with hardwoods. It is important to note that steel drums are not planer sanders. However, when compared to a rubber drum, the steel drum will allow for significant stock removal. Adjusting feed speed will determine how much stock removal you will take off on each pass.  One of the benefits of using a steel drum is that it is harder to indent or deform compared to a softer rubber drum.

Steel Drum:

  • Steel drum grits are often on the lower end for coarser stock removal, starting at 24-36-40 for Heavy stock removal. For intermediate stock removal, you can use a steel drum with grits 50- 60-80 -100. Anything with a higher grit finish is intended for light stock removal 120-150-180-220 and will use rubber belts with a soft durometer.


An example of using a steel contact drum in combination with rubber drums would be for creating butcher blocks that use hardwoods such as Maple or Hickory. Starting at a coarse grain of 60 on the first contact head and using a second steel drum or a hard durometer rubber contact drum at 100 grit followed by a final rubber drum with combination platen at 120 grit would be an ideal setting. The harder steel is for heavy and intermediate stock removal followed by a smooth finish with the rubber drum. Starting with a rubber drum for this type of application will wear away the rubber drum quickly, tax the sander and cause a lot of frustration with insufficient results.

When to replace or dress your steel drum?

Steel drums need replacing or dressing depending on the severity of grooves or pits warn into the drum. You will know when it is time to replace based on the marks left on your material compared to the marks on your drum. You will be able to see the pitting or deformity on your material, and a good service technician will be able to tell you whether you will need to redress the drum or ultimately replace it.

To understand where your stock removal needs are in correlation with steel or rubber drums one must look at Durometers/shores: Typically, rubber contact drums fall within the durometer range of 35-95 shore. Durometer/shores are important when running applications, your material can be affected by the softness or hardness of rubber. You can select a proper shore when you know the hardness of the material you are running and what results you want.  Knowing what questions to ask your wide belt sander expert and getting detailed responses will help you maximize your results.

A rubber drum with varying durometers will provide a lot of options for your sanding needs. The harder the rubber the more stock removal you can take 75-90 durometer on the first head

Rubber drum:

  • Are a perfect application when you want to go light and remove material. This is the best option for finesse applications. The softness of the rubber will allow you to “kiss” the material and have a delicate touch to your removal. Proper selection of a contact rubber drum with the correct durometer for your application will ensure efficient and cost-saving results.




Why replace a rubber drum?

Over time the heat and friction from sanding will affect your rubber, which will start to become hard and cracked, affecting the finished material. You also must keep a keen eye out for gouges and resin or glues that build up and are left on the rubber. Occasional maintenance will generate the best results to keep your contact drums working for a long time. Using air to blow off contact drums, inspecting and removing debris that may get stuck on drums, and keeping an eye out for any gouges within the drum will allow for efficient and consistent results.


It is not unusual to use both steel and rubber drums on a sander, steel is typically on the first contact to do the heavy leg work and aggressively remove stock followed by one to three rubber contact drums to really dial in the precision. Start with what results you are looking to achieve, grit sequencing, durometer for rubber drums and how that will impact material. Asking these three questions will lead to what drums you should be using. This will save you a lot of money and headaches in the future. You will be well on your way to fantastic results with confidence in your set-up.



Robert Philips is a project manager specializing in sanders at Akhurst Machinery and Cantek. He has been repeatedly recognized as an expert in his field and for his impact in the Wood Industry.

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