A vacuum sander, sometimes called a dustless sander, is a type of power sander that is fitted with a vacuum hose. The sanding head has small holes that collect dust, debris and paint chips while you sand, keeping them out of the air and off the ground. Vacuum sanders are most often used in drywall applications and auto body shops, both of which create copious amounts of dust that can create breathing problems and other health problems if exposure is prolonged. You can choose a vacuum sander in small inexpensive versions for the home hobbyist, or a powerful central vacuum system for large commercial operations.
Vacuum sanders fall into two broad categories: portable and central. Portable units are available at most large hardware stores and lumber supply stores. They consist of the sanding surface, which is typically circular but can be straight-line as well. The sander is attached to a vacuum hose, which then attaches to a standard wet/dry shop vac. The dust is pulled into the hose and filtered either through a bucket of water, or through a special filter bag designed to catch fine particles and dust.
Central vacuum sander units are powered by a powerful central motor, with several long hoses routed to different workstations. This allows many technicians to sand simultaneously. These units require professional installation, which may be somewhat expensive at first. However, the cost will be offset by the labor saved in clean up time over the lifetime of the equipment. For large applications, the reduction of harmful airborne pollutants can be significant enough to justify the initial expense.
Both types of sanders are available with sanding disks of different grits for different applications. Extension handles are optional on many varieties, so that you can sand hard-to-reach places such as ceilings. You can choose between an orbital or straight-line sanding head, and some models have a variable speed setting.
There are several benefits to using a vacuum sander. The amount of dust that accumulates in the air and on the surrounding surfaces is significantly reduced. This speeds up cleaning and also makes the air cleaner for workers. Vacuum sanders may also save money on sandpaper. By removing excess dust, the sanding disk stays grit-free for a longer period of time.
Although some vacuum sanders are promoted as being "dustless," no sander removes all of the dust from the air. Even though pollutants are greatly reduced, they are not eliminated entirely. For that reason, it would still be wise to wear a dust mask, especially when sanding something with known health hazards like lead paint. As with any power tool, always follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully, and never use any equipment that is damaged.