When making a knife as a beginner, one of the things that might confuse you the most is the sheer number of different ways you can approach this process.
For instance, some knifemakers like to start with a stock steel sheet, while others prefer to buy forged blade-shaped steel to save time.
In this article, we’ll focus on the latter of these tools: belt grinders, which are a fan favorite among many knifemakers, and you might have seen them before on your learning journey.
Just like you have to pick the best gas forge or best anvil, you need to do your research to find the best belt grinder for knife making, and that’s where I come in! I have been a knife enthusiast all my adult life, and I’ve been making and reviewing knives in my free time for over a decade.
In my experience as a knife maker, I found the JET J-4002 to be the best overall belt grinder. But you might be looking for something else, so stick around for this in-depth review of the six best belt grinders on the market.
Belt grinders are (as their name suggests) primarily used to grind steel, specifically the steel of the knife’s blade.
So, knifemakers use belt grinders to shape the knife’s bevel and outline the knife shape on the blade.
Note that belt grinders aren’t the universal tool that everyone uses to grind steel. Some people prefer to use bench grinders or grinding wheels, and it’s completely up to your preference.
But whatever you pick, you should ensure that your grinding tool can effectively grind your steel in a reasonable time.
Also, when making a choice, you should look for a machine and belt that can survive several grindings without dulling. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself buying several belts to make a single blade, which is a waste of resources.
Some knifemakers also use their belt grinders to shape handles, rivets, or other hard objects in their workshop, so a good belt is a must to keep expenses as low as possible.
To understand how a belt grinder works, you need to know how the components that make up the machine work together. So let’s break it down.
Belt grinder frames are simple, but they serve a vital role in the knifemaking process, and that’s stabilization.
When you’re grinding a piece of metal against a rapidly-moving surface, the whole machine tends to vibrate erratically, which we call chatter. It’s hard to craft a blade to your liking when there’s a lot of chatter since it causes you to lose a lot of precision.
Manufacturers try to offset this chatter by making the grinder’s frame larger and more rigid to achieve more stability and accuracy.
Once you have a frame with a grinding belt, you need it to rotate rapidly, and that’s where motors come in.
You need a relatively powerful motor that can power up the other parts and move the belt rapidly enough for the grinding process to be efficient. And that’s why good grinders usually have 1-2 horsepower motors, and some knifemakers prefer it to be even more than that!
However, as a beginner or an amateur, you might be comfortable with something less powerful in the ⅓ to ½ horsepower range.
But more important than the motor’s horsepower is its quality.
Since knifemaking can get pretty messy, you need a motor that can withstand all the grit and debris flying around in your workshop without getting fried. And while cheap grinders can endure that for a while, they likely won’t last long.
Once again, though, this might suit your needs as a learner since you’re still getting used to how things work, and you might not want to learn on the best Leeson grinder on the market. And that’s completely fine if it serves your needs.
Once you have a frame with a grinding belt and a motor, you need a way to deliver power to the belt and get things moving. The way belt grinders achieve this is by using multiple wheels arranged in a specific manner.
The most critical wheel in all belt grinders is the drive wheel, which connects the motor to the belt. Once the motor is on, it powers the drive wheel to rotate, which moves the belt in a loop.
You might also see a tracking wheel on a belt grinder, which allows you to fix the axis angle of the grinder during operation to prevent the belt from falling off the machine.
If you can inspect the belt grinder in person before buying it, I recommend you try the tracking wheel (or the device in general) to ensure that it works consistently and efficiently.
Another wheel you might see in some grinding belts is the idler’s wheel, which supports the belt.
Belt grinders are mostly compared based on size, and this size is measured in inches according to the width and length of the belts they support.
The industry standard for knifemaking is the 2×72-inch belt grinder. This size is by far the most common in North America since most belt grinder manufacturers know it’s standard and produce it in large quantities.
And while 72 inches might sound like too much length, they’re optimal for heavy use as the wear gets thinned out across so much surface area, allowing the belts to last longer. Thus, 2×72 is a perfect size for professional knifemakers.
The biggest problem with 2×72 belt grinders, though, is their size. If you’re just starting with knifemaking, or are a hobbyist who makes knives every now and then, then 2×72 might not be worth the hefty price tag or the large space it’ll occupy.
In that case, you can consider a smaller belt grinder, such as 1×30, 1×42, 2×42, 2×48, or even 4×36.
The JET J-4002 isn’t necessarily a budget belt grinder, but it also isn’t as expensive as to be called a mid-range or a high-end machine. Therefore, I believe its price is very reasonable considering the features it provides.
For starters, the ⅓ hp motor turns at 1,725 RPM to power a 3,000 SFPM belt, which is an excellent speed for amateur knifemakers, and it produces good results. Unfortunately, though, this means the motor is often sweating power to the belt, so it tends to make a loud noise.
Moreover, the J-4002 is made of cast iron, and I could tell it’s high-quality just from using it the first time.
The J-4002 also comes with a handy disc sander that helps you finish off your products nicely, which is always a plus in my book!
The J-4002 offers more than enough features to lure hobbyist knifemakers and enthusiasts alike for its price tag; it’s an overall balanced grinder that performs well.
Generally speaking, the biggest downside to belt grinders is their prices, as a good belt grinder can easily cost you thousands of dollars. But don’t worry, the Kalamazoo 1SM 1″ is here to break down this barrier and give knifemakers the perfect budget solution.
Despite being a relatively cheap belt grinder with a simple design, the 1SM holds up well in terms of features and what it allows you to do.
The 1SM uses two wheels to rotate the belt: a drive wheel at the bottom and an idler wheel at the top. And instead of the tracking wheel, the 1SM has a knob on the side that allows you to adjust tracking.
Beginners will really like this grinder because of its convenient packaging; it has very minimal installation, and you can pretty much use it right out of the package.
Just remember that the 1SM is only suitable for light work as it runs at a humble 1800 SFPM with a ⅓ hp motor.
If you’re a beginner or a hobbyist looking for an affordable belt grinder for some light work, you should consider the Kalamazoo 1SM 1″. It’ll definitely fit your budget while still getting the job done.
The most interesting thing about the WEN 6502 is that it has two sanding platforms, a belt, and a disc. Better yet, this duality comes at a very affordable price.
The disc sander is designed for sanding and smoothing jagged edges, small cracks, or splinters off woodworks or other materials, so it can’t necessarily handle knives, steel, or blades. However, it’s handy when making a handle or other parts of the knife.
Besides, you still have the 4×36 belt on the top of the grinder, which you can use to grind your blades. You can even adjust the belt’s angle to suit your posture, and it rotates up to 90 degrees.
There’s also a tracking knob near one end of the belt and some work support on the other end, so it gives you some nifty tools for knifemaking. And although its speed might leave something to be desired, this is still a great affordable, multipurpose option.
Because of the combination of a belt grinder and disc sander, the WEN 6502T is excellent for multipurpose knife making, especially if you have a cool handle design that you’d like to make yourself.
When I think of belt grinders, I often think of longevity. And the Happybuy’s 2Hp belt grinder definitely delivers on that front.
The 2Hp grinder is made of high-quality materials that considerably extend its lifetime. For example, the drive, contact, and tracking wheels are solid aluminum, and the worktable is very solid.
As for grinding, this model undoubtedly stands out. Since the Happybuy 2hp grinder is so massive, it’s stable in a way you won’t see too often in other beginner-friendly grinders, making knifemaking a more enjoyable experience.
Tracking isn’t an issue here either. When the belt starts going out of line, you can use the tracking wheel to fix it right away.
The only problem I noticed is that this grinder runs at a constant speed that isn’t really fast enough to match its other features. However, this speed is still good enough for most people, so it’s an overall great machine.
The massive size of the Happybuy 2Hp belt grinder makes it an incredibly stable machine to work with, which equals accurate results and good-looking knives. So, if you have the space to spare, definitely go for this one.
One of the most beginner-friendly belt grinders I found was the Palmgren 2″ x 42″ Belt, a popular pick among beginners and new hobbyists.
To clarify some confusion, this model is also made by other manufacturers such as Dayton, Craftsman, and Norse. I tried Palmgren’s model for this review, but they’re all essentially the same thing.
Despite the ⅓ hp motor, it turns at about 3,500 RPM, which moves the belt at an incredible 4,400 SFPM, which is fast for this caliber.
Moreover, the Palmgren 2×42 has a 6-inch-radius disc sander beside the motor, which is excellent for grinding bevels and other items in your workshop.
These features, which come at an affordable price, make the Palmgren 2×42 an excellent choice for beginners eager to work with a fast grinder.
Despite its affordable price tag, the Palmgren 2″ x 42″ Belt performs well at a high belt speed and comes with a handy disc grinder, making the machine a great first grinder for beginners.
When I talked about belt sizes above, I mentioned how 2×72 are the industry standard and that most people who opt for smaller belt grinders do so because they’re limited by budget.
But with the Grizzly Industrial G1015, you get a 2×72 belt grinder at a very reasonable price compared to its competitors. But how does it fare?
While the G1015 is a 2×72 grinder, it caters to amateurs and hobbyists. So, if you’re in that category, expect a reasonably powerful belt grinder that rotates at a respectable 3,600 SFPM, which I believe is a great speed for beginners.
The most significant sacrifice that Grizzly made to cut costs in this machine was tracking. Unfortunately, the G1015’s tracking isn’t the best, and you’ll have to readjust it fairly often.
Still, you can make great knives with this machine. Besides, it can help you transition to a more powerful grinder in the future.
Overall, the G1015 is worth it if you’re fixing on getting a 2×72 grinder without spending a fortune.
If you’re looking for a 2×72 belt grinder but aren’t ready to fork a few thousand bucks for it, then check out the Grizzly Industrial G1015. It’s a great value for money.
At first glance, a beginner might look at belt grinders as simple tools without much variation.
After all, the anatomy of a belt grinder is a motor, some torque wheels, and a grinding belt, which isn’t a complicated composition compared to many of the modern machines of our era.
But belt grinders have much more substance than their surface suggests, and it’s essential for any knifemaker, amateur or professional, to get the correct belt grinder for their specific needs.
A good belt grinder is vital in creating an attractive, sleek-looking blade without noticeable imperfections because winging the grinding process will likely result in a jagged edge with holes or cracks.
And since everyone has their own unique needs out of a belt grinder, you should be familiar with what makes a good grinder so that you can buy the right one for yourself.
So without further ado, here are the factors to consider when buying a belt grinder.
Since motor power can make or break the knife making process, most professionals prefer 1 to 1 ½ hp motors, and some even go for 2 hp motors or higher.
But remember that professionals use 2×72 inch belts and work their grinders all the time, so they need significantly powerful motors to accommodate that.
An amateur or a hobbyist, on the other hand, wouldn’t need that much power, especially if they’re using a belt smaller than 2×72 inches.
In my opinion, if you’re on an average budget, you can get a decent belt grinder with a ¾ to 1 hp motor, and even a ⅓ hp motor will get the job done for you if you’re on a tighter budget.
Knifemakers and belt grinder manufacturers have come to agree that thin belt grinders are better because we can get the most out of them with the current technology, specifically power and motor sizes.
The consensus with motor power is that it should have 1 hp per inch of width. So if our belt grinders had to rotate a 20-inch wide thick belt, it would use much more power than a 2×72 or similarly-sized belt.
When you’re grinding an abrasive belt against a hard surface, especially a metallic one, there’s typically so much friction that it starts to cause problems that could possibly ruin knifemaking.
The biggest problem is chatter, which happens when the belt grinder vigorously vibrates due to this friction, and it’s especially more common in smaller grinders. This would result in inconsistent designs with wacky jagged edges, an uneven surface, and more.
The best solution to this problem is to use a larger belt grinder since adding mass to the machine improves its rigidity.
And by stabilizing the belt grinder, you can focus on your precision without worrying about the chatter messing up your artwork, and that’s why bigger belt grinders are generally favored, especially by professional knifemakers.
There are two ways of laying the grinding surface: round and flat.
To make a round grinding surface, the grinding belt is wrapped around a contact wheel, which can be any of the wheels in the belt grinder, even the drive wheel.
As for flat grinding, the belt is either hung between two wheels (slack belt grinding) or a flat surface called a platen.
Since knifemakers often use belt grinders to grind flat bevels on the blade, you might want to have a grinder that best supports this purpose, and flat platens are the best way to achieve this.
If you try grinding bevels on a round contact wheel, the process will be a bit harder since you have less area to work with, and it won’t even produce the same results since the bevels take the shape of the wheel’s radius.
Slack belts aren’t too bad either; some slack belt grinders enable you to add a flat platen, which is a nice feature to look out for.
Since you’ll be changing belts frequently, I recommend looking for a machine that allows quick and easy belt changes.
Typically, smaller machines are easier to change belts on, but if you’re an advanced knifemaker, you’ll probably be able to handle more complicated machines since you’ll already be used to the belt-changing process.
Although belts are the most important factor to consider in a belt grinder, there are a few other aspects you should consider. After all, the belt won’t run itself.
While horsepower ultimately determines how powerful the motor is, motor size is also an important factor to consider, as larger motors generally tend to be more powerful.
To find a belt grinder’s motor size, look at the frame label on the nameplate. There should be a 2-4 letter code that signifies the motor’s frame size.
The best motor frames for belt grinders are 56, 143T, and 145T motors since they’re not too small and not overly large either.
Again, this isn’t the most detrimental fact to the quality of the grinder, but it wouldn’t hurt to look it up if you can.
When grinding any surface, it’s important to use a suitable speed because going too slow won’t do much, and going too fast might burn the surface.
When grinding knives on a belt grinder, you need to be mindful of the grinder’s speed, which is called the surface feet per minute (SFPM).
SFPM isn’t the rotational speed of the belt or the torque wheels. Instead, it’s the relative speed between the grinding belt and the abrasive object you’re grinding. However, this speed directly correlates with the belt’s speed, so both names can be used interchangeably.
Cheap belt grinders usually run at around 3,000 SFPM and can even dip below 2,000.
Some people like to grind at 6,000-7,000 SFPM, but I think it’s a bit of an overkill unless you’re working with specific types of metal or you really know what you’re doing.
We recommend you look for a balance between those two. A grinder that runs at 4,000-5,000 SFPM is excellent and will efficiently get the job done.
You can divide belt grinders into two categories based on the speed that their motor moves the grinding belt. Some belt grinders have a single speed that they’ll only run at, while others have variable speeds that you can switch between depending on your needs.
As you might be able to guess, having variable speeds is definitely an advantage over constant speed belt grinders, especially for beginners who’ll want to grind at their own pace.
However, don’t prioritize variable speed over everything else as it doesn’t even come close to being a deal-breaker, in my opinion. Yes, it’s nifty to have, but there are other more important factors to consider when buying a belt grinder.
If variable speed is within your budget, then go for it. I believe it’s worth the investment as it’ll save you a lot of time in the future, and you’ll enjoy pacing the belt grinder to your liking. But if it isn’t in your budget, consider the other factors and look for the best machine accordingly.
By the way, most professional knifemakers would barely use variable speed as they’re used to one constant speed that their muscle memory works best with. Besides, they won’t need to run the machine at a slow pace with their expertise. So, you might not even need it down the line.
In a strict sense, belt grinders and belt sanders are different in that they run at different speeds, have different components, and grind different materials.
However, most people use both terms interchangeably since both tools are closely related. So if you see a belt grinder marketed as a sander, don’t get confused by the name.
Bench grinders are better suited for knife sharpening. Of course, you can still grind a knife on a bench grinder, but that’s not what it’s designed to do.
If you were to use a bench grinder to grind your blade, you’d have to spend a lot more time learning how to get a proper knife out of it.
In conclusion, the best overall belt grinder I tried was the JET J-4002, which was reasonably priced and had plenty of excellent features for the price tag, such as the disc sander and the fast motor. It’s also pretty lightweight (63 pounds) despite being made of high-quality cast iron.
If you’re looking for a 2×72 belt grinder, though, then we’ve got you covered with either the Happybuy 2Hp grinder or the Grizzly G1015.
The Happybuy 2Hp is 2×82 inches, but it can be adjusted for 2×72-inch belts. This grinder was the most stable one I’ve tested as it weighs nearly 200 pounds and has most of the features you want out of a belt grinder.
As for the Grizzly G1015, it’s a budget-friendly 2×72-inch belt grinder that works pretty well with a great speed for beginners and an unbeatable price.
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