Which type of sander do you need? There are more options than either using sandpaper or an electric power sander. In this post, we’ll run through the uses and pros, and cons of each of the three main types of sanders to help you choose the best option for your task. Who knows? You might discover a new favorite tool and be inspired to do more woodworking.
Features to Look for in a Sander
Before discussing how each one works (which we’ll get to in a moment), you might want to start a little broader than that.
Power and Weight
Do you need a sander for finishing or re-finishing a wide area, or are you looking to sand a small spot? Some sanders are incredibly powerful for finishing large jobs in the shortest amount of time possible. These more powerful sanders are larger and heavier, and you need to be careful using them because it’s easy to take off more material than you need.
Sanders meant for smaller jobs are lighter weight and don’t work as quickly. They do cost less, though, so they might be a good option for someone looking to do the occasional sanding job.
Portable vs. Installed
Do you need a sander you can take with you to a jobsite or carry around the house, or are you looking for one to set up in your garage or workshop? The portable, handheld variety is typically easier to use to get into small areas or when you can’t bring the material to the sander. But they’re not as powerful, so using a handheld sander will take longer than a table sander.
If you know that you’ll be sanding pieces of wood or metal that you can feed into the sander without taking too much material off, a table sander will be your most efficient option. You can still move it and take it with you somewhere if you need to; it’s just not as convenient as a portable sander you can throw in the carry case. And, naturally, it will be more expensive for a heavier duty tool.
Electric vs. Pneumatic
What power source do you want to run on? Electric sanders are generally the most portable and easiest to set up. If you’ll be sanding near an electrical outlet anyhow, with no little chance of losing power, electrical sanders are typically the most convenient. Simply pull it out of your carry bag or run to the garage to get it, plug it in, and you’re ready to go.
Select pneumatic if you’re looking for the most effective sander. They’ll supply the fastest sand. Just keep in mind that you’ll likewise require an air compressor to power a pneumatic sander. This is less convenient to set up, though, unless you’re using other pneumatic tools at the same time, as you need to set up and fuel the air compressor.
With either electric or pneumatic models, you’re still corded. Battery-powered sanders aren’t really an option yet. The amount of power a sander needs to run the whole time you’re using it would take a large battery, and a smaller battery wouldn’t last long enough.
As with any corded tool, be careful not to trip on or get the cord stuck in the work zone.
3 Types of Sanders
The three most common types of sanders are:
- Belt Sanders
- Orbital Finishing Sanders
- Random-Orbit Sanders
These three sanders are identified by how they operate. They can all sand almost any kind of surface area and feature the power and portability you’re looking for. However, one model may be more convenient than another, depending on your task.
In a belt sander, a large piece of sandpaper works as the belt. It rotates around the sander’s mechanism. They vary in size and power.
There are two kinds of belt sanders:
How do Belt Sanders Work?
A loop of sandpaper is slid onto the rotating mechanism. Usually, you’ll see two metal rollers and a flat base for the sandpaper to fit over. The back roller spins when the sander turns on, and the front roller simply allows the sandpaper to rotate back over that side. The flat area in the middle keeps the sandpaper firm against the surface you’re sanding.
The sanding belts can loosen and expand as you wear them down, so there’s often a way to tighten the rotating mechanism. When you do need to change the belt, you can often simply unlock the tool and make the fit as loose as possible, at which point you can slide the old belt off and slide a new one on.
Uses for Belt Sanders
You’d normally use a belt sander when you’re sanding a wide, flat area, like boards, doors, etc. But be careful. They work quickly, and you need to make sure to sand each area of your surface evenly. They’re a little harder to control and more unwieldy, so they’re not for detail work or getting into small areas.
You can get a variety of belts to take off wood, metal, paint, stain, or any other material.
Sander and Belt Sizes: What’s the Best for You?
The most common size of belt sander takes a sanding loop measured 3″ x 21″, though you can find them as small as 3″ x 18″ and as large as 4″ x 24″. The smaller sizes will be easier to control, especially if you have smaller hands, but the larger sizes will cover more area faster.
If you plan on doing a lot of sanding, you might want a smaller size and a larger size to switch between depending on the area you’re sanding. Also, keep in mind that the belt will be tighter when you first put it on and will expand as you use it.
Speed of the Sander
Another variable is belt speed. This goes hand-in-hand with power. A more powerful sander will also generally run at higher maximum speeds. Most models will have a toggle switch to let you run between two or three speeds. The faster the speed, the more area you’ll cover and the more material you’ll take off in a shorter time. Use the slower speed when you need to be more cautious.
Tips for Using a Belt Sander
Don’t use a sander that is larger, more powerful, or faster than you need. It’s easy to take off material; it’s much more difficult to fill it back in.
Move the sander evenly over the surface you’re sanding and always go in the direction of the wood grain.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Handheld Belt Sanders
- Lightweight and portable
- Usually comes with a removable dust bag to keep the work area cleaner
- Easy to control
- Adjustable speed
- Not for large jobs
- May take longer to sand because of its low power
Advantages and Disadvantages of Stationary Belt Sanders
- Larger size for sanding wider areas
- More powerful for sanding quickly
- Adjustable speed
- Heavy and generally non-portable
- Need to control the piece being sanded rather than the tool
Orbital Finishing Sanders
When you use the word “finishing” in a woodworking project, you’re generally talking about the final steps. This is the type of sander you would use to put the last touches on after you’ve taken off the bulk of the material you need to or when you don’t have much to remove in the first place.
They’re ideal for:
- Rounding sharp edges
- Sanding plaster
- Removing paint
You might also use these for small woodworking projects, such as making birdhouses. Other terms for an orbital finishing sander are quarter-sheet sanders or palm sanders because they use a quarter-sheet of sandpaper, and you need only one hand to control them.
They’re not as powerful as belt sanders, but you can control the speed on many models.
How Does An Orbital Sander Work?
Cut a piece of sandpaper into quarter-size rectangles and clamp into on the base of the sander. You can also buy pre-cut sanding sheets, but why would you? The full sheets are cheaper and easy enough to cut or tear yourself.
When you turn the sander on, the base will vibrate the sandpaper. So, instead of the sandpaper revolving around the base like in a belt sander, the sandpaper doesn’t move much. It does vibrate, however, in a circular motion, which you’ll need to aware of. If you don’t move the sander evenly across the surface, you’ll get swirls on the surface. This is because the vibration doesn’t go with the grain of the wood.
A good variation of an orbital sander is a detail sander
Detail sanders, also called corner sanders are a specialized orbital sander type whose purpose is to give details of the finished work in corners and tight positions. For ease of use and its detailing purpose, a detail sander is usually small, handheld, and has a triangular sander disc.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Orbital Finishing Sanders
- Lightweight and portable
- Easy to control
- Sandpaper costs less than sanding belts
- Creates a smooth finish
- Very affordable
- Not very powerful
- Not for sanding large areas
- Doesn’t vibrate in the direction of the wood grain
A random-orbit sander, or a random orbital sander, gives you some of the benefits of both a belt sander and an orbital finishing sander. On this type of sander, the base is round, and you use round sanding discs on them. The round base both vibrates (like an orbital finishing sander) and spins (more like a belt sander). The result is a faster sand with a smooth finish and no need to worry about the swirl marks that a palm sander can make.
This really is the best type of sander for small jobs and finishing work. It’s also ideal if the idea of a belt sander intimidates you or sounds like it would take off too much material from the surface you’re working on. It’s lightweight, powerful, and easy to control, and you can still set the speed.
Random Orbit Sander Varieties
Random orbit sanders come in four variations:
- Palm grip sanders are the smallest and least powerful. Use them for sanding softwood, plaster, or removing paint.
- Handgun grip sanders are more powerful but usually aren’t portable. They’re more like a table sander that stays stationary in your workshop. You bring the product to it, which isn’t always feasible or convenient.
- Angle sanders are very powerful and durable. You can compare them to a belt sander in efficacy.
- Pneumatic palm grip sanders are the pro version of this type. They’re powered by an air compressor, which takes more time to set up but delivers more power than an electric sander model. Use these when you have a lot to sand in a fixed location.
Sander and Disc Sizes
Most random-orbit sanders are handheld, operating like a finishing sander, though you can find a variety of handles and grips. Try picking up some different models to see which grip is the most comfortable for you.
The sanding discs are generally 5-6 inches in diameter. This lets you cover a large area fairly quickly. One variation is the hook and loop design. They cost more than the normal sanding discs but may be more convenient for you to attach.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Random Orbit Sanders
- Generally lightweight and portable
- Usually more powerful than finishing sanders
- Easy to control
- Adjustable speed
- Produces a smooth, unmarked surface
- Sanding discs are comparable in price to belts
- Usually not as powerful as belt sanders
- Sandpaper requires regular replacement, faster than the belt in belt sanders
- May require an air compressor
Conclusion: Which Type of Sander to Use?
So, which sander is best for your job? It depends on how much material you need to remove and how large of an area you’re working on. Belt sanders are the fastest and most powerful. Finishing sanders are the easiest to control in small areas. Random-orbit sanders cross the line between the two.
The other main consideration is whether you need a fixed or portable model. Fixed sanders are more powerful, but you need a place to set them up. Portable models go where you need to, so they’re good for household work or taking with you to job sites.
Finally, consider size and grip. You need something that will be easy for you to control, won’t cause hand fatigue, and is comfortable to hold.