Learn all about the four types of sanders for wood (belt, orbital, random orbital and regular sandpaper) in our buying guide.
Quicklist: Types of Sanders for Wood
- Orbital Finishing
- Random Orbital
Sanding wood is a necessity for most woodworking projects. It’s not fun. It’s rather boring, but not doing it compromises the project way too much. In fact, the sanding part of the job is incredibly important because it really makes a huge difference.
As boring as it is, at least there are electric-powered sanders. We’ve all tediously sanded wood with sandpaper, which does the job but kills the arms. That said, sometimes, you must resort to old school sandpaper to get at certain parts.
If you do any amount of woodworking, you need a sander. But which one? That’s what this article is all about. We set out the four different types of sanders and explain each in detail.
I. Wood Sander Buying Guide
Completing do-it-yourself projects and household repairs can be rewarding and even fun. But sanding usually isn’t. Instead, sanding is often tedious and time-consuming. Fortunately, power sanders make the job much easier and more pleasant.
But not all sanders are the same. Sanders are actually much more specialized than many people realize. Let’s take a look at the types of sanders available and their pros and cons.
A. Different Types of Sanders for Wood
There are many different ways to sand wood. Sanders can be small and lightweight for working on small areas. They can also be large and powerful to sand large areas quickly.
Sanders can be either handheld or table-mounted. Handhelds are usually the best choice for general household repairs. Note that table-mounted sanders can still be portable, even if they’re somewhat cumbersome to move.
Sanders are powered by electricity, compressed air, batteries or even old-fashioned hand power. Electric sanders are usually the most portable. While handheld might seem like the most convenient options, charging the batteries can be a time-consuming hassle.
In most cases, you’ll be sanding near electrical outlets anyway, so electric sanders are often the easiest to use.
If you’re looking for the most powerful sander, choose pneumatic. They’ll provide the fastest sand. Note that you’ll also need an air compressor to use a pneumatic sander.
The three most versatile sanders are:
- Belt Sanders
- Orbital Finishing Sanders
- Random Orbital Sanders
These three sanders can sand basically any type of surface or edge. Let’s take an in-depth look at each one:
1. Belt Sanders
These are some of the largest, most powerful and fastest sanders. Belt sanders use a section of sandpaper stretched over a pulley-driven loop.
There are two types of belt sanders:
a. How Belt Sanders Work
Belt sanders basically use brute force and speed to smooth surfaces. A loop of durable, abrasive cloth is fit over the sander’s two cylindrical drums. The front drum is allowed to spin freely while the back drum is driven by the tool’s motor.
A tracking adjustment knob keeps the belt centered during use. Belts will need to be replaced with use. If you’re sanding lots of rough, coarse materials, belts might need to be replaced fairly often.
Of course, you can also replace a sanding belt whenever you wish. A tension-relief lever makes replacing a belt quick and simple. This lets you easily adjust the coarseness of the sand depending on the project. (The different types of sandpaper grit and their uses are covered in greater depth below.)
b. When and Where to Use Belt Sanders
Belt sanders are often the best choice if you’re looking for quick coverage of large areas. They excel at tabletops, doors and other flat surfaces.
Belt sanders are also a common tool for both professional and amateur painters. Belt sanders remove basically any type of finish including paint, varnish and stain.
But be aware. Belt sanders aren’t known for their finesse. While great at removing paint and even layers of wood, they don’t leave behind what’s considered a “finished” polish.
Belt sanders are available in a few different sizes. Generally, a larger belt lets you cover more surface area quickly and easily.
However, bigger isn’t always better. A large sander can be difficult to use on corners, detailed designs and many other areas which aren’t flat surfaces.
Inline sanders are the most portable type of belt sander. They’re available in both electric and battery-powered versions.
c. Sander Belt Sizes: What Should You Choose?
Sander belt sizes are listed by width and circumference. When shopping for a sander, the most common belt sizes you’ll likely see are the following:
- 3” by 18”
- 3” by 21”
- 3” by 24”
- 4” by 21”
- 4” by 24”
The best general use sander is the 3-inch by 21-inch model. It’ll give you the most balance between speed and power. Allows for reasonably fast sanding on large surfaces while still providing plenty of control for fine polishing. Ideal for most D.I.Y. projects such as painting, furniture resurfacing and floor work.
If you’re new to using power sanders, you might be more comfortable with the 3-inch by 18-inch model. Although less powerful, this size is more portable and easier to control. It’s also a good choice if you have smaller hands.
The 3-inch by 24-inch model reverses the pros and cons of the 3-inch by 18-inch. Although a bit harder to control, the 3-inch by 24-inch does add power and speed. This size is useful if you often need to sand large areas without much concern for finesse.
Unless you’re an experienced craftsman, you probably want to stay away from the 4-inch by 21-inch and the 4-inch by 24-inch models. They’re great at handling large, heavy-duty jobs. But they can quickly get away from you and cause quite a bit of damage. Gain experience using the smaller sanders before working with any of the 4-inch sanders.
d. Belt Sander Speed
Don’t forget about sander speed. The higher the belt speed, the faster the sander works. Belt speeds are expressed in surface feet per minute. Sander speeds range from 900 to 1,600.
Belt speed doesn’t necessarily mean much. If you’re using the sander around the house for D.I.Y. projects, a slower speed sander will probably work just fine – and they’re often quite a bit cheaper than faster models.
Faster models are usually a good choice if you need to sand large areas frequently. They’re often used by professional carpenters, painters and other professionals.
e. How to Use a Belt Sander
Belt sanders are fairly simple to use. The biggest “rookie mistake” most people make is using a sander which is too powerful for the project. But as long as you can keep the sander under your control, you should have no problems.
When sanding flat boards, always move the sander in the direction of the wood grain. Also – and this is important – always keep the sander moving. If the sander stays in one position for too long a depression in the wood can be created.
Remember, you can always sand down over time but you can’t replace material once its been sanded away. “Gang sanding” is a helpful trick when smoothing the narrow edges of boards.
Placing the wide belt of a sander against the narrow edge of a single board is cumbersome and hard to balance. Instead, clamp several boards together and sand them all at once. This creates a larger surface area which is easier to work with.
Source: Family Handyman
When stripping finish, start with a coarser grit. You want to make sure you’re effectively removing the paint, varnish, etc. Once you’ve found the minimum grit necessary, you can experiment with finer grits in order to smooth the wood.
No matter what you’re sanding, let the tool do the work. If you press down too hard the belt will become clogged. Instead, the sander’s weight should provide appropriate pressure on its own. Remember to always sand with the direction of the grain.
Pros and Cons of Handheld Belt Sanders
- Most handheld belt sanders have an attached sander dust bag, so you don’t need to worry about the dust when working, or to clean up after your job is done.
- The belt is easy to replace, once the belt has been used up, you can just replace it with a new one.
- Handheld belt sanders are usually light averaging from 2lbs – 8lbs
- You can use and take it anywhere there’s a power outlet.
- Can easily be stored because of small size.
- It can only be used for small frame wood and not ideal for big projects.
- If used frequently, the belt should be regularly changed too for a clean finish. This makes it a bit expensive since sander belts cost a lot, especially the more powerful zirconia belt.
- Not as stable as the stationary belt sander, this tends to be shaky especially if the person using is not much skilled.
Pros and Cons of Stationary Belt Sanders
- It is sturdier compared to the handheld belt sanders, which tends to be shaky due to the vibration, because of its weight and robust built.
- Expect more power as its motor is twice the size of an ordinary handheld belt sander.
- Miter gauge for measurement and security of straight-trimmed woods. The level or thickness of the wood can be measured too, like how much wood you want to trim or cut.
- The dust bag is bigger and can accommodate a larger weight of dust from massive wood projects.
- Belt replacement is not as often as the counterpart handheld belt sanders even with the same level of usage.
- It is noisier than the handheld belt sander because the level of power it releases is stronger.
- Heavy with weight averaging from 20lbs to 40lbs.
- Maintenance is more expensive than its handheld counterpart because of the belt and motor price.
2. Orbital Finishing Sanders
Orbital sanders are lightweight, portable and easy-to-use. Perfect for craftsmen of all skill levels, it’s pretty hard to damage anything you’re sanding with an orbital sander. They tend to work best for:
- Rounding sharp edges
- Removing hardened wood putty
- Knocking down dried paint and varnish
Generally, if you need ultra-smooth polishing on a wood surface, an orbital sander is the tool to choose. Plus, orbital sanders are very quiet. However, their overall lack of serious power makes them unable to remove heavy stock. They’re also not particularly fast.
Orbital sanders are a great choice for beginning woodworking projects. They work well when designing birdhouses, window boxes, small tables and more.
Of course, orbital sanders aren’t just for beginners. In the hands of a professional, an orbital sander provides smooth polishing on wood, plaster, paint and other surfaces.
a. How Do Orbital Sanders Work?
Orbital sanders are handheld and can be powered by either batteries or cord.
The sander moves quickly in any direction. Changeable pads at the base of the sander do the work. Plates are available in different sizes.
These sanders are also called quarter-sheet sanders because they use a quarter of a sheet of standard sandpaper. A standard sheet of sandpaper is 9-inches by 11-inches. The sandpaper is held against the pad by two spring-loaded clamps.
The sander’s pad vibrates in small circles. This lets you move the sandpaper in any direction. Ideal for sanding irregular or odd-shaped surfaces, even ones in hard-to-reach locations.
b. Pros and Cons of Orbital Finishing Sanders
- Can be taken anywhere because of its small design and easy to carry because of its weight averaging between 3lbs to 6lbs.
- It has little vibration, so it’s easier to hold and control.
- Safer than the belt sander as it cannot easily cut
- Sandpaper tends to be cheaper than belt sander’s belt replacement
- Sturdy and more stable
- Easy to grip due to the rubberized handle
- Cannot be used in cutting and trimming woods.
- Sandpaper needs replacement every now and then depending on frequently of usage.
- Polishing and creating a smooth finish tend to take more time on this one.
3. Random Orbital Sanders
Here’s where things can get a little confusing. A random orbital sander is a different type of sander than an orbital sander. Even though the two names sound very similar, and they both perform fairly similar functions, they’re two different tools.
While an orbital sander has a square pad, a random orbital sander has a round pad. Same change, big difference.
The random orbital sander’s round pad moves in (and this is a bonafide technical term) “random orbits.” Like an orbital finishing sander, the round pad of the random orbital sander vibrates in a circle. But a random orbital sander pad spins in a circle, too.
By vibrating and spinning simultaneously, a random orbital sander acts like both an orbital sander and a belt sander. You can remove stock quickly but sanding can also be very smooth. Plus, the finished surface won’t have the swirl shapes which orbital finishing sanders often leave behind.
a. Uses of a Random Orbit Sander
Random orbital sanders will remove wood. But they don’t remove it as quickly as a belt sander. If speed is your main concern, you’ll probably want to go with the belt sander.
Random orbital sanders can also handle smooth sanding on delicate surfaces. However, they’re a bit more difficult to control than an orbital finishing sander. If precision if your main concern, you’ll probably want to go with an orbital finishing sander.
For everyone else, a random orbital sander is often the Goldilocks choice. Versatility is the main benefit here. Fast, powerful removal is combined with precision controls. If you want to buy just one sander for both rough and finish sanding around the house, a random orbital sander is probably the best choice.
b. Types of Random Orbital Sanders
Random orbital sanders are divided into four types:
Pistol grip sanders have a bit more power. They’re best as a tabletop sander. If you always work under controlled conditions in a shop, a pistol grip sander can be a good choice.
Right angle sanders are designed for heavy-duty use. They’re best for rough sanding. However, right angle sanders can be very similar to belt sanders. Make sure a belt sander isn’t better suited for your needs instead.
Pneumatic palm grip sanders are also made for heavy-duty use. This type of sander is powered by an air compressor. Although a powerful tool for professionals, these are usually a bit too complex for casual sanding.
c. Size of Sanders and Abrasive Discs
Most random orbital sanders are small enough for one-handed operations. While the palm-grip is generally the most comfortable, you can also find D-handled and barrel-grip models.
Abrasion pads are usually either five or six inches in diameter. That should be perfectly fine for most projects.
There are two types of abrasion pads. The most common are pressure sensitive adhesive discs, which you simply peel and stick. The other type is hook and loop, which works like Velcro. While the hook and loop discs are easier to use, adhesive discs are usually cheaper.
d. Pros and Cons of Random Orbital Sanders
- Easy to control and maneuver because of it ergonometric design
- Can be brought anywhere because of its lightweight and small design that ranges from 3lbs – 7lbs.
- Can create a clean, smooth finish; removes stains that cannot be removed by the orbital finishing sander.
- Easy to use and is perfect for beginners.
- Sandpaper replacement is cheaper than the belt replacement.
- Cannot be used for cutting and trimming woods.
- Cannot remove wood as smoothly as a belt sander.
- Sandpaper needs frequent replacement than the belt in belt sanders.
4. Sandpaper Sheets
While electronic sanders are fast and powerful, sometimes the best tool for the job is a simple piece of sandpaper. Completely hand-powered, sandpaper sheets provide the most control. They’re the best way to prevent damage, especially when sanding specific surfaces.
Of course, sanding by hand has downsides. It’s much slower and tiring than power sanding. Usually, manual sanding is only used for quick touchups.
Best Type of Sanders for Various Purposes
1. Best Sander For Decks
Orbital sanders are available in various types — from smaller handheld to more powerful commercial upright sanders that are available for lease from home improvement stores and other rental outlets.
Because wood for decking tends to be constructed from softer woods, the orbital sander tends not to gouge the softwoods used as deck materials. Orbital sanders are available in corded, cordless, and air-powered (pneumatic) varieties, each of which offers control of its speed and force.
2. Best Sander For Furniture
The best sander to use for wood is dependent on the size of the project and the type of wood with which you work.
For this reason, it may be best to start with a multi-function sander if just starting out because its versatility will allow you to manage many of the tasks required when repairing or refinishing furniture.
A multipurpose sander is usually not too heavy, even though they provide excellent, affordable power with slight vibration.
3. Best Sander For Finishing Wood
The best type of sander to finish wood is the random orbital sander, although other factors may influence your choice. Depending on the budget, the wood, and the project size, you may need a palm sander.
The random orbital sander allows you to use gritty sandpaper to remove larger amounts of wood grain but the ability to change to finer and finer discs as you near the finished project.
Random orbital sanders are available in cordless and corded varieties. There are also specialty sanders for intricate or round=edging.
4. Best Sander For Removing Paint
The versatile random orbital sander offers the perfect choice for removing paint, even for those projects with slightly tougher sanding challenges. Of the many random orbital sanders available, it is best to select a brand that offers various sanding pads plus control of the speed and power of the sanding action.
Many random orbital sanders are designed with easy grip control handles, which are especially helpful for those new to using an electric sander.
5. Best Sander For Fences
For smaller fences, a compact and portable model is of importance. Many smaller sanders deliver tremendous power without hard-to-control vibrations.
There are random orbital sanders specifically designed for the unique needs of drywall sanding. Many are designed to help absorb most of the dust generated from the electric sander and collected in a dust bag. “This tool is ideal for sanding drywall, baseboards, or other flat surfaces.”
These innovative sanding products are even designed to assist with difficult vertical or over-the-head angles for ceilings. These specialized tools offer super-long extension hoses with LED light strips for darker working conditions.
7. Best Sander For Cabinets
Cabinets that are finished with inconsistent textures create unprofessional outcomes. However, a talented craftsman can make old cabinets look new again with the proper sanding tool and a bit of effort. And great-looking cabinets can transform an entire room and even add value.
However, cabinetry can be detailed, so the type of sander that will work best will depend on your exact sanding task, but many other types are used for more laborious cabinet finishing projects.
There are manual sanding kits for cabinets available for those looking for clean, sharp corners – inside and out. “From the super tight 30-degree angle all the way up to 90 degrees and curved edges, you will find exactly the profile you need.”
8. Best Sander For Wood Floors
These types of wood floor sanders are now manufactured with dust collection systems that eliminate up to 90% of the generated dust. Some even double as it can be clamped down in an upright position to become a sanding platform as well.
II. Sander Features
Certain features apply to basically all types of sanders. Here’s what you want to consider when shopping for a sander:
A. Sandpaper Grit
Whether using a belt, disc, sheet or any other type, you’ll need to pay attention to the grip of the sandpaper.
Grit is the number of abrasive particles per square inch. The lowest level of grit you’ll find is 40 and the highest is 600.
The coarsest sandpaper will be under 80. Rough, gritty sandpaper is best for bigger construction-type jobs like stripping paint or varnish. Also used to rough up wood.
Medium grit sandpaper is between 80 and 120. Using medium grit will remove deeper scratches and fairly noticeable imperfections.
Any grit above 120 is considered fine to very fine. This sandpaper is used to remove scratches without damaging the wood. Also used to prepare wood for painting and staining.
1. Types of Sandpaper Grit
There are four different types of sandpaper grit.
Aluminum oxide is probably the most common. With a self-renewing property, this sandpaper lasts the longest. However, it’s also very delicate. Soft edges form easily. You’ll likely need to replace aluminum oxide sandpaper frequently.
Garnet sandpaper creates the smoothest and most polished look. However, it also wears out frequently. Great for polishing small areas but probably not suitable for large surfaces.
Need to sand a non-wood surface? Silicon carbide is designed for harder materials including plastic and metal.
Finally, ceramic is the roughest grit. Used not just for sanding wood but for actually shaping it, too. On the downside, ceramic is the most expensive type of sandpaper.
B. Dust Collection System
Sanding creates a ton of particle dust. Most mechanical sanders will incorporate some type of dust collection systems. Common systems include dust bags, filter canisters or a dust port for attaching a wet-dry vac.
Source: The Wood Whisperer
Dust collection systems aren’t always necessary if you’re sanding a small area. But sanding for larger projects can lead to dust spreading everywhere — even into other rooms. You’ll want a dust collection system if you’re sanding near areas which are finished (meaning not currently under construction).
Regarding of the type of sanding you’re doing, everyone in the area should wear a dust mask. For heavy-duty sanding, a dual-cartridge respirator provides additional protection. Wood particles, especially from painted or varnished surfaces, can be dangerous if inhaled.
C. Sanding Frame
This is a feature which limits the sanding depth. You can set a depth before sanding to prevent accidentally wearing down a piece of wood. A good protective measure when sanding finished furniture.
While using a mechanical sander is fast and powerful, prolonged use can hurt your hands and arms. Sanders — especially heavy-duty ones — vibrate during use. This vibration can shake your hands, forearms and more.
You want to choose a sander with a great grip. Soft grips help reduce vibration. A soft grip is most important in a handheld sander, which is the type of sander most likely to produce a strong vibration.
When possible, turn on the handheld sander and try it out before purchasing. If you’re buying online, check out what the grip is made of and where its placed on the sander.
The speed of the sanding stroke has a big impact on appearance. If you want the wood to have a glossy finish, use shorter strokes. Longer strokes produce a rougher finish.
Basically, if you’re sanding during the initial stages of construction, use fast and long strokes. This will cover the most surface area the quickest. If you’re sanding a finished piece of furniture or similar, use shorter strokes to avoid accidental damage.
Stroke speed is also determined by the type of wood. Use shorter sanding strokes on softer woods like pine, cedar and fir.
Do you need to sand a variety of different surfaces? Look for a sander with variable speed control. The ability to control the sander’s speed at the turn of a dial or flick of a switch lets you tackle a variety of projects. Speed control lets you switch between finishing work and large-scale rough sanding.
F. Trigger Locks
A trigger lock keeps the sander running without requiring a finger pulling the On button. This helps reduce strain on your hand during long periods of sanding. Plus, a trigger lock increases sanding flexibility by letting you hold the sander in a variety of positions.
Trigger locks are best for experienced users and low-to-medium powered sanders. You don’t want a situation where you lose control of a high-powered sander which doesn’t have automatic shutdown. But, as long you’re careful, a trigger lock can be a helpful convenience.
G. Price and Budget
There are two types of costs to consider when shopping for a sander. First, you want to look at the cost of the sander itself. But you also want to consider the cost of the sandpaper itself. As discussed above, certain types of sandpaper such as ceramic can be pretty expensive if you need to use a lot of it.
Sander prices vary based on the model, features and type of sander.
A decent handheld belt sander starts around $50. But the price can quickly escalate. If you’re looking for a heavy-duty, table-mounted sander you’ll find model prices from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars.
Most orbital finishing sanders cost around $50. The very high-end models can go up to about $250, but for most general home use you probably don’t need to spend more than $75.
Random orbit sanders are slightly more expensive than orbital finishing sanders. Top-of-the-line models can be as high as $280 or $300. But most random orbit sanders average a far more affordable cost of $80.
Power sander prices are a bit of a funny thing. While you can find models which are several hundred dollars, for the most part you don’t need to spend nearly that much. You’ll be able to find great orbital, random orbit and belt sanders for under $100 apiece.
III. Where to Buy Sanders Online
By now you should have a pretty solid understanding of what types of options are available. Here’s a list of recommended online stores you’ll want to check out when shopping for sanders:
IV. Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Use A Wood Sander On Metal?
It depends on which sander and the grit size. For flawless finishing, try using a random orbital sander. In addition to wood and plastic, it can be used to shape metal. The best sandpaper for metals like brass may require finer grains. Sandpaper made from aluminum oxide is ideal for use on harder metals like iron and steel, whereas silicon carbide works best on softer metals like aluminum and brass.
If you use the belt sander on metal, however, sparks will be produced, and those sparks combined with the sawdust residue from the sandbag or machine might start a fire. Before using the sander on metal, empty the dust bag and blow or vacuum out the sandpaper.
Can You Use A Wood Sander For Drywall?
Yes. For smaller drywall jobs, orbital sanders are a great option. There are various drawbacks to using them that make them inappropriate for major drywall construction jobs. Maintain the orbital sander in constant motion and use 220 or 180-grit sandpaper.
You can burn the paper if you remain in one place for too long. When sanding, focus on the dried mud instead of the undone drywall. You require no effort, either; just let the orbital take over.
Can You Use An Angle Grinder As A Wood Sander?
Yes! Converting an angle grinder into a sander might be the quickest and cheapest way to sand or remove a large amount of surface wood. Flap Discs are all that’s needed to convert the angle grinder into sander mode. Don’t forget that the angle grinder is useful for sanding various surfaces and materials.
What’s The Best Sander For My Wooden Fence?
The best tool for the job is a hand-held power sander. For the first pass, start light with a disc or paper with a medium grain. If you want to get the paint off as neatly as you’re able to, it’s best to test it out on one board first.
Contributing Author Bio: Jimmy loves sharing his knowledge on Woodworking and Home Improvement techniques at Air Tool Guy. Follow his blog for more tips and tricks of tools around the house.