Get all the details for the 4 types of sanders for wood in this epic buying guide. We cover belt, orbital, random-orbit and regular sandpaper. We explain each type in detail and include videos, suggest products, photos... everything you need to know about buying the right sander.
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 the old school sandpaper to get at certain parts of the wood.
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 4 different types of sanders and explain each in detail.
Table of Contents
I. 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 sanding 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. Types of Sanders
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-Orbit 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 2 types of belt sanders:
- Handheld; and
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” by 21” 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” by 18” 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” by 24” model reverses the pros and cons of the 3” by 18”. Although a bit harder to control, the 3” by 24” 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” by 21” and the 4” by 24” 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” 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 sander has 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.
B. 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.
1. 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” by 11”. 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.
2. 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.
C. Random-Orbit Sanders
Here’s where things can get a little confusing. A random orbit 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 orbit sander has a round pad. Same change, big difference.
The random orbit 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 orbit sander vibrates in a circle. But a random orbit sander pad spins in a circle, too.
By vibrating and spinning simultaneously, a random orbit 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.
1. Uses of a Random Orbit Sander
Random orbit 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 orbit 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 orbit 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 orbit sander is probably the best choice.
2. Types of Random Orbit Sanders
Random orbit 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.
3. Size of Sanders and Abrasive Discs
Most random orbit 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.
4. Pros and Cons of Random Orbit 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.
D. 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.
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.
Here’s a video with more info on adjusting sander speeds:
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:
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.