What Type of Sander Do I Need? Orbital vs Belt vs Sheet

It’s really important you pick the right sander for the job when you’re ready to start working on your woodworking projects.

So let me talk you through an array here and help you dial in, and figure out what’s going to work best for you.

Belt sanders

Let’s start with the good old belt sander, which unfortunately gets a bad name because people don’t know how to use them. If you’re not exactly sure what a belt sander is, or what it does, then check out our guide .

They’re great at flattening large surfaces and taking a lot of material off quickly. The downside is they really do take a lot of material off quickly so you have to be careful.

It’s all about keeping the sander nice and flat on your work surface. Some of the better belt sanders can come with variable speed, so you can slow it down to gain more control, so you’re less unlikely to gouge your project.

Alternatively, if you require a benchtop version, then the combination belt / disc sander is another tool that produces the same results.

Do not use for finishing

As we talk about finishing and how it relates to these machines, don’t sweat this one too much as what we’re really about here is taking a lot of material off quickly. You can not go from a belt sander to finish. You need a bunch of intermediary steps.

Finishing sanders

One of those steps could be a sander like this one. These travel by a lot of different names and have been around for a really long time. They go by names like orbital sanders, finishing sanders, quarter sheet sanders and half sheet sanders. They all essential do the same thing.

When you run this machine the pad basically just runs in a small oval pattern. Now there’s good and bad news with this.

The good news is because of the small rate at which they remove material, even with a coarse grid on here, it’s pretty hard to mess up your project with one of these.

The bad news is, because of the slow rate of which they remove material, it can take you a really long time to sand an entire project and get it where you want to be.

Do I even need to own this style of sander?

There are occasions when they’re very handy. One of the things you’ll notice is that it does have corners. So if you need to sand to an inside corner of a project, you can get this sander right in there.

The other thing I still use them for a lot is running them over an eased edge, they provide very good control, to allow me to work on those rounded corners.

Detail sanders

The other type of finishing sander I haven’t mentioned is the detail sander. These work the same way other finishing sanders, however, the only difference comes from their shape. They have a pointed triangular tip which is useful for getting into the tight corners, where round or square type sanders can not get into.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can get great detail sanders from a multi-tool. Multi-tools come with many attachments, which can be handy, especially if the space/surface you are trying to sand is particularly hard to reach.

The downside to all these finishing sanders is in the way they work, that oval pattern they create is always the same. So if you’re holding it in one spot running it, it’s going to create scratch marks because there is no overlap of that pattern. That’s where the random orbital sander comes in.

Random orbital sanders

Random orbital sanders are one of the essential woodworking tools any woodworker should have.

They have a disc on them that spins and takes material off quickly like a disc sander would, but it brings the finesse of a finishing sander by keeping it moving in an oval pattern at the same time, that’s where the ‘random orbit’ part comes in. This ensures that it will never take the same path twice. Read our guide on orbital sanders vs random orbital sanders to learn more.

This does a great job of eliminating swirl marks, so you get a higher quality finish. But remember the general recommendation is whenever you’re using this sander, you want to finish your project with hand sanding in the direction of the grain to make sure you take off any swirl marks left behind by a random orbit sander.

The best random orbital sanders come with variable speed, this will allow you to slow it down, get really good control, and help optimize the surface finish and to make sure you don’t take off any extra material by mistake.

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