Belt Sander vs. Planer: Which to Use?

Belt Sander vs. Planer: Which to Use?

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Two of the most common woodworking tools or machines that you may need include the belt sander and the planer. Now, these two tools may seem quite similar, but they actually serve fairly different purposes. Let’s get to it and find out what both of them are, as well as what the similarities and differences between them are.

This way, you can make an informed choice as to which one to use for which tasks.

Belt Sander and Planer: The Basics

Before we get into talking about the similarities and differences between belt sanders and planers, let’s first find out exactly what both of these woodworking tools are.

What Is a Belt Sander?

Belt Sander First off, we have the belt sander, which can come in the form of a small handheld belt sander or a larger tabletop belt sander. Belt sanders feature a fairly powerful motor, often well over 10 amps, and they feature a very large belt or strap that is set in a loop.

In other words, this belt moves in one continuous motion, with the belt moving in a circle at very high speeds, up to 3,000 surface feet per minute. This belt is outfitted with sandpaper designed to remove small amounts of wood, even out surfaces, remove paint and varnish, smooth surfaces out, and more.

Belt sanders are a great tool for smoothing and evening things out, particularly because they can handle sandpaper of very coarse grit, thus allowing for a fairly high rate of wood removal. They can be used to sand both with and against the grain.

What Is a Planer?

Electric Hand Planer Now that we know what a belt sander is, let’s find out what a planer is. What is interesting to note is that planers can come in all sorts of sizes including full cabinet size planers and smaller benchtop planers, all the way down to smaller handheld planers.

The traditional wood planer took the form of a wooden block with a blade on it that was used to shave layers off of wooden boards, with the main purpose being to create a flat, smooth, and uniform layer. Modern planers can also still be handheld, although they do now use motors instead of manual power, and the larger tabletop models can be very accurate due to an included planing platform that allows for fast and accurate thickness adjustments. If you want to learn more about the differences between hand and bench planers, check this article.

Anyways, when you think of a planer, you probably think of the larger tabletop or cabinet models, which feature a table that the wood rests on. Planers feature drums or small barrels that are outfitted with blades or knives that spin at very high speeds. There are then also small wheels or rollers that pull the wood over the platform and through the blades (the blades are on top, not the bottom). As the wood passes by the blades, a certain amount of wood is uniformly removed from one side to the other, thus resulting in a perfectly flat and symmetrical board from front to back.

Similarities of Belt Sanders and Planers

Now that we know what both belt sanders and planers are, let’s take a look at their main similarities.

#1: Can Be Handheld or Stationary

One of the primary similarities that these two tools share is that they can both be either handheld or stationary. You’ve got large tabletop belt sanders as well as smaller handheld belt sanders. On the other hand, you have full cabinet-size planers, small tabletop planers, and hand planers too (both manual and powered).

Whether you need something large and powerful or smaller and portable, both of these tools come in enough variety to suit most needs.

#2: Handheld Models Can Be Hard to Control

Another similarity that both of these two tools share is that the handheld models can be somewhat difficult to control, although most people say that the very powerful belt sander can be harder to control than a handheld planer. All that said, you can certainly master either of them over time.

Handheld Belt Sander in Use

#3: They Can Remove Wood at High Speeds

The other main similarity that these two tools share is that they both excel at removing wood at very high speeds. Both tools move at several thousand rotations per minute. With that being said, due to the speed at which these tools work, you do need to be very careful and accurate when using both of them.

Differences Between Belt Sanders and Planers

With the similarities out of the way, let’s look at the differences which will be key in helping you decide which of the two tools you should get.

#1: Sanding Belt vs. Blades

The primary difference between these two woodworking tools is that a belt sander uses sandpaper to sand away at the surface of wood, whereas planers use large blades to cut away at a certain depth in the wood. Due to this difference in function, they are very different tools.

Planer Blades

#2: Wood Movement

Unless we’re talking about handheld planers, another difference between these two tools is that with planers there are rollers that actually pull the wood through the blades. In other words, you just have to hold the wood steady, and the planer does the rest of the work.

On the other hand, when it comes to belt sanders, whether small manual ones or larger tabletop belt sanders, they do not have rollers that pull the wood through the machine. You always have to move the sander over the wood.

#3: Intended Purposes and Applications

Perhaps the biggest difference between these two tools is what their intended purpose is. When it comes to a planer, the purpose is to even out and flatten wood to create a uniform surface. In other words, if you have a warped piece of wood, you could set the planer to cut away the warp (any protruding bits) to result in a perfectly squared and symmetrical piece of wood. It’s all about ensuring flatness and evenness. Do keep in mind that planers are generally used for long and flat boards.

Belt sanders on the other hand, while also designed for material removal, are best used for smoothing out surfaces, for evening out new additions (such as if you replaced a couple of floorboards), to create curves and shapes on nearly finished wood products, to smooth out rough edges, to remove imperfections from wood surfaces, and to remove things like paint, stain, and lacquer from wooden surfaces.

#4: One Creates an Even Surface, The Other Does Not

Related to the above point, although important to mention nonetheless, the simple reality is that planers create one single even and flat surface from one end of the piece of wood to the other when used properly, whereas a sander really could not do this at all. A sander is very manual in nature and it is extremely hard to sand away the exact same amount of wood along a four-foot board (or a board of any length for that matter).

Handheld Planer in Use

#5: Ease of Use and Uniformity

This is also related to the two above differences, with the main point being here that tabletop planers have depth guides that you can set to very specific levels so that the machine cuts away a very specific amount of wood. This is really not something that you can do with a belt sander as you really have to keep measuring the piece of wood as you go and keep using your common sense to judge how much material has been removed.

#6: Level of Mess

Planers tend to remove chips or long strips of wood, whereas belt sanders create a whole lot of sawdust that flies into the air. Simply put, belt sanders create a much bigger mess than planers do.

#7: Cutting Depth

The other main difference to keep in mind here is that planers can cut into wood fairly deep, whereas sanders are designed to only remove material from the top surface.

Belt Sander vs. Planer: Which of the Two Should You Use?

Which of the two you used is a very easy choice, because if you need to even out a long board that is warped or just is not straight and flat, then it is a planer that you need to use. However, if you are looking to create curves, to smooth out a surface, to remove rough edges, to prepare a surface for painting, or to even out a small surface, then it’s a belt sander that you need.

Summary

Both belt sanders and planers are essential woodworking tools, yet two very different ones. Which of the two you use depends on the task at hand.