Creating a perfect edge or surface on your woodworking project by hand can challenging, to say the least. That’s especially the case if you’ve only ever used standard sandpaper to accomplish this task. If you’re new to woodworking, you might think that sandpaper is your only option on this front. But as it turns out, there are plenty of power sanders out there that can make smoothing so much easier.
In many ways, the sander has become an essential power tool that all workers must have in order to be productive. After all, a sander allows a woodworker to rapidly apply an abrasive surface to their workpiece. Generally speaking, this rapid form of abrasion can grind down sharp edges and rough up broad surfaces, making them more able to hold onto a future paint or varnish coating.
But despite their exceptional productivity, some woodworkers still shy away from them because they don’t know which type of sander to buy. There may be a lot of options on the market today, but this guide will cover all of the major sander types. This guide will also address a few sanders that aren’t made for woodworking so that you can know the difference when shopping for your workshop’s next upgrade.
What Categories of Sanders Exist?
Before we jump into the various sander types, let’s take a moment to cover the various categories in the sander market today. As it turns out, sander categories are not as cut and dry as you might think. Instead, they may vary based upon where you are shopping and what you are looking for in a productive sander.
For example, when discussing the smallest sanders on the market, you’ll likely hear them called “handheld” units. This is in opposition to “bench” units that are not portable in nature. These categorizations are used to keep power sanders in line (in terms of categorization) with other power tools.
However, for the sake of this guide, we’ll be using a couple different categorizations that will help you more efficiently shop for the type you need. One of these new labels we’ll be using is “compact,” which covers most models in the “handheld” category and denotes their relatively streamlined size. Another label we’ll use is “large,” which is broad enough to encompass some bigger handheld units as well as units traditionally placed in the “bench” category.
Also, in this guide, you’ll find a category for “floor” sanders. These are specialized units that are used not for woodworking, but for floor cleaning/polishing. As such, they take on a far different form factor than their woodworking counterparts. We’ve even included an entry in this guide for “manual” sanding so that you fully understand the range of modern sanding options.
5 Types of Compact Surface Sanders
Let’s start with the compact, handheld sanders as those are the ones that you are the most likely to use.
The belt sander is a mainstay in the woodworking profession because it is relatively easy to control and manipulate. That’s mainly because it utilizes a two-drum set up that provides a desirable level of speed and precision when the user is sanding.
Belt sanders come in numerous sizes, making it easier for a woodworker like you to select a model that meets your needs. To that end, these various sizing options make it easier to use a belt sander to sand in tight spaces or over large, broad surfaces. A belt sander’s primary operation method also makes them an ideal choice for removing old varnish or so-called “gang sanding” of multiple boards at once.
Belt sanders have one noteworthy drawback, though. They do not handle well when working against the grain of a workpiece. In fact, if a belt sander is used that way, you are likely to damage the wood’s surface noticeably.
Disc sanders actually come in several different forms. For example, construction contractors most often make use of disc sander attachments for their drills. Meanwhile, bench-style disc sanders also exist and see regular use in the woodworking community. But still, standalone handheld disc sanders see a fair bit of use, especially among professional woodworkers.
In terms of their actual operation, disc sanders are fairly simple. When in use, a disc sander’s flat abrasive disc (which is mounted at the end of the unit) spins rapidly. When this spinning disc is applied to a wood surface, an abrasive effect occurs, leading to the desired effect. To that end, a disc sander is best used to cover a large, rough surface or to smooth out a more gentle curve on a workpiece.
Be aware, though, that disc sanders exist for other materials. In particular, metal disc sanders see regular use in the metal fabrication industry. Also, some units feature an adjustable disc head that allows for easier use when disc sanding at an angle.
These terms all describe a sander that is designed for one-handed operation and usually accepts a quarter-sheet of a standard piece of sandpaper. These units are also easy to differentiate based upon their square sanding surface and vibrating circular orbits.
In terms of implementation, the orbital sander sees a lot of use in ultra-fine work. To be specific, these units excel when it comes to creating exceptionally smooth wood surfaces and edges without requiring multiple passes. However, the light amount of force applied by an orbital sander also makes them a poor choice for heavy removal projects.
Orbital sanders are also seen as cost-effective to maintain, to a degree. That’s because they accept standard sandpaper instead of requiring specialized sanding belts. This can make it easier to use this kind of sander in a high volume environment, as well.
If you decided that this is the right type for you, check out my recommendations for specific models.
Random Orbit Sander
As its name suggests, the random orbit sander derives its core form and function from the standard orbital sander. If you want to see a detailed comparison of the two, check this article.
As such, you can expect these units to use continuous vibrations to provide an abrasive effect while maintaining a one-handed form factor. However, unlike a standard unit, a random orbital sander uses a circular sanding pad that spins in a rotational manner.
As a result, an orbital sander is able to eliminate one of the biggest short-comings of a standard orbital sander – the swirl effect. This is because the movement of the velcro-like pads used on these units buffs out those patterns as the user works their way across a wood surface.
In effect, this makes the random orbital sander a great all-around sander, including when it comes to edging and stock removal.
That being said, random orbital sanders can be a bit more on the expensive side. They may also feel redundant if you already have a disc sander or a palm sander on hand.
It’s also worthwhile to remember that these units differ from a similar looking power tool, the automotive random orbital polisher.
I reviewed the best random orbit sanders here.
The latter of those names alludes to the general form factor of a detail sander, which includes a triangular point. As a result, a detail sander looks a lot like a household clothing iron at first glance. This tip allows these units to sand in tight spots that other power sanders simply cannot reach.
As a result, detail sanders are a go-to woodworking tool when maximum precision is needed to complete a project. Sanding down a spindle or a chair leg, for example, might be done with a detail sander when a lathe sander is not immediately available.
Folks who regularly woodcraft irregularly-shaped objects can also make full use of this sander type’s versatility.
However, these sanders can be expensive to use if they are used with any regularity. That’s because they require a special triangular sandpaper pad to operate properly. These pads use a special adhesive to attach to the unit, making them pricier than run-of-the-mill sandpaper.
4 Types of Large Surface Sanders
Next, let’s take a look at the larger, mainly benchtop units.
To be specific, these units often utilize either a belt-based or reciprocating motion to allow users to apply an abrasive action as needed. Despite this classic operational method, table sanders still see regular use in large volume settings, such as professional woodworking shops and industrial factories.
Generally speaking, table sanders (also called bench sanders in some settings) are notable for their high volume of power output. In other words, they can remove large volumes of stock in a short amount of time. While this may be ideal for efficiency, it makes this power tool a poor choice for those who need to make precision abrasions.
Even so, you can typically switch out a table sander’s belt to take advantage of a less aggressive fine grain option.
Naturally, table sanders don’t see almost any use in projects that involve large, non-mobile workpieces. That’s because these units are usually mounted on a table and cannot be brought to the plus-sized workpiece in question.
Instead, these units excel when it comes to completing repetitive small- and medium-sized abrasion jobs reliably.
Oscillating Drum Sander
An oscillating drum sander may also be known as a lathe sander, primarily because it makes use of a compact drum-style sanding surface that protrudes from a flat worktop. While these units are in use, this drum moves up and down through an opening in the unit’s surface, which creates a lathe-like action in addition to the expected abrasive action.
This lathe action is a major asset to woodworkers because it removes grooves from a work piece’s surface, which can sometimes appear when uneven pressure is applied during the abrasion process. Moreover, this moving lathe allows for pressure to be evenly distributed over the sanding drum.
Over time, this can allow these drums to last longer and be more useful over their service life.
In terms of application, oscillating drum sanders see a lot of use when it comes time to edge medium and large boards.
The broad work surface and curved sanding surface provided by these units also makes them ideal for smoothing down the curved sections of workpieces that were previously cut by a bandsaw or jigsaw.
More often these days, you’ll see this type of portable sander called a “finger sander.” That name has stuck because this type of sander features a long, narrow appendage that looks like a pointed finger.
As a result, these sanders resemble a power brush saw or even a small chain saw when taken in hand. These comparisons are apt because, like those types of saws, a file sander optimizes its per-pass sanding capacity by creating an extra-long abrasion space.
As you might expect, the file sander is a master when it comes to reaching into tight spaces. In fact, file sanders have the most reach of any power sander available to professionals and amateurs today. They can also be mounted with different types of bands, which allows them to also be used in the automotive industry.
To that end, these sanders regularly see use in auto detailing projects where precision and reach are key.
In fact, these units look like a disc sander that has been mounted onto a long pole. That description is not far from the truth as these units are designed to provide an ample amount of reach in over-head projects. In addition, many models include a grip near the handle that allows for flexible use in close-up tasks.
As its name suggests, these sanders were made explicitly for the purpose of grinding down drywall. This can be a messy task, but these units still account for the amount of dust put off by this grinding process. To combat dust distribution, these units regularly include a built-in vacuum that runs at the same time as the disc head.
In practice, this makes it far safer to use this kind of sander in a crowded worksite (though anyone in the general proximity should still be wearing proper eye and mouth protection).
If you need one of these, check my drywall sander recommendations.
2 Types of Floor Sanders
The last category of power sanders that we will look at are floor sanders. While you can use an orbital sander for the task, the two mentioned below are much more suitable for the task.
In fact, these units typically require two people to transport them before a single person pushes one much in the same way that you’d push a lawnmower. In this way, a drum sander is able to cover a large amount of floor space while attempting to remove paint and other materials from floors.
Drum sanders are very, very powerful by nature as well. As such, they must always be used carefully – even when working on a reliable resilient flooring material like cement or concrete.
That’s because a drum sander can apply enough pressure to create floor divots. These accidents can be avoided by always using the unit as intended by its manufacturer and maintaining a continuous rate of movement while the unit is engaged.
When it comes to flooring refinishing, it pays to have an edging sander on hand.
These “portable” floor sanders are designed to reach basically everywhere a standard drum sander cannot. In other words, these clothing iron-like power tools are able to effectively pull up old floor coatings in corners and on raised surfaces such as stairs.
They can also be held very close to the ground, allowing for a more clean finish in a single pass.
Some users of this type of floor sander have been led to believe that they can be used with more force. However, doing so risks damaging your floor’s surface, as is the case with a floor drum sander. As such, these units should always be used with caution and care, especially if you need to eventually resurface the floor that you are currently sanding.
If You Want to Do It Manually, Get a Sanding Block
Finally, if you’re looking to sand down just a workpiece or two, there’s no need to invest in a pricy power sander.
Instead, you can remain thrifty while working on your woodworking project by investing in a few sanding blocks. These blocks don’t require power at all. Instead, they allow you to clamp in a piece of sandpaper and then manually leverage said sandpaper along the length of your workpiece.
Sanding blocks come in a variety of shapes that allow you to make the most of your manual effort. Though most standard blocks are simply flat, some offer curved surfaces than can be more efficiently manipulated to smooth out an irregular surface.
Also, sanding blocks are really the best option when it comes to having control over your abrasion process.
After all, your manual effort fully determines how much pressure is applied to your workpiece, as well as the angle of application. Using a sanding block can be tiring, though, such it should be reserved for small projects or finishing larger projects.
Sander Safety Tips
Finally, here are just a few safety tips that you should keep in mind while using any of the sanders described above:
- Always wear eye and mouth protection, regardless of what type of material you intend to sand.
- Leave all power sanders unplugged until you are ready to use them.
- When applicable, always stabilize your sander with two hands.
- Remove dust from the work area regularly to prevent the sanding belt from slipping.
- Never reach beyond your unit’s capacity. If a sanding target is out of reach, grab some sandpaper and cover the distance on your own.
- Never apply extra pressure to your sander. Doing so can create uneven abrasion and may even cause divots to form.
All in all, there really are a lot of sanders to choose from in today’s market.
Most are made for woodworking and can provide you with the productive flexibility and versatility that you’ll need to smooth any surface or edge. Meanwhile, some types of sanders are exclusively made for use on floors based upon their size and strength.
Regardless of what you need a sander for, these categories above should give you a clear idea of your choices going forward.