When it comes to smoothening surfaces, one of the best tools you can use is definitely the electric sander. Because using only sandpaper to manually make a smooth finish in wood by removing material from the surface, it will take you forever to finish the job. Especially if it’s a bigger and more demanding workpiece.
However, by attaching sandpaper, or another abrasive to an electric sander, the tool will give you a massive boost in power and accuracy to utilize the sandpaper’s abilities to the fullest. With the sander, you’ll be able to finish job tasks in no time and get superb smooth surfaces without sanding the material the whole day manually.
Also, depending on the material, surface’s size, and other factors, we can differentiate multiple types of sanders that can be used for the specific project. Whether you need to remove old paint from wood, remove material from a surface, make a smooth finish at an angle, strip and prep floors, etc. there’s a sander type for every situation.
Because of that, the sander is the best tool to use to remove excess material from a surface and make it smooth. But, if you have never operated with one before, and aren’t familiar with the tool – the number of different sander types may confuse you.
That’s why, in this guide, we’ll talk about the different types of sanders, their purpose, and their characteristics. This should help you get a better understanding of electric sanders, and how to choose the right one for your future projects.
What is a Sander?
A sander is a power tool used for smoothing surfaces. It functions on a basic method where an engine powers sandpaper or another abrasive attached to the tool that’s used for sanding a material’s surface.
Most sanders, especially the ones used for woodworking are electrically powered. Due to their nature, the electric sanders can be either corded or cordless. And the main difference between these two types lies in their usage of a cord/cable.
The corded sander requires to have its cable plugged in an electrical outlet to work. While the cordless sander runs on batteries and doesn’t have a limited area of operation that the corded one has.
However, some sanders can be powered by compressed air as well. Such sanders are the ones used for auto-body repair.
What is the Sander Used for?
From the definition above we can conclude that a sander is a tool used for sanding various materials by using sandpaper or an abrasive. The electric version is prevalent in many industries but is most commonly used for woodworking.
Woodworkers use the sander to level surfaces, to remove old paint, to make a smooth finish in material including seemingly unreachable edges, to strip and prep floors, etc.
Note: Don’t forget to constantly move the sander when operating it. Because if it stays too long at one place, it will over-sand the spot and make that area protrude more compared to the remaining parts of the workpiece, or floor.
Differences between Sander Types
As we already mentioned in the sections above – the sander can be handheld or stationary depending on the type. On top of that, it can be powered electrically, or by compressed air. So, based on these two primary distinctions alone, we can already distinguish several types of sanders.
However, the difference between sander types doesn’t stop at their power source, design, or size. Because similar to other power tools, the sander also comes with numerous features.
The features are very important since they can tell us the purpose of the sander alongside its strengths or weaknesses. So, pay attention to the features the tool has to offer since two electric sanders of the same type can vary in their quality of performance if one of them has slightly better features.
But at the end of the day, despite the design variations, we can only differentiate three sanding motions that a dozen types of sanders have. Meaning, all sander types can have either orbital, belt, or rotary/disc sanding motion. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we have only three sander types. Quite the contrary.
11 Types of Sanders
In general, most electric sanders work on the principle of an electric motor powering a handheld tool or a heavy-duty workbench with a sandpaper/abrasive attached to it that’s used for making smooth finishes in wood, metal, and similar materials.
Well, the sandpaper/abrasive is one of the biggest reasons why we can differentiate a dozen types of sanders. To be more specific – to make the best use out of sandpaper for a given task, the sanders come in various shapes and sizes with dissimilar operating mechanisms.
The diversity among electric sander types goes to such extremes that some sanders look and operate like vacuum cleaners while others resemble a clothing iron. This isn’t surprising considering the sorts of sanding tasks these sanders perform. After all, a handheld tool that can operate at various angles, will obviously have a vastly different shape than a stationary one.
Moreover, some multi-purpose tools like the power drill also can act like sanders by attaching sandpaper to them. Normally a disc-shaped abrasive.
Some of the sanders we’ll name on the list can be used for metalworking as well. But their main purpose is for woodworking.
- Belt Sander
- Orbital Sander
- Palm Sander
- Random Orbital Sander
- Detail Sander
- Drywall Sander
- Disc Sander
- Belt & Disc Sander Combination
- Oscillating Spindle Sander
- Drum Sander
- Edge Sander
Note: Most types of sander can be found under different names in the industry, e.g. the detail sander can be met under the name of a corner or mouse sander as well.
Normally, the majority of these types fall in the surface smoothing category. However, we also have sanders used for flooring, like the edge and drum sanders.
Also, depending on the sort of job you need to do, you must use an appropriate sander type that specifies in certain applications. For instance, use a detail sander for sanding smaller objects, or places where a bigger one can’t access properly. Using the right sander with correct sandpaper grit is crucial for a sanding project to be successful.
Sanders for Smooth Surface
Whether handheld or stationary, these sanders are best used for removing excess material and making a smooth finish on a workpiece’s surface. However, since there are different types of sanders, some are better at removing excessive material, while others are better at giving it a smooth finish.
As the name of the sander indicates, this is a tool that uses a sanding belt. The sanding belt works on the principle of a continuous loop similar to the one of the chainsaw and bandsaw have. The belt is wrapped around two drums where the rear drum is powered by an electric motor while the front one rotates freely.
Woodworkers use the belt sander in the starting phases of the sanding job. The reason for that lies in the tool’s ability to deal with the rough surface an unprocessed workpiece has. Meaning, the belt sander paves the path for electric sanders whose best strength is finishing.
Because of that, the belt sander produces immense power to rip through the material. This can result in users having trouble handling the tool and leave gouges in the workpiece.
A great feature of the belt sander, however, is the easy sanding belt replacement feature. By just using a tension release lever, you can remove the old belt and replace it with a new one immediately.
Besides the small, portable, and handheld belt sander, there’s also a bigger, stationary version of it. The larger heavy-duty one can be found under the name “bench or table sander”.
Next in line, we have the orbital sander. This type of sander uses a square or rectangular sanding pad to make a smooth finish in wood. The sanding pad moves in an orbital/circular motion, hence the name of the tool.
Contrary to the belt sander which starts the sanding procedure, the orbital sander is the one used in the final stages.
It’s used for finishing due to the tool’s lightweight and softer movements of the sanding pad. This makes it not suitable for dealing with rougher surfaces where greater power is needed, but excellent for smoothing a large area that has been passed with a belt sander.
Since this is a gentler tool, the orbital sander provides almost no trouble handling for the user. Even beginners can easily operate it with one hand.
Orbital sanders are also known as a quarter or sheet sanders. The reason for that is the tool’s usage of 1/4 of a standard sheet of sandpaper. The sheet can be cut manually by the user and attached to the tool.
The palm sander is very similar to the standard orbital sander we just mentioned. They both use a square or rectangular sanding pad that moves in small orbits, and both tools share the same main purpose – to provide a first-class finish.
However, compared to the orbital sander, the palm sander is smaller in size and even easier to handle than its already user-friendly compatriot. These qualities lower the price and make the palm sander very attractive to DIY beginners.
Moreover, unlike the quarter sander, the palm sander wasn’t built to take on large areas. For example, use the orbital sander for smoothing the overall surface of furniture. But when it comes to smaller workpieces and especially corners of bigger ones, the palm sander is perfect for the task.
Similar to other types of sanders, the palm sander can also be found under a different name, such as “finishing sander”.
Random Orbital Sander
When it comes to orbital sanders, you simply can’t talk about them without mentioning the random orbital sander. After all, this is probably the most versatile type of sander used in the woodworking industry.
In contrast to the previous two types of orbital sanders, the random one has a unique movement of the sanding pad even though it still uses orbital action. But why’s that?
Well, for a start it uses circular pads instead of square or rectangular. The pad spins unconventionally on top of the orbital action which gives the random sander an unpredictable sanding motion.
And depending on the task, or if the pad got old, it can effortlessly be replaced with a new one straight away.
With the random orbital sander, you can do almost everything. From rougher sanding to great finishing, everything’s on the table. However, this doesn’t mean that the random orbital sander can take on the roughest surfaces like belt sanders can and conquer them. No, but it can do just fine sanding a medium-rough surface.
While they don’t offer perfection, they can do the job of both orbital and belt sanders. The versatility of random orbital sanders makes them highly attractive to those on a budget.
At first glance, the detail sander gives the impression of a clothing iron instead of an electric sander. But of course, that’s far from the truth.
This is another version of the orbital sander just like the palm and random orbit. But, instead of using a square, rectangular, or circular pad, it uses a triangle-shaped pad. On top of that, it’s quite small and easy to maneuver with one hand.
Due to its petite figure and triangle-shaped sanding pad, the detail sander is used to reach areas that a regular sander can’t. Normally, these traits make the detail sander fantastic for smoothing corners and seemingly unreachable tight spaces.
You might also want to read our reviews of the best detail sanders.
Moving on from the belt and orbital sander types, we have the disc sander. This type uses a disc-shaped sanding pad akin to the one the random orbital sander uses. However, the motion of the sanding pad on disc sanders differs from the one on the random sander. There isn’t orbital or random action because on the disc sanders the pad has a fixed movement and rotation.
In terms of usage, the disc type performs best when faced with rough surfaces. Therefore, just like the belt sander, you can use the disc sander to remove excess material from the workpiece. The advantage of the disc sander, however, lies in its ability to reach areas and angles that belt sanders can’t.
Similar to the belt sander, the disc type also has a stationary workbench model. And unlike the portable types, on stationary models, the user needs to push the workpiece towards the rotating belt or disc. So make sure you are carefully following the safety protocols while operating them.
While we are at oddly shaped electric sanders, it’s impossible to not mention the drywall sander. If you never used one before, and you find yourself searching for one in the local tool store, you might as well confuse them for metal detectors!
Their long pole design combined with usually a disc on the bottom, makes them rather unique looking, even for sanders. However, drywall sanders aren’t limited to a disc-shaped sanding pad. They can also use rectangular ones for differing sanding purposes.
Due to their long pole, you can effortlessly use the drywall to reach the ceiling and higher walls to remove excess material, adhesive, or make the surface smoother. Additionally, it allows the user to attach a vacuum in order to tackle falling debris and dust.
Combined Disc & Belt Sander
In the belt sander type section, we mentioned the existence of a larger, stationary version called a bench/table sander that uses a sanding belt to remove excess material from wood. A similar machine occurred in the disc sander section as well.
So, why use the stationary models separately and waste money on purchasing two power tools, when you can combine them into one? A superb idea that brilliant engineers turned into reality.
While it sounds a bit wacky, this type of electric sander is the complete opposite of that. It’s an extremely efficient, useful, and versatile sanding tool. Whether you need to sand or flatten the wood workpiece, use either the sanding belt or disc.
The combination disc and belt sander also can save you a lot of space in the workshop since it’s a 2 in 1 masterpiece.
Oscillating Spindle Sander
Oscillating spindle sanders are stationary table-mounted electric sanders that use a drum. It’s a vertically placed drum on a spindle that sticks out of the housing. The drum has abrasive sandpaper wrapped around it, and it goes up and down on the oscillating spindle.
The oscillating spindle sander is most commonly used for sanding smaller workpieces and sanding the edges of boards. Generally, it does a superb job with curved workpieces since many spindle sander models have the ability to change their angle of sanding.
Although rare, some spindle sander models also have a feature that enables the user to replace the drum with a sanding belt.
Sanders for Flooring
Compared to the surface sanders, the ones used for flooring have an even more distinctive design. Besides that, they are also bigger and more powerful heavy-duty tools. Meaning, you must have great control over them when stripping and prepping floors. Because, if the operator loses control over the sander, the tool can do significant damage to the floor.
The most popular sander types for this work are the drum and edge sanders, but some variations of the previously mentioned surface sanders can be used for flooring as well.
Even though flooring sanders are different types of sanders compared to the surface ones in terms of their usage, their sanding action isn’t something unfamiliar to us. But the lawnmower-like design a drum sander has, its heaviness, and the need to push it with both hands are completely new so far on this guide.
Namely, the drum sander uses a sanding belt just like the belt sander does to remove unwanted material. But that’s where similarities end since the drum sander is used for removing the top surface of a solid wooden floor.
But to achieve that, the drum sander requires a great amount of power. And that immense power comes with drawbacks for homeowners who want to do the sanding job themselves. Because as mentioned earlier, these sanders can cause more damage to the floor than good if not handled properly.
The edge sander is a smaller version of the drum sander, but still bigger than the normal surface sander. It works on the same principle as the drum sander but is used for slightly different sanding reasons.
Due to its size, woodworkers use the edge sander to reach places that the drum can’t. From the sander’s name, we can already conclude that it’s used for sanding floor edges and similar areas. Besides floor edges, it’s also fantastic for sanding wooden stairs.
Power Sander Features
A power tool won’t be a power tool if it doesn’t have a set of features that the user can take advantage of. Naturally, the same rules apply to the power sander as well.
Since sanders can be unpleasant to work with, manufacturers have engineered them with many great features that facilitate the user’s life when operating the tool. But the user’s working experience isn’t the only thing that improves thanks to the feature. Because when you combine a great tool with excellent features, and a satisfied user operating it, you get an impeccable result.
In the types of sanders section, we mentioned that two sanders of the same type can vary in quality and price. Such a scenario can occur when one of the sanders offers more or superior features than its rival.
For example, a power sander can produce a lot of vibrations that make it hard to control. Therefore, the sander that offers a superb feature that reduces vibrations will have the edge over the one that doesn’t.
Features to Pay Attention to
- Firm and steady grip
- Dust collection system
- Trigger lock
- Variable speed control
With these four attributes on your sander, you can comfortably take on sanding projects without fear of failure. Why? Because these features allow even rookies to easily control and operate the sander.
To begin with, various modern types of sander come with a firm and steady hand grips. This feature plays a big role in battling vibrations that the tool produces. And having a firm palm grip also ensures a better end product, alongside a smoother working experience.
Next, we have the dust collection system which is more than necessary when sanding. Avoiding dust and debris when sanding is an impossible task to achieve. Therefore, using an electric sander with a superb dust collecting system is of utmost importance.
Another great feature electric sanders have is the ability to lock the tool. The trigger lock enables the user to lock the sander while in motion and lets it stay stationary without going berserk.
For last, we have a popular feature that can be seen on many power tools used in woodworking. That’s of course the variable speed control feature. This feature allows the user to control and set the speed of the sander to their likening. For instance, when dealing with more delicate work, lower the speed of the sander. While you can increase speed for polishing a flat surface.
Choosing the Correct Sandpaper (Grit, Size, Material)
Before starting to work on your sanding project, you need to have the right sander for the job. But having the correct sander for the sanding tasks, won’t do you any good without the appropriate sandpaper/abrasive attached to it.
Because similar to how you would use a belt sander instead of an orbital sander to remove old paint. That’s how you need the correct sandpaper grit size for the specific application. On top of that, different types of sanders use different types of abrasives.
The grit number of sandpaper tells us the classification of the abrasive in question. Usually, a sandpaper with lower grit number is used for rougher work where you need to scrape a lot of material. While a sandpaper with higher grit number is best used for making a smooth surface finish.
As can be seen from the different types of sanders in our guide, most of them don’t use sandpaper of the same size or shape. Depending on the type we can differentiate square, rectangular, circular/disc, drum, or belt-shaped sandpapers. So make sure you are using the appropriate one for your electric sander.
Another important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is the composition from which the sandpaper is made. Whether it’s ceramic (for rough sanding), garnet (for a smooth finish), aluminum oxide (for longevity), or silicon carbide sandpaper (for wood), choose the correct one for the material you plan to work on.
As we can see, the electric sander is an excellent, versatile, and very useful tool that comes in various shapes, with numerous features for different purposes.
Depending on the type of sander, we can easily make rough and delicate sanding tasks instantly. Just make sure you have the correct sander under your hands for the sanding project. Because using an orbital sander to do the job of a belt sander would be just a waste of time and resources.
Hopefully, our guide helped you to understand the differences between various types of electric sanders, and now know which one to pick for future projects.
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