I’ve been refinishing furniture for a few years now, and have recently begun building things and I’ve done it all using just my tiny Dewalt palm sander.
For furniture refinishing it’s perfect – compact, powerful and easy to use – but with the larger builds I’ve been attempting, it takes time. It works, but I find myself sanding for longer periods and am still not completely satisfied with the finish…
so I thought I’d do a bit of research and see what the alternatives are and where they fit into a DIYer’s tool arsenal.
Palm Sanders / Finish Sanders / Orbital Sanders
These sanders are small and compact and ideal for finishing projects. The names used are interchangeable and refer to the size, the task and the motion of the sanding. Orbital sanders can have a square or circular base – so the name orbital does not refer to the sanding surface – it refers to the sanding motion. Finish sanders work by vibrating the sandpaper in small circles (orbits) at a high speed.
Palm sanders are sometimes called 1/4 sheet sanders because they use a quarter sheet of standard sandpaper (if you have the square base) which is held in place with easy-to-use clamps. Sandpaper for round-faced orbital sanders is usually precut and attached with industrial Velcro.
These sanders are ideal for small projects and finer finishes on wood. Reviews will tell you that it is virtually impossible to ruin a finish using a palm sander, but the truth is you can. Using a palm sander in any way other than smooth, even strokes with the grain of the wood can leave you with visible loops/swirls – which you won’t see until you apply stain. (Trust me, this is very frustrating!)
For a professional review of the finishing sanders currently on the market click over to Wordworker’s Journal here.
This name confused me because it was so close to the palm sander’s alternate alias.
This tool is called a random-orbit sander because it not only moves in small circles like the palm sander, but it also spins in circles at the same time working your wood down in multiple orbits. Because this sander vibrates and spins the sandpaper, it is powerful enough to take on larger projects and unfinished wood, and there is less risk of ‘swirl marks’ in your finish.
Random-orbit sanders do require pre-cut sanding discs that attach with either PSA (pressure sensitive adhesive) or hook and loop. Because I don’t have one of these sanders, I can’t speak to the pricing of the sanding discs as it seems to fluctuate widely by brand and volume purchases.
A random-orbit sander is more powerful than the finish sander, and slightly more aggressive, but is still within the realm of easy-to-use for the everyday DIYer. Based on the recommendations and reviews I’ve read, if you only want to add one power sander to your DIY toolbox, this is the one.
For professional reviews on random-orbit sanders click over to Popular Mechanics here.
This is the big boy of sanders (for the average DIYer) and is made for rough surfaces. These sanders are much larger in size, and much more powerful – so two-handed operation is necessary. Belt sanders have a continuous belt of sandpaper on a cloth base. The band wraps around two drums on the base of the sander and spins much like the tracks on a tank. Because of the power and movement of the belt sander, it is imperative that this sander move fluidly, smoothly and with the grain of the wood. Unlike the previous models, belt sanders can cause significant damage to the wood if not used properly. On the other hand, nothing removes an old finish, or smooths rough wood better or faster than a belt sander.
Belt sanders come in several sizes with the 3×21 being the most popular – but the 3×18 is a perfectly capable tool and perhaps more manageable for the home DIYer.
I couldn’t find price comparisons for sanding belts online, but I will assume they are more than standard sheets – however, one sanding belt will also grind down wood a lot faster than either the palm sander or random-orbit sander, so one belt could potentially replace several sheets or discs in terms of effectiveness and will cut your sanding time considerably.
For professional reviews on some of the best belt sanders on the market, click over to Popular Mechanics here.
There are numerous other sanding options on the market: drum sanders, detail sanders, disc sanders etc – but these three should cover the basics for DIYer’s.
What did my research + experience amount to?
While my little palm sander has done an excellent job on furniture re-do’s for the past few years, I think it’s time for me to get a more “serious” sander to handle my building projects… I’m thinking a random-orbit sander is in my not-so-distant future. I’ll let you know which one made the grade (power +price) once I’ve decided.
Have a great one!
- Between Naps on the Porch
- Skip to my Lou