So you’re looking to start refinishing furniture, or perhaps even start DIYing a few small builds and are wondering what sander does what? I did too, but after a bit of research I’ve put together this list for “How to choose a sander” to help narrow down your selection based on your use.
This is a post from 2016, but it’s worth re-posting and I’ve added a few updates now that my experience is over 10 years now.
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 finishing sander.
(*This post contains affiliate links to items I personally use. For full Amazon affiliate disclosure, please see sidebar or bottom of the page)
For furniture refinishing it’s okay – 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.
How to choose a sander
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. Palm sanders work by vibrating the sandpaper in small circles (orbits) at a high speed.
Finishing sanders are sometimes called ¼ 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. Sanding discs are more expensive than sheet sandpaper, but they are also generally more durable as well.
A random-orbit sander is more powerful than the finish sander, and 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, and in determining how to choose a sander, 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. Belt 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.
Sanding belts are more expensive than sandpaper 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.
I have rented one of these from my local home improvement store and I highly recommend getting the insurance if you do. Within 10 minutes of using the belt sander, I backed over the cord and sanded completely through it. Ask me how humiliating it was to go back to the home improvement store after only a 15 minute rental. lol. I’ve linked to a cordless version of the one I rented here.
For professional reviews on some of the best belt sanders on the market, click over to Popular Mechanics here.
I’m updating this post to include one more sanding option to consider for “how to choose a sander”, and it is more of an add-on sander than a one-size-fits-all use; a detail sander.
Detail sander / mouse sanders
A detail sander is necessary for tight corners and small spaces. You can use a sanding block and sheet of sandpaper, but a detail sander will smooth and finish in a fraction of the time and with better results. I’ve added an inexpensive mouse sander to compliment my random orbit sander since the larger one can’t get into the tiny areas that often come with refinishing projects.
A detail sander is still an orbital sander (the sandpaper still moves in small orbits) but it usually comes with a triangular nose to get into tight spots. They use specialized sanding pads cut and shaped to match the base, and are generally less expensive than any other sander because of their limited use. While you could use a detail sander to sand down furniture, it would take a dog’s age and wouldn’t be worth it in terms of time or fatigue.
There are numerous other sanding options on the market: drum sanders, disc sanders etc – but these four should cover the basics for DIYer’s.
What did my research + experience amount to?
2023 update: Well folks, after years of working with sanders – at home and in cabinet-making school – I will tell you that I use my random orbit sander more than any other. I haven’t used my finishing sander/sheet sander in a few years because of my frustration with swirl marks, and the few times I’ve used a belt sander it’s devoured the wood much faster than I was prepared for. My detail sander has come out of the box on a few occasions, so I do think it’s worth having, but my little DeWalt is my go-to on a daily basis.
If I were to give you my recommendation on how to choose a sander – for the average DIYer/furniture refinisher – I’d recommend the random orbit sander hands-down.
*All of the links in the article are to Amazon.com. Below are Canadian links.
Have a great one!