Finding the best sander for your woodworking project

Rohan Mathew

Anyone working with wood already knows that most wooden surfaces are rough and will eventually need to be sanded down for a smooth finish before polishing and any other processing. Projects that involve the renovation of old materials might also need flattening. Manually sanding large surfaces or fine details of wood would take eons, so we invented electric sanders. There are several types, and each has its purpose. Keep reading to learn how to choose the best power sander for your needs.

Before you start your search for a sander, you must consider the requirements of your woodworking project. Many factors can determine your sanding needs. Plan out your project, finishing the rough design idea. Ask yourself if you are truly in need of a power tool. If you do not anticipate that you will need to do much sanding, you might just opt for a manual sander. However, most woodworking will benefit from the use of a power tool for sanding, as they can save a lot of time in projects that otherwise would be tedious work. 
If you have already established that you will need the use of an electric sander, you will be presented with a variety of types and models. Safety is a major concern when choosing between models. Other features may also affect your choice, such as corded vs. cordless, dust bags, speed, power, among other things. Most importantly, however, is to choose the correct tool for your project. Consider what type of sanding you will be doing most of, as different tools serve different purposes. 

You will need to choose a power sander that you can use more efficiently, and one that will be cost-effective to use in your project. The best sander will be useful in multiple stages of your project.

Setting aside manual sanders, we will focus on their electric counterparts. There are many types of power sanders, and often different nicknames make things even more confusing. Here we aim to describe the uses of (and the differences between) some of the most commonly used sanders. Industrial uses for power sanders differ from the uses of amateur and DIY woodworking. As such, we will not go into details on the industrial types of electric sanders.

  • Belt Sander

This power tool consists of a continuous loop of sandpaper wrapped around two drums. One of those drums is motorized, so the sandpaper belt moves in a forward motion from one drum to the other in a continuous loop. It is a very powerful tool and should be operated with both hands. Some belt sanders can be mounted onto a workbench to become stationary belt sander. In this way they can offer more stability. They are sometimes called strip sanders.

Belt sanders are very aggressive, so can only be used for the first stage of sanding or when many layers of material need to be removed. They do not give a fine finish and are prone to causing scratches. To avoid doing so, always follow the grain when using a belt sander.

Nonetheless, they are useful for preparing woodwork. You may need them to remove an old finish, layers of paint, or any other unwanted material. Basically, any rough surface can be flattened using this heavy-duty tool. Some people can even use them for free-hand shaping of wood.

Some belt sanders have an on-tool dust extractor, but they inevitably result in a lot of sawdust due to the nature of the jobs they are used for. If you have large, rough wooden surfaces in your project, and expect you will need to remove many layers of material to flatten them – this is the power tool for you.

  • Random Orbital Sander

Do not confuse this with an orbital sander (more on that later). This tool is one of the most versatile tools in woodworking. It has a round sandpaper pad attached to a motor, that spins the sandpaper pad slightly off-center. Random orbital sanders (also known as dual action sanders) do not leave a swirl pattern and give a fine finish to the wood. They are the most common type of sanders that are used today.

This type of sander is the best choice for most woodwork, useful because it can do both large jobs with a lot of flattening or finer finishing jobs. The difference depends on the grit of the sandpaper, and the speed of the motor. In this way, it can replace a belt sander and a regular orbital sander, depending on how it is used. Many random orbital sanders use a hook and loop fastener (Velcro) to attach the sanding paper, making changing very quick and efficient. They also come in different sizes, allowing for even more versatility.

They come in corded and cordless models, and some random orbital sanders include a dust bag to collect the resulting sawdust. Extra features might include suction to eliminate sawdust, or ergonomic handles.  Usually, they can be operated using only one hand, making them easier to control. Some models have variable speeds, to allow the sander to be used for polishing and buffing. If you’re on a budget and can’t buy multiple tools, this is the sander to go with because it is the most effective and has many uses. 

  • Quarter-sheet Sander
    The predecessor of the random orbital sander, this one-handed tool has many different shapes, and usually uses a quarter of the entire standard sheet of sandpaper (hence the name). The circular motion of this sander moves around a small orbit. As previously mentioned, this tool results in a characteristic swirling pattern on the wood when used. This is more obvious if the sander is moved across the grain of the wood. 

    Other names for this tool include orbital sander, palm sander, and finishing sander. This tool is used for finishing wood because when it is used correctly it results in an ultra-smooth finished surface. You cannot use it for heavy jobs where the removal of many layers of a rough surface is needed.

    The standard shape for orbital sander is square, and it is often cut by hand. You might find some models being called detail sanders or mouse sanders – these are just orbital sanders with different shapes (usually triangular) that can allow more freedom when doing detailing work as they can be used for finishing corners, edges, and other harder-to-reach areas.

    Although this is an older type of sander, it is still in use as there are several applications for it. To get a smooth finish on woodwork that has a lot of corners and edges, you might consider this tool the best choice. 
  • Oscillating Spindle Sander
    This tool looks entirely different from other power sanders. It is usually mounted to a benchtop, with a protruding sanding drum. The sanding drum comes in different sizes and grits. The most common use of this type of sander is for smoothing the edge of a wooden board.

    You can use this sander in refining woodworking pieces, such as curved lines, contours, and or straight edges after sawing. It does a great job of removing saw marks and other rough ridges from any edge. 

    The protruding sanding drum moves in an up-down motion as it is rotating, making it less likely to burn the edge of a workpiece. They do not use (or need) much power, and thus are quieter than other tools. The sanding drum has a replaceable sleeve that comes in variable sizes for different uses. Usually, they are fixed at a right angle, but some types can be fixed at other angles as well.

    If you expect to have a lot of edgework in your woodworking project, you will get a lot of use out of this tool. For a budget-friendly version, some people opt to build this sander by themselves. 


  • File Sander
    This is a variation of a belt sander, which can be used for narrow spaces and detailing that cannot be achieved using a detail (orbital) sander. It operates in the same way that a belt sander does, albeit with less power, and a narrower belt that protrudes outwards.

    The shape of this sander makes it difficult to use on larger surfaces, but perfect for use in intricate woodwork. It can be very helpful in smoothing the surface inside grooves. You might find yourself in need of a file belt sander if your woodworking project contains many narrow crevices and other parts that are hard to reach.

You might come across power sanders that are advertised as a multi-sander. You may be thinking that they are a bargain. However, you should be aware that these power tools are often considered less effective at doing most jobs.

Armed with the knowledge of the different types of electric sanders, you can choose the power tool most suited for your woodworking project. Remember to compare safety features, prices, as well as the various features offered, before you make a purchase. An electric sander can save you a lot of time, and give you a better result than manual sanding tools.