Should you use your good old sander, a plane or an electric plane to flatten a slightly curved panel? Also, should you grab that same sander or a scraper in order to get a very smooth finish ? In many cases, there are tools that can be a better alternative to a sander in order to complete tasks like adjusting pieces of wood, removing material or smoothing the surface of a piece of stock. The tools covered in this article are:

The Jointer and Planer vs the Sander: To Prepare Boards, They Leave the Sander in the Dust

In order to get wood planks that are straight and that have two sets of parallel sides, the jointer and the thickness planer are much more effective than any hand sander, which are not really suited for this task. That being said, a thickness sander can work in a similar fashion to a thickness planer.

These tools are very useful and effective, but are not necessarily essentials. Woodworkers will often acquire them later in their career than other tools that are difficult to make do without them, like the table saw.

The Wood Scraper vs the Sander: Often Leaves an Even Smoother Finish

The scraper is a tool that I find more enjoyable to use than a sander in many cases. It leaves a very smooth finish, smoother than fine or even very fine sandpaper. It is quite a simple tool, which is made from a relatively thin piece of metal that is cut into a shape that is practical for given tasks. The scraper is used, like its name suggests, by scraping the wood surface with its edges.

Different scrapers and a burnisher
An assortment of scrapers and a small carbide burnisher

In order to remove material at a good pace with a scraper, their sides must be sharpened in a special way by rolling a hook on them with a burnisher, which is a tool with a tip made of a very hard metal.

The Plane vs the Sander: Nearly Silent and Does not Create Sawdust

The hand plane might be the most emblematic tool of traditional woodworking. Before the jointer and the thickness planer were commonplace, the hand plane was used, among other things, to prepare lumber by making its sides flat, parallel to their opposing sides and relatively smooth. Special hand planes were used to create decorative contours; this task is now generally done with a router tool, probably the most versatile tool in today’s woodworking shops since it can also cut grooves, copy pieces and create joints like tenon and mortises, box joints or even dovetails, although some of these tasks also require the use of jigs that are bought or homemade.

The hand plane now often plays a complementary role with other tools. Granted, it is possible to prepare a dozen planks of 8 feet by 10 inches by 2 inches of rough lumber with a hand plane, but most woodworkers will favour the use electrical tools to do this in order to avoid a long and fastidious work. Indeed, it would take a great physical effort and many sharpening sessions to see this task through.

An old Stanley hand plane
An old Stanley hand plane

That being said, a hand plane can often advantageously replace an electric sander to adjust the width of a small plank or to remove excess material at the bottom of a door in order to shorten it, for example.

The hand plane has the advantage of being much quieter than a sander. Also, it creates wood shavings that are easy to pick up instead of saw dust that requires the use of a shop vac or a dust collector to manage it; otherwise a mask will have to be worn in order to avoid breathing in the dust.

The Electric Hand Planer vs the Sander: Removes More Material

When the belt sander isn’t up to the task, the electric hand planer can be a good option to remove material faster. That being said, it can also make relatively subtle adjustments if it is set to remove less wood by pass. Generally, however, it will perform well on tasks that require a lot of material removal when compared to a sander or a hand plane. The electric hand planer uses rotary blades to remove wood and so it is more dangerous to use than a sander and should be manipulated with caution.

A Ryobi hand planer
A Ryobi hand planer

The electric hand planer’s blades are hard, but brittle, and when the tool is powered on they must never make contact with nails or staples, which would most likely break the blades. Sanders, on the other hand, will generally be able to sand any type of metal without any problem. Oftentimes, a belt sander equipped with coarse sandpaper can eliminate the head of a nail that sticks out in a few seconds.

The Rasp and File vs the Sander: Much Easier to Control

Rasps are effective tools when some material removal is needed at a precise location on a piece of wood; it is easier to control its movement than that of a sander. They generally leave a rough finish, even when compared to a sander equipped with fairly coarse sandpaper. However, they are able to fit into tighter places than the vast majority of sanders.

Files are available in a variety of shapes and sizes and are used for fine detailing work since, while they don’t remove a lot of material, they can shape wood in a very controlled way and leave a smooth finish. Electric sanders remove material much more quickly but don’t have such a high degree of precision.

The Rotary Tool vs the Sander: Better Suited for Precision Work

There are several types of rotary tools. They all work on the same principle; they spin rotary tool bits quickly, usually over 10,000 or 15,000 revolutions per minute. There are a host of these bits, which are intended for various purposes. They can be surprisingly dangerous to the eyes.

The most common rotary tools are of the Dremel type, a brand that has made them very popular. They are small tools intended for fairly light or precision work. They generally accept bits with a 1/8 inch shank.

There are also die grinders, which are more robust tools, often taking bits with a 1/4 inch shank. Die grinders are either electric or pneumatic (the latter need a compressor to work). There are also Foredom type rotary tools. These are tools that are often more expensive and whose electric motor is designed to be suspended while a flexible shaft transmits the movement to the bit. Dremel type tools can often work this way as well.

Rotary tools aren't really used or designed for finishing wood like sanders are. Instead, they are used to shape and engrave wood through localized abrasion, but also to serve as all-purpose tools in many fields, such as mechanics, as the rotary tool bits can often also work metal. They can even, for example, carve stone in the case of diamond-tipped bits (however, they wear out quickly when engraving this material).

As we briefly touched on earlier, sanders can also sand metal without problems when equipped with regular sandpaper. For example, you can do some sharpening work with a belt sander equipped with fine sandpaper. Note, however, that sanding different metals with the same sandpaper could cause problems. Also, in many circumstances I would not sand metal and then move on to wood with the same sandpaper, because filings could remain on my work.

Another point to consider: obtaining a smooth finish on metal requires using much finer sandpaper than when sanding wood. Sandpaper with a grit of 240 or even 320, for example, would leave a smooth finish on wood, but would give a sheet of steel, aluminum, copper or brass a scratched appearance.

To remove rust and get a nice finished steel, someone could start with 320 or 400 grit, then go up to 600 or 800 and finish with a grit greater than 1000 and get good results.

The Angle Grinder vs the Sander: A Better Tool for Shaping and Sculpting

An angle grinder can be equipped with a sanding disc in order to quickly remove material. This way, it will function just like a disc sander. A flap disc can also be equipped in order to remove even more material. In this case, the vast majority of sanders will not remove material as quickly. However, these flap discs can be more expensive than most sandpapers. 

Various sculpting discs made to be attached to an angle grinder also exists. They remove material at an even faster pace than a flap disc but must be used with caution since they have a tendency to kickback and to be difficult to control. Some of them, that have the shape of a rounded disk, can be used without a guard, but others, like those that have a blade very similar to the one used on a chainsaw, must be used with a guard at all times and can be dangerous to use. In any case, protective eyewear has to be worn at all times.

A Skil angle grinder
A Skil angle grinder equipped with a sculpting disc that is relatively safe to use

Some wood carving discs are extremely effective for shaping wood and forming concave or convex curves, and also for roughing out a sculpture. They also have the advantage of lasting a long time, but must not be used with wood that may metallic pieces such as screws or nails in it. They can also be quite expensive, but fairly affordable versions do exist, although they will not necessarily have the same quality. In any way, wood carving discs meant to be used with an angle grinder are formidable tools for anyone who would like to try their hand at power carving.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. Psalm 84:10

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