There are many different types of sander and it can be complicated to differentiate them at first. This article describes most types of sanders that currently exist in order to better understand which sander would be better for the task that needs to be done.

The sanders described in this page are:

The vibrating sanders

These sanders are the least aggressive in removing material, but also those that leaves the smoothest finish. They work by making the sandpaper oscillate at high speed, which causes abrasion of the wood surface when the sandpaper is in contact with it. There are three types of vibrating sanders:

The detail sander (mouse)

This is a small sander meant for small tasks. It generally uses sandpaper triangles with holes for dust collection. These sandpapers are attached to the sander with Velcro. Some detail sanders can also be equipped with different attachments which in turn allow them to use sandpapers of various shapes. The main advantage of this sander is that it can sand corners that other sander aren’t able to reach.

The oscillating tool

This tool can be equipped with a sanding pad, which will make it perform in a very similar way to the detail sander. Triangles of sandpaper (but without holes) are attached to it with a Velcro.

Instead of a sanding pad, this tool can be equipped with blades or scrapers to cut or remove materials that would be difficult to work on otherwise. It is a versatile tool that can often prove useful to have on hand.

A Mastercraft Oscillating Multi-Tool
A Mastercraft oscillating tool equipped with a sanding pad and sandpaper

The finish sander (also called sheet sander)

These sanders, even when compared to other vibrating sanders, should normally leave the smoothest finish of all. It is also possible to obtain an even smoother finish with scraper, but it isn’t always necessary or even preferable to achieve the smoothest finish possible. When the wood is varnished for example, at some point it isn’t useful to progress to finer and finer grits.

Une ponceuse de finition Rockwell d'une demi-feuille
A Rockwell 1/2 sheet finish sander

To sand with a finer grit than 320 (the highest the number, the finer is the grit) can even be excessive since the varnish could poorly stick to such a smooth finish. When varnishing, sanding with a 220 grit or even a little less is perfectly adequate.

Finish sanders exist in three different sizes that are expressed with respect to different fractions of a standard sheet of sandpaper (9 inches by 11 inches) they use. There are 1/4 sheet sanders, 1/3 sheet sanders and 1/2 sheet sanders. This kind of sander doesn’t use Velcro. Instead, the sandpaper, which can be bought pre-cut to the right size or as a full sheet that is cut by the user, is held in place with clamps. These clamps may be troublesome to use.

I own a big Rockwell 1/2 sheet finish sander and the wood does seem a little smoother when I use it when compared to my random orbital sander or my oscillating tool at similar grits. That being said, it definitely doesn’t make a huge impact, and since I often apply varnish to my projects, it isn’t necessary at all to use it most of the time.

The drum sanders

As their name suggests, drum sanders work by rotating a drum on which a sandpaper sleeve is put on in order to sand wood or other materials.

Bench top drum sanders

There are drum sander machines that are intended to rest on a workbench. These sanders also make their drum move up and down slowly in order to avoid making burn marks caused by friction on the wood. These burn marks often happen when the same part of a rotary tool stays too long at the same spot of a wood piece. router tool, for example, also have the tendency to burn the wood when the tool isn’t moved fast enough. Bench top drum sanders are an excellent tool for sanding inside curves, which are difficult to sand with other types of sanders. They are also useful for sanding irregularly shaped stock.

Sanding drums for drill and drill press

Some sanding drums are meant to be installed in the chuck of a drill or a drill press. They are usually affordable and can prove useful in many circumstances. Also, there are some smaller sanding drums that are meant to be used with a Dremel type rotary tool for detailed work.

A sanding drum inserted into a press drill chuck in order to sand an interior curve
A sanding drum inserted into a press drill chuck in order to sand an interior curve

The thickness sander

This large sander is a unique type of drum sander that can sand stock to a desired thickness. When the stock goes through the machine, a large sanding drum removes a desired amount of material off its top part. The planer work in a similar fashion, but uses blades instead of a large sanding drum.

The orbital sander

The orbital sander uses round sandpaper with holes for dust collection that sticks to its sanding pad with Velcro. It sands the stock by making the sandpaper move in an orbital fashion. The orbital sander removes materials relatively quickly, but leaves circular scratches on the wood surface and can’t be used to obtain a smooth finish.

I would personally avoid this type of sander and buy a random orbital sander instead, which will be more versatile because it leaves a better finish on the wood while removing at least as much material than the orbital sander for a given time period. It is worth noting that in both cases, the sanders will not be able to completely sand corners like the corner of a room where two walls and the floor meet because of their round sanding pad. Likewise, it can’t sand the inside corners of a wooden box already assembled.

The random orbital sander

A Makita random orbital sander

This sander makes a sandpaper disc also move in an orbital fashion, but in such a way that the orbits are different from each other. Because of this irregular orbital pattern, no single spot of abrasive moves on the wood in the same path twice, which mostly eliminates the swirl marks that a regular orbital sander causes. That is to say, the random orbital sander is a direct improvement over this sander. It can remove material quickly, though not as much as other tools like the belt sander, while leaving a nice finish. If someone had to only buy one sander for all of his work, it should probably be the random orbital sander. Also, even if another type of sander has to be used to completely sand corners, it is probably the most commonly used handheld sander in the average woodworking workshop.

The belt sander

The belt sander exists as a handheld sander as well as a bench top sander and a floor-standing sander. It removes material by making a sandpaper belt move in a linear fashion. That belt is mounted on two rollers (one these rollers is coupled to the motor) and tensioned. A mechanism that can be tweaked allows for the belt to track correctly. Handheld belt sanders and bench top or floor-standing belt sanders are used for different functions.

The handheld belt sander

This sander is essentially used for work where aggressive material removal is needed. Although they are very useful for that kind of task, handheld belt sanders tend to leave a rough finish that will often need to be smoothed out with another kind of sander afterward. They also tend to dig into the wood and leave marks on pieces of stock that are larger than the belt. Sanding belts made for this type of sander are often time 3 inches large, sometime 4 for the biggest models, and their diameter varies between 18 and 36 inches.

A Black and Decker belt sander
A Black and Decker belt sander

That being said there is also another type of handheld belt sander that is not really made for roughing work and that is less commonly used. It goes by the name of detail belt sander or file sander and often uses a belt that is only 3/8 or 1/2 inch large. The file sander can be used to sand corners that are hard to reach or to sand sculptures.

Bench top and floor-standing belt sanders

They are used for different applications. Some of them are very useful to sand small pieces of wood. Bench top sanders using a belt that is rather thin (often one inch wide) can be used to sand irregular shapes. There are also big models of belt sander called edge sanders that are, like their name suggests, conceived to sand the edge of wood panels, for example.

Une petite ponceuse à courroie et à disque d'établi
A small bench top belt and disc sander

Stationary belt sanders often exist as machines combining a belt sander with a disc sander that are both coupled to the same motor.

The disc sander

These sanders use a sandpaper disc that rotates at fast speed. The sanding pad of disc sanders is coupled directly to a motor, in contrast with orbital sanders.

Handheld disc sanders are generally used for applications similar to those the belt sander can be used for, which is when aggressive material removal is needed. The disc sander also has a disadvantage in common with the belt sander, which is the rough finish it tends to leaves and that may have to be improved with another type of sander in order to obtain a smooth finish.

Bench top or floor-standing disc sanders are often used to sand the edges of planks or panels. This tool can be used to adjust angle cuts or to chamfer a piece of wood. The diameter of these sanders generally varies from 4 to 36 inches.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9

Why this verse?