5 Types of Power Sanders for Home Projects and How to Choose One

orbital floor sander
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In This Article

Power sanders are electric or battery-powered tools that make short work of abrading surfaces for a variety of home repair and improvement jobs. For example, a power sander can be essential when you are stripping paint or varnish, when resurfacing a hardwood floor, when preparing woodwork or a woodworking project for a fine finish—and a host of other jobs. While it is possible to use a manual sanding block and sandpaper for many such projects, a power sander can do in minutes what can take hours by manual hand-sanding.

Power sanders are often categorized by the action by which the motor moves the sanding pad and sandpaper. This action can take one of three forms:

  • Rotary: On some sanders, the motor simply spins a circular pad to which the sandpaper is affixed. An ordinary power drill can become a rotary sander simply by affixing a sanding disk to the drill's chuck. There are also rotary sanders that are designed specifically for this purpose, often used for metal work or paint stripping.
  • Random orbit: A random orbit sander moves the sanding pad in small, irregular circles, which prevents the sandpaper from leaving distinguishable patterns in the surface being sanded. Most random-orbit sanders are hand-held tools, but there are also some large upright floor sanders that use this type of action.
  • Rotating belt: Portable belt sanders and upright drum sanders both work by means of wide sanding belts that spin around powered drive wheels or drums. They are good for removing lots of material in a hurry, and for this reason require some skill and practice to use effectively.

An electric power sander is the way to go for many home projects. Every home workshop should include at least one, and more advanced DIYers will probably want more than one. And you can also rent specialty sanders for occasional use.

   Basics  Pros  Cons
Random orbit sander A must-have general-purpose sander used mostly for finishing and refinishing wood Easy to use, good for finishing Not good for wood removal
 Belt sander A versatile tool for deep sanding and wood removal Good for deep sanding, stripping Not good for fine finishing
Rotary sander Handheld tool, good for paint, finish removal Inexpensive, good for stripping Hard to control
 Drum sander Designed for sanding hardwood floors  Best tool for refurbishing floors Heavy, large, expensive 
Spindle/disk sander Specialty sander for fine woodworking Excellent for detail sanding on woodworking projects Limited uses, can be expensive 
  • 01 of 05

    Random Orbit Sander

    random orbit sander
    Random orbit sander
    • Best for: General purpose wood finishing.

    Random orbit sanders are the first choice for most DIY homeowners. They work by means of a pad that is oscillated in small irregular (random) orbits that prevent the sander from leaving distinguishable patterns in the wood surface. When mounted with very fine-grit sandpaper, you can even use random-orbit sanders for smoothing thin veneer wood or for buffing solid surface countertops.

    Random-orbit sanders come in several sizes, but the most common sizes are often described as "1/4-sheet" or " 1/2-sheet" sanders—referring to how much of a standard sandpaper sheet is mounted onto the oscillating pad. A 1/4-sheet sander has a roughly square sanding pad, while a 1/2-sheet sander has a rectangular shape. there are also many random-orbit sanders with round sanding heads.

    There are also a variety of detail sanders that also use random-orbit action. These usually have contoured, pointed sanding pads that accept specially shaped sandpapers that are usually affixed to the sanding pad with self-stick adhesives.

    If you had to choose only one type of sander to buy for home projects, it would most likely be a random orbital sander, as it is versatile, inexpensive, and easy to use. This type of sander is easier to wield than a rotary or belt sander because its action is more like vibration. Changing sandpaper is extremely easy, simply a matter of affixing the paper to the sander's hook-and-loop surface.

    Many intermediate-level DIYers will find it useful to own two random-orbit sanders—a 1/4-sheet or 1/2-sheet model, plus a detail sander. Random-orbit sanders are typically corded electric tools, though there are some battery-powered units available. Prices start at around $50 and run up to hundreds of dollars. Most DIY homeowners will be satisfied with a moderately priced tool costing $75 to $100, which will be both highly functional and appropriately durable.


    Resist the temptation to use a random-orbit sander for duties for which it is not designed. This type of sander does not work well if you need to remove a significant amount of wood, nor is it ideal for paint removal or floor sanding.

  • 02 of 05

    Belt Sander

    A person using a belt sander on wood

    fotokostic / Getty Images

    • Best for: Finish removal, coarse surface removal

    A belt sander works by means of a continuous loop of abrasive sandpaper driven in a circular motion by motor-driven wheels in the tool. The action is similar to the way a chainsaw moves its cutting chain in a continuous circle, or the way that a household vacuum cleaner drives its brush.

    Belt sanders are good for coarse removal of wood or finishes. When stripping a painted table, for example, the beginning stage will likely include belt sanding to remove the surface paint coat and reveal the wood beneath. Later stages will likely involve using a random-orbit sander to prepare the wood for a new finish.

    Unlike random orbital sanders, which cause the sandpaper to vibrate, a belt sander actually moves the sanding belt. This is a notable difference that you will appreciate when you need to sand down rougher areas. These are not good tools for detailed work, as it's difficult to maneuver the sanding belt in tight spaces.

    Belt sanders come in many sizes, identified by the size of the sanding belt they use. The smallest belt sanders are generally 3 x 18 inches, but larger tools used mostly by professionals can be as large as 4 x 24 or 4 x 36 inches. Prices start at about $75, running up to about $300 for professional-level tools.


    A belt sander can be a difficult tool to use correctly, as any tilting of the tool can cause the edge of the sanding belt to gouge and score the work surface. These are tools best suited for rough finish removal, or for planing down horizontal surfaces—such as when gluing up boards to make tabletops.

    • 03 of 05

      Rotary Sander

      Orbital sanders
      Mint Images RF / Getty Images
      • Best for: Stripping paint and other finishes.

      The term rotary sander refers to a power tool with a sanding head that turns in a circular motion. Most are handheld tools, but there are also stationary floor-mounted versions used in woodworking shops. You can also turn any ordinary power drill into a rotary sander by equipping it with a sanding disc attachment. Automotive workers frequently use rotary sanders for body work, often air-driven, pneumatic tools.

      Handheld rotary/orbital sanders were once very common, but their popularity has waned now that excellent random-orbit sanders are so readily available.

      Like a belt sander, a rotary sander is best for coarse removal. A handheld rotary sander allows you to get close to edges, so it is often used in paint removal and refinishing work to strip edges before moving to a belt sander for larger areas. Stripping paint from wood lap siding, for example, often calls for a rotary sander to abrade the crevices where boards overlap.

      But like belt sanders, a rotary sander can be difficult to control, causing scores and gouges if you are not careful. Extensive use of a rotary sander is best left to experienced DIYers.

    • 04 of 05

      Drum Sander

      drum sander to sand wood floors
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      • Best for: Stripping and refinishing floors.

      A drum sander is best described as a large, upright belt sander. A drum sander rests on the floor and is moved about via a handle, much like a lawn mower. They use very large sanding belts powered by drive wheels, and are used exclusively for sanding down floors during refurbishing. Too expensive for most homeowners to purchase, drum sanders are commonly available at tool rental centers and large home centers, where they are leased in four-hour or full-day increments.

      Drum sanders are so powerful that they are capable of sanding off all sorts of materials that you want to be removed from your wood floor: bumps, gouges, stains, paint, adhesives, and mastic. Before sanding any flooring adhesives, test to make sure that they do not contain asbestos.

      Drum sanders should be used for solid wood flooring only. Do not attempt to use a drum sander on engineered wood flooring or non-wood flooring. Drum sanders are so powerful that they can rip through the thin top veneer of engineered wood flooring.


      Drum sanders are very heavy and require two people to transport. If you aren't careful, you can easily gouge into your wood flooring because these machines are so powerful. Like manual belt sanders, drum sanders are difficult to adjust in order to keep the belts running straight.

      Continue to 5 of 5 below.
    • 05 of 05

      Stationary Sanders

      Woodshop Machine Belt and Disc Sanders
      Melissa Carroll / Getty Images
      • Best for: Woodworking projects.

      If you are a hobby woodworker, you may want to invest in a stationary sander—a floor-mounted or table-mounted combination sander that can include two or sometimes three sanding "stations." Typically, consumer versions include a spinning sanding disk and a rotating sanding belt. Other types may also have an upright tubular sanding spindle that rotates inside an opening in a metal table.

      Stationary sanders are used for precision sanding of woodworking project parts, where very fine tolerances are needed. These are not tools most DIY homeowners will want or need. But if you are a hobby woodworker, investing $100 to $300 in a basic table-mounted combination sander can make your hobby much more enjoyable.

    Choosing a Power Sander

    Choose your power sander based on what use the tool must serve.

    • For general DIYers, a good place to start is with a basic random-orbit sander—a square 1/4-sheet sander or round model. If you do a lot of furniture work, adding a detail random-orbit sander with a pointed, contoured head might be a good second tool to own.
    • Many homeowners will find that owning a belt sander also makes sense, especially if you're likely to strip paint or refinish tables from time to time. This is a great tool for coarse removal, though you likely won't use it as often as your random-orbit sander.
    • Rotary sanders are specialty tools, and while it can be convenient to own one, it's usually easy enough to equip a standard power drill with a disc sanding head for occasional use. An exception is if you regularly repaint a house with wood lap siding, where it can be very helpful to own your own rotary sander.
    • A drum sander for floor refurbishing is almost never worth purchasing (they can cost thousands). Instead, rent one when you need it.
    • Finally, a stationary sanding station is a good choice if you build woodworking projects on a regular basis and need the precision provided by a stationary sander.

    Whatever type of sander you buy, there are some features to look for that will make the tool easier, cleaner, and safer to use:

    • Dust bag: Sanding kicks up a lot of dust, so look for tools with good dust collection systems with built-in filters that can be cleaned or replaced. Make sure the dust bag attaches firmly, but that it is also easy to remove and empty. Some tools allow you to connect to a shop vacuum or other dust collection system using hoses.
    • Variable speed: Cheaper tools usually run at a fixed rpm, but more expensive tools will give you an option of changing speeds. A good random-orbit sander, for example, may have settings that let you change speeds between 8,000 and 12,000 rpms.
    • Dust-sealed switches: Cheaper tools often fail because switches quickly become clogged with sanding dust.
    • Molded, padded handles: All sanders vibrate, and comfortable handles will make them much more pleasant to use over the long run.
    • Balanced weight: Heft the tool in your hand. Better tools will be counterweighted and feel "right" in your hand—an important characteristic for long-term use.