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Belt Sander vs Orbital Sander – Which is Right for Your Needs?


belt-sander-vs-orbital-sanderEven though they are both sanders, the belt sander and the orbital sander are pretty different tools. They are both power tools that use sandpaper to smooth and shape wood, it’s true, but they go about their business in very different ways. As a consequence, they have very different specialty and application.

Belt sanders: Built for aggressive work

Belt sanders are big, aggressive sanders intended to remove a whole lot of material in a hurry. They come in four basic sizes, from 3×18 to 4×24. The most popular one is the 3×21 because it’s the most versatile and easiest to control. The 4×24, by contrast, is a giant aggressive sander that in the hands of an inexperienced user has the tendency to do a lot of damage to the wood you’re trying to work.

a belt sander
A belt sander. Here we have the SKIL 7510-01 Sandcat which is our favorite pick.

Belt sanders are essentially a motor attached to two rotating drums. As the drums turn, they move a sandpaper belt, which is run across the desired surface.

These work best on large, flat surfaces, and can strip off not just wood but coating materials like paint. If you’re looking to strip down and finish entire planks, a belt sander is a good choice because it will offer pretty uniform results across the breadth of its sanding surface.

As you can probably imagine, a belt sander won’t work very well if you really need to do finesse work or shaping. These are designed for straightforward sanding.

Get finesse with an orbital sander

An orbital sander
An orbital sander. Here we have the Makita BO5041K which is our favorite pick.

An orbital sander is a lightweight, hand-held sanding tool that permits you great flexibility in where you apply your sanding head. If a belt sander has the brute power of a two-handed machete, the orbital sander has the precision and finesse of a surgeon’s scalpel.

Orbital sanders are so-called because they move the attached sandpaper, a sheet usually 9×11”, in small circles. Those circles are called orbits.

Orbit sanders specialize in doing small jobs where shaping and finishing are called for rather than grinding paint off a piece of wood. They are ideal for shaping wood and sanding around curves. You can, for instance, shape and polish a wooden door knob.

Whereas it is not at all appropriate to use a belt sander to smooth curves in your wood, it’s only slightly more possible to use an orbital sander to work a flat plank. It doesn’t have the power to remove stains and paints, and if you try you’re like to ruin your attachments. As for the wood itself, using an orbital sander is a good way to waste an afternoon doing what would take a belt sander maybe a couple of minutes to do.

A few final thoughts

These two sanders appear on opposite ends of the sander spectrum. Belt sanders, with thick rolls of sandpaper spun by two drums, are designed for wide, heavy work. They have powerful motors and if you don’t pay close attention, they can get away with you. That creates a risk that in using it you might mark up your wood. But if you need a brutally powerful sander, it’s the right one for the job.

Orbital sanders are towards the lower end of sanders. It has a higher grit of sandpaper and moves the head around in circles in preparation for you finishing the job. It’s good for removing paint or varnish, but it’s relatively small head makes it pretty unsuitable for working across large pieces of wood.

If you have wood projects in your future and think it might be a hobby you take up, it’s important to know what tools are designed for what purpose. This not only will help you with immediate projects, but is a good foundation of knowledge as you build your home tool inventory.

We also have an overview of all the different types of sanders to choose from here.

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