The Ultimate Guide To Orbital Sanders
The VIP of my woodshop is my orbital sander. I use it on every single project, and it was a splurge when I bought it. Orbital sanders have so many uses that I can’t imagine not owning one.
The primary purpose of an orbital sander is to create ultra-smooth surfaces on wood, plastic and metal. However orbital sanders can also be used to remove paint, polyurethane and stain, as well as prep objects for painting.
I love my orbital sander, and am so excited to show you why it’s my favorite tool in the shop!
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What is an Orbital Sander?
Orbital sanders are hand-held power tools that vibrate in circles. When sandpaper is attached, this allows for quick and efficient smoothing of wood and other materials.
When vibrating, the main pad of an orbital sander spins, while simultaneously moving in a circular motion. This leaves fewer swirl marks in the wood, and allows for more efficient sanding than if there was only one movement type.
What Can I Sand With an Orbital Sander?
Orbital sanders can be used to sand wood, metal and plastic. They can also be used to sand joint compound so that it matches the surrounding drywall. Additionally, some orbital sanders can be used for polishing, but they need to be variable speed, and additional attachments are recommended.
Here’s a quick list of things I regularly use my orbital sander to do:
- Remove saw marks and other imperfections from cheap wood (see my full process for that here)
- Quickly scrape up used furniture before painting
- Sand away any remaining stain after stripping furniture (Particularly on tabletops. Sanders are difficult to use on non-flat surfaces. See example project here.)
- Sand down wood filler and drywall joint compound so that it matches the surrounding material
I also used my orbital sander to sand my bathtub and tile surround before painting it. I don’t do this regularly though, so I didn’t want to list it above!
How to Use an Orbital Sander
Step 1: Select Your Sandpaper
The sandpaper you use with your orbital sander will depend on two things: 1) the type of sandpaper your sander needs, and 2) the sandpaper you need for your project.
Random orbital sanders tend to come in two common sizes; 5-in diameter and 6-in diameter. Additionally, sandpaper pads attach to the orbital sander in two ways; adhesive/glue backing, or hook and loop (aka, velcro.)
The sandpaper you buy should reflect what your sander takes. I have a 5″ sander with a hook and loop pad, so I buy 5″ sandpaper discs. I tend to buy bulk variety packs off Amazon (such as this one,) which are considerably cheaper than purchasing sanding pads from a home improvement store.
Sidenote: When I say considerably cheaper, I mean ridiculously cheaper. I can get 80 sanding discs off Amazon for what 5 of them would cost at Home Depot. Maybe they fall apart faster, I haven’t done an official test, but they last long enough to get good usage out of them, and for the price difference, I don’t care.
The sandpaper grit you use depends on the project. Here’s a general guide of purposes and the sandpaper grit I tend to grab:
- Large wood removal, such as stain removal or sanding off saw marks – Start with the lowest grit you have. Once you’ve removed enough wood that things look good, replace with the next highest grit, working your way up to the highest grit you have (hopefully greater than 180)
- Touchups, such as sanding wood filler down, or smoothing wood that’s in good condition – Use 180 grit. That’s coarse enough to remove things quickly, but smooth enough that you’re not stuck doing a bunch smoothing afterwards.
- Prepping something for painting – 180 grit
- Metal – 400+
Step 2: Attach Sandpaper to Orbital Sander
Whether you have a hook and loop sander or adhesive sander, attaching the sandpaper is typically as simple as sticking it on the sanding pad.
The only thing to watch out for is that the holes in the sandpaper line up with the holes on the sanding pad. This helps make sure the sandpaper is centered and therefore lasts longer, as well as supports dust collection from the machine.
Step 3: Sand
Turn on the sander and gently press it to the material. If you have a variable speed sander, select the appropriate speed.
Move the sander back and forth, if you’re working with wood, be sure you’re moving with the grain. Do not hold the sander in one single place, as that will unevenly sand the wood.
You do not need to apply significant pressure to the sander – let the sander do the work! Simply moving it gently along your piece will be enough for it to work properly.
Keep the sander level as you work. Angling the sander, or pressing harder in one place is really tempting, I know. But it causes the sandpaper to break down faster, and when done repeatedly, warps the sanding pad of the orbital sander.
If you’re doing a simple touch-up, 30 seconds to a minute of sanding is probably enough. But if you’re sanding off stain or manufacturing marks from wood, you might be sanding awhile. In this situation, your process should go like this:
- Sand with your lowest grit until all the marks or stain have disappeared
- Scribble a light pencil mark on your wood. Sand with the next highest grit until the pencil mark is gone.
- Repeat until you’ve reached either 180 or 240 grit, depending on how smooth you want your piece to be.
What Should You Look For When Buying an Orbital Sander
When purchasing an orbital sander, you’ll decide whether you want 1) a variable or single speed sander, 2) a corded or cordless sander, and 3) a sander with hook and loop or adhesive backed sanding discs. Regardless, be sure your sander is a “random orbital sander,” otherwise you risk purchasing a palm sander.
Lets dive into each of those options!
Hook and Loop vs Adhesive Backed Discs
The sanding pad of your orbital sander will either take hook and loop discs, or adhesive backed discs. I recommend looking for an orbital sander that takes hook and loop (velcro) discs.
Adhesive backed discs are really difficult to reuse, largely because it’s difficult to pull of the disc without getting it covered in sawdust. Once the adhesive is covered in sawdust, it won’t stick to the sanding pad, and the disc is useless.
So while adhesive orbital sanders tend to be a little cheaper, you’ll end up spending more money in the long run if you have to change discs often. If you’re purchasing for an application where you’re using the same grit sandpaper the entire time, then maybe an orbital sander that takes adhesive-backed sandpaper is the way to go.
But for anyone who needs to change the sandpaper on the orbital sander regularly, the hook and loop style is the best option.
Variable vs. Single Speed
The difference between a variable speed and a single speed orbital sander is that variable speed orbital sanders have slower speed options. As you would probably guess, variable speed orbital sanders are more expensive.
There are some times when you might want to use slower speeds, such as when removing paint. In that situation, a higher speed might melt the paint, clogging your sandpaper discs, while a lower speed still removes paint but allows the sander to continue operating smoothly.
Slower speeds are also useful when sanding plywood or other veneered woods. They allow for a gentler approach, so you’re less likely to sand through the veneer.
All that said, I have a single speed orbital sander, and I’ve never missed the slower speeds. While I’ve certainly done the two examples I listed, my single speed orbital sander performed just fine.
So, if you think you’ll sand plywood frequently, or use your orbital sander to remove finish or paint, and you have the extra money to spend, go ahead and get the variable speed sander. Otherwise, a single speed orbital sander will probably serve you just fine.
Corded vs Cordless
Like many power tools, orbital sanders come in both corded and battery powered options. Battery-powered orbital sanders are typically more expensive, and require purchasing a battery and charger as well as the sanded.
If I have one regret from my sander purchase, it’s that I bought a corded sander. I am always near an outlet, so in terms of actually using the sander it’s not a big deal. But plugging in the sander, or grabbing an extension cord if necessary is one more step to the sanding process that I would rather forgo.
This is largely because the sander is a tool I use every time I walk into the shop. I don’t mind having a corded jigsaw, because I rarely use it. But for a tool I use everyday, it would be nice if it was cordless.
If you’re debating on whether to splurge for the cordless tool, I’d ask yourself how often you’re likely to use an orbital sander. If, like me, it’s one of the most frequently used tools in the shop, then yes, go cordless. Otherwise, it’s probably worth saving the money with a corded version.
“Orbital Sander” vs. “Random Orbital Sander”
Palm sanders are also marketed as orbital sanders. They are not the same as random orbital sanders, which is what most woodworkers refer to when they say “orbital sander.” We’ll talk more about the differences in the next section. Regardless, if you want to make sure you’re buying the right sander, be sure to get one that identifies as a random orbital sander.
The Difference Between an Orbital Sander and a Palm Sander
The primary difference between a random orbital sander and a palm sander is that random orbital sanders vibrate in two directions, while palm sanders only vibrate in one direction. Orbital sanders are therefore larger, more efficient, and more expensive.
That’s the primary mechanical difference, but there are a few other trends that differ as well. Palm sanders tend to be rectangular in shape, and use clamps to attach the sandpaper to the sander. When you use a palm sander, you have to cut sheets of sandpaper to the right size before attaching them to the sander.
Orbital sanders, on the other hand, have a circular pad that takes either adhesive or hook and loop discs like we discussed in the previous section. These are much easier to operate than palm sander clamps.
Frankly, I see little reason other than cost to ever purchase a palm sander over an orbital sander. Orbital sanders are more efficient, and can do just about everything a palm sander can do, just better.
While there is the argument that palm sanders make fewer marks and therefore create a smoother surface, I’ve never felt that the surface created by my orbital sander with 240 grit sandpaper wasn’t smooth enough. And I created that surface significantly faster than I would have with a palm sander.
So, if cost is a major issue and a palm sander is the only sander you can afford, then go for it. Otherwise, I recommend a random orbital sander.
One More Note: I mentioned this above, but just in case you only read this section, note that sometimes palm sanders are marketed as orbital sanders. When woodworkers say “orbital sander,” they are primarily referring to what companies call random orbital sanders. So if you’re looking to purchase an orbital sander and not a palm sander, be sure it’s a random orbital sander.
What is the Best Orbital Sander?
I have this Dewalt Sander, and it’s my pride and joy. I used to have a cheap palm sander, and my goodness, the Dewalt sander is one hundred times better. It sands quickly, efficiently collects dust, and the hook and loop system makes it easy to change the sandpaper.
I think it’s reasonably priced, and I’d happily recommend it to anyone looking for a better sander. In fact, I love it so much I was tempted to purchase it for a friend of mine for Christmas because she doesn’t have a sander, but we don’t usually exchange gifts so I didn’t want her to feel obligated to get me something back.
The only thing I don’t love is that it’s corded. Someday, I may upgrade to this variable speed cordless version, but that day isn’t here yet.
Orbital Sander FAQs
Do orbital sanders leave swirl marks?
Orbital sanders do leave swirl marks, but if you sand correctly these won’t be visible. When working with wood, start by sanding with a lower grit to remove material. Then sand with next highest grit to remove the swirl marks from the lower grit. Continue this until you’re using high grit sandpaper, which creates swirl marks too thin to be seen.
How fast does an orbital sander spin?
Most orbital sanders spin at 12,000 OPM (oscillations per minute.) Variable speed orbital sanders have slower speeds that range between 8,000 and 12,000 OPM as well.
If you’re wondering how fast that really is, it’s fast enough to scrape the skin of your hand if you get too close to the sander, but not really injure you unless you hold the sander directly to your skin.
How do I remove paint, stain, or polyurethane with an orbital sander?
To remove paint, stain or polyurethane with an orbital sander, start with a low grit sandpaper (such as 40,) and if you’re working with a variable speed orbital sander, a slow speed. Sand with the grain until you have bare wood remaining. Make a light pencil scribble on the wood, then sand with the next highest grit until the pencil mark is gone. Repeat until you’ve sanded with 240 grit sandpaper.
If there are multiple layers of paint, there is the possibility of the friction between the sander and the paint melting the paint instead of removing it (see this disaster.) In that case, I recommend using Citristrip instead to strip the paint first. I have a whole post on using Citristrip to strip paint here.
Either way, you will probably clog up a couple of low grit sandpapers before you get to bare wood. Be prepared for that, and have extra sandpaper on hand.
Can you wet sand with an orbital sander?
You can wet sand with orbital sanders that are rated for wet sanding. This is not a standard feature, so be sure to check if your orbital sander can wet sand.
Can you sand a floor with an orbital sander?
Orbital sanders intended for floors exist, but they’re a poor choice for refinishing jobs because they remove material more slowly than drum sanders.
I speak from experience here. Refinishing floors is an absolutely miserable DIY; don’t make it harder on yourself by renting the wrong sander. When I refinished my floors, it took multiple (like 10,) passes with the drum sander to get the finish off. I can’t imagine how long it would take with an orbital sander.
If you’re asking about using a hand-held orbital sander on a floor, this is also a poor choice. While you might make progress in a small area, it’ll be difficult to refinish the wood so that it matches the surrounding wood.
Can you use an orbital sander on a car?
I should start by telling you a little about my car. It is a 2009 Nissan Versa that’s missing all four hub caps, has a giant dent in the passenger side, and lacks a working stereo. I have the money to fix these things. I choose not to. As you can probably tell, I am not a car person.
But to the best of my understanding, yes, you can use orbital sanders to polish a car. However, they don’t spin fast enough for this purpose, and so you’ll need to purchase a few accessories to go along with your orbital sander.