Carpenter with electric plane

Sanders are one of the most addictive power tools in many workshops. There's nothing quite like the feeling of a piece of wood sanded buttery smooth. It feels almost like suede against the skin. However, these results can only occur when the right sander is used for the job. Whether the sanding is for removing an annoying burr or shaping the wood into something new and creative, sanders come in a wide array of types, many of which are designed for specific duties or results.

In this buyer's guide, we'll take a look at some of the more common sanders and what jobs they're best suited for. Once we're finished, you'll have a better idea of what type of sander will produce the results you're looking for.

Belt sanders - A belt sander features a seamless sanding belt looped over a pair of drums driven by an electric motor. Available in both hand-held and stationary models, belt sanders are aggressive sanders used primarily in the first stage of sanding to remove large amounts of material in a relatively short period. Belt sanders are also used to remove paint from flat pieces of wood and other materials.

Stationary belt sanders are fixed to a workbench, and some models come equipped with a grinding wheel. These sanders are commonly used to sand down soft metals like aluminum. This type of sander is also available in a wide variety of widths, with some industrial models capable of sanding an entire sheet of 4' x 8' plywood.

Floor sanders - A floor sander is used for one purpose only: to sand hardwood flooring. A floor sander is a large piece of equipment and very heavy, often requiring more than one person for safe lifting. This high-powered machine uses a belt-type of sander fixed with coarse, medium or fine sandpaper (depending on your sanding needs) and comes with an attached dust bag for collecting most of the sanded debris. The machine is pushed along the floor just as a vacuum cleaner is. Floor sanders remove all of the paint, stain, high spots and other imperfections from the flooring, taking it right back to the original wood.

Drum sanders - Drum sanders are large, free-standing machines designed to sand stock down to a certain thickness. Similar to a planer, a drum sander is more suited for larger pieces of wood, and because it uses sandpaper and not cutting knives, it is capable of producing very fine and exceptionally smooth results.

With drum sanders, the wood is fed into the machine slowly as the cylinder-mounted sandpaper sands the top layer of wood. While it doesn't remove as much wood as quickly as a planer, a drum sander can be used for fragile stock as well as on burls and veneer and works perfectly for removing the topmost layer from a dirty or weathered piece of wood.

Orbital sanders - Orbital sanders are sometimes called dual-action sanders or random orbital sanders due to the rotation of the disk and the vibration of the head. This type of sander is a hand-held power tool designed to produce results similar to those of a belt sander. It features a spinning sanding disk that moves in an ellipse on a vibrating head, which essentially ensures that no single part of the sanding material travels the same path twice. The movement of the head eliminates swirl marks and makes it an ideal tool for sanding two pieces of wood that meet at an angle.

Orbital sanders come in three distinctive types: palm, in-line and right-angle. Palm orbital sanders are used for light sanding jobs like removing paint or sanding drywall. In-line orbital sanders offer mid-range power for medium-sized sanding jobs and feature two handles for controlling the direction of the sander. Right-angle orbital sanders are the heaviest duty of this variety and are designed for extended use and large job sanding requirements.

Disc sanders - A disc sander is a stationary machine that features a disc of replaceable sandpaper (typically 6-, 9- or 12-inch discs) fixed to a spinning wheel that's driven by a motor. The unit's table can be adjusted to various angles and heights, depending on your sanding requirements, and this sander is capable of sanding everything from wood to plastics and soft metals like aluminum. Some disc sanding machines include a miter gauge and might feature a disc sander on one side of the motor and a belt sander on the other.

Palm sanders - Palm sanders are small sanders that can easily be controlled by one hand. Typically used for smaller sanding jobs or light sanding work, palm sanders feature a basic sheet of sandpaper that vibrates in a slightly circular pattern. Depending on the model, the sandpaper is either attached at each end of the sander or stuck to the sanding block with an adhesive. Models typically range anywhere from $20 to $80, with some featuring multiple speed settings and a rubberized grip.

Air sanders - Air sanders, also called pneumatic sanders, use compressed air to operate the machine. Virtually every type of sander--including belt sanders, drum sanders and disc sanders--is available in a pneumatic version. Pneumatic sanders are controlled by compressed air that's fed into the machine by an air compressor. When the trigger of the sander is depressed, the compressed air forces the sander into action.

One of the primary benefits of using a pneumatic air sander is that it doesn't use as much energy. Whereas electric-powered sanders require electricity in order to run, the air-powered sander uses electricity only when the air compressor recharges. When purchasing a pneumatic sander, it's always important to make sure that your air compressor supplies the power sufficient for operating the sander.

Power sanders- The term "power sander" is an umbrella term used to describe any sander powered by electricity, although it's most commonly used for hand-held models such as orbital sanders, palm sanders and belt sanders.

Finishing sanders - A finishing sander is one that is capable of very fine sanding that produces a finished piece of wood. This is another term that can be applied to a number of sanders such as random orbital sanders and drum sanders. Essentially, if the sander is capable of producing finished results, it can be considered a finishing sander, as no further sanding will be required.

Sanding Considerations and Safety

Depending on the sander you're interested in, it may or may not come with a built-in means of collecting the debris it creates. Purchasing one with a built-in collection system is recommended because it not only prevents a significant amount of debris from entering the air, but it also makes it easier to clean up the work space after the sanding is completed.

Always remember, however, that, with or without a collection bag, particles can still become air borne when using a sander, so it's highly important always to wear eye protection, gloves and a dust respirator.