When to Choose a Drum vs. Orbital Floor Sander

The right tool is key to success when refinishing wood floors.

Wood floors add warmth and beauty to a space, not to mention value. If you’re bringing old, damaged floors back to life, you’ll need the right tool for the job, and that likely means either a drum floor sander or an orbital floor sander. Choose the wrong sander and you’ll be frustrated with the results. You may even damage the floor.

What is a drum floor sander?

A drum floor sander, also known as a belt sander, is a heavy-duty machine designed for heavy sanding of solid wood flooring. A drum sander cuts through the wood, obliterating multiple layers of wood as well as any varnish, giving you a new surface to refinish.

A metal drum at the base is fitted with a sleeve of sandpaper and spins fast. That spin speed, coupled with the weight of the machine (about 100 pounds), makes drum sanders aggressively powerful — and challenging for beginners to use.

When to use a drum floor sander

These machines are best for floors with deep scratches or gouges or warped boards — floors that need a lot of help to get back to their former glory.

Drum sanders can gouge marks or depressions in the floor if you stop moving for even a moment. Moving continuously at a steady pace and following the grain of the wood is key to getting a good result. Beginners might consider practicing on a test surface before attempting the real thing.

Drum sanders are bulky and can’t go everywhere. Since they’re rounded, they can’t get close to walls. You’ll need an edge floor sander to access floor edges and to sand around baseboards. If you’re sanding in a small space, a drum sander might be too large to be effective.

What is an orbital floor sander?

An orbital floor sander, also called a jitterbug sander, oscillates to gives floors a light to medium sanding. Whereas drum floor sanders cut into the wood, orbital sanders sand the surface. Sandpaper attaches to an oscillating plate, and as you move the machine, the plate sands the wood in a random pattern, which means you don’t need to move in the direction of the grain.

Orbital floor sanders are relatively easy to operate. Just keep in mind that if you’re hoping to remove deep scratches or stains, you’ll need to make multiple passes in order to see any progress.

When to use an orbital floor sander

Orbital floor sanders are best for floors that require a light to medium sanding. If you need to screen a floor in preparation for a new top coat of clear finish, an orbital sander is the right machine. These sanders typically have a rectangular sanding surface, so they’re better able to get to the edges of a floor and into corners than drum sanders.

It goes without saying that you should have the proper training and experience necessary to operate a floor sander and that you should adhere to all manufacturer specifications regarding the safe use and operation of the floor sander.

Talk with your rental equipment provider about the details of the particular job you’re tackling for help in selecting the right sander and accessories, including grit paper.


man using sander
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