Learn when to use which type of sander for the best results.
Wood floors add warmth and beauty to a space, not to mention value. To bring old, damaged floors back to life, or to level or finish a wood floor, you’ll need a floor sander, but which one? Understanding the best uses for an orbital versus belt sander will help you choose the right machine and get the best results.
What is a belt sander?
A belt sander is a versatile machine that quickly removes large amounts of material from wood floors or raw lumber. It uses different grits of sandpaper to remove multiple layers of wood, including varnish or paint, to create a smooth surface.
Rollers at the base are fitted with a loop of sandpaper. These two rollers, also called drums, spin extremely fast. That spin speed is what makes belt sanders so powerful.
Belt sanders used on flooring comes in handheld and walk-behind belt models. Handheld belt sanders weigh approximately 5 to 14 pounds. Belt sanders also come in stationary models that are mounted on a workbench.
Don’t confuse belt sanders with drum sanders, which are walk-behind models that use a very aggressive cutting action and remove more material per pass. Changing the sandpaper takes more time because the paper has to be wrapped carefully around the drum. Drum sanders and belt sanders can tackle many of the same jobs. When deciding between a belt sander versus drum sander, remember that drum sanders are typically reserved for floors with the deepest scratches and removing surfaces such as varnish.
Belt sander uses and advantages
These machines are best for floors with deep scratches, gouges, warped boards or old paint and stains — floors that need a lot of help to get back to their former glory. Belt sanders are also effective at flattening and sanding rough-hewn lumber and other wide, flat surfaces. They can be used to sand down soft metals such as aluminum or copper.
Advantages of using a belt sander
- Fast action: A belt sander removes layers of wood quickly, saving time when you’re working on a large, open area of flooring where you can work in the direction of the wood grain
- Excellent for floors and decking
- Easily removes finishes
What is an orbital sander?
Whereas belt sanders are aggressive, orbital sanders, also called jitterbug sanders, are gentler, removing thin layers of material to provide a smooth surface. Sandpaper is attached to a plate, and as you move the machine, the plate moves in a circular motion.
The simplest orbital sanders are handheld devices with a square sanding surface that take a quarter sheet of regular sandpaper. Walk-behind models are more commonly used for floors.
What is a random orbital sander?
Random orbital sanders, also called jitterbug sanders, oscillate in a random pattern, so they leave no swirl pattern on the wood. They use stick-on discs of sandpaper and remove more material than orbital sanders.
Orbital sander uses and advantages
Orbital sanders are best for floors that require a light to medium sanding. If you need to prep a floor for a new top coat of clear finish, an orbital sander is the right machine. They’re also excellent for removing light surface stains, but they won’t remove finishes (random orbital sanders, unlike traditional orbital sanders, can strip paint). Handheld orbital sanders can also smooth composite countertops and strip paint from furniture.
Advantages of using an orbital sander
- Since the plate is rectangular, you can get to the edges of a floor and into corners better than with a belt sander
- You can sand across the grain, useful when working in tight spaces
- You’ll get an ultra-smooth finish for fine detailing, with less hand fatigue
- For beginners, orbital sanders are easier to use than belt or drum sanders, with less risk of leaving gouges or marks