- Best Palm Sander
- Best Orbital Sander
- Best 6" Dual Action Air Sander
- Best Detail Sander
- Best Finish Sander
Of all the power tools manufactured, there are probably more types of sanders than any other category. A wide variety of sanders have been developed through the years, each of which performs a specific function different than the others. While there may be some overlap between different types of sanders and their use, there is enough difference to justify each style.
Sanders are used more for finishing work than anything else. They’re intended for final shaping and smoothing after cutting to remove tool marks while smoothing out the shape of the workpiece. Determining the type of sander to use for a particular project depends upon the shape and size of the workpiece as well as how fine of a sanding job needs to be performed.
It is not unusual for a do-it-yourselfer to buy several different types of sanders. Since there’s no one sander which can work for everything, having several different ones to choose from in the toolbox is a real advantage. To help you pick the best sander for your needs, we have prepared an informative buyer's guide provided for you below.
Best Palm Sander:
Of all the types of power sanders in existence, palm sanders have to be the most useful. Correctly referred to as 1/4 sheet sanders (because they were originally designed for 1/4 of a standard size sheet of sandpaper), they won’t take off as much material as a belt sander but will provide a high quality, smooth finish to your woodworking project.
The purpose of sanding (at least in woodworking) is usually to smooth a finished project prior to applying your finish. You’ll never accomplish that with a belt sander because it removes material too fast. That’s great for shaping, but not for finishing. On the other hand, a palm sander allows you to remove all tooling marks, burrs, splinters, and rough edges without reshaping the workpiece you’re preparing for finishing.
Palm sanders work by vibration and there are two ways that this can be accomplished. The first is an off center flywheel attached to the motor inside the sander so when the motor is turned on, this flywheel is turned, “pulling” the entire unit towards the heavier side of the flywheel. The second type is mounted off center to the sanding pad, or platen. As the motor turns, it moves the platen in a circular or orbital motion; this is where the name “orbital sander” actually comes from.
The difference between a palm sander and a random orbital sander is the random orbital sander is designed using a combination of both the methods mentioned in the paragraph above. This insures the sanding pattern doesn’t cause swirls in the material. While this isn’t important for woodworking, it is for automotive painting which is where they are typically used.
For our list, I’ve looked for palm sanders that are as versatile as possible. Considering the various shapes, materials and contours one typically works on with a palm sander, versatility is key. To this end, I really like the “mouse” sanders, named for the pointed end and overall mouse-like shape to the sander. While a regular square palm sander works great for large surfaces, edges and walls, the mouse style sanders are better for tight areas, inside corners, moldings, raised panel doors, and curved or turned pieces.
Although almost every palm sander I’ve ever seen has a bag attachment for collecting sawdust, I have yet to see one that’s really efficient. Supposedly, the cooling fan for the motor, which is located just behind the platen, collects the dust and passes it on to the dust bag. For it to work, you must use the included plate which pokes holes through the sandpaper.
Probably the most versatile palm sander on the market; this unit by Black & Decker wins, hands down. The best is that the SmartSelectDial automatically adjusts the sander for your application. This unit even comes with 4 interchangeable bases. Read Full Review
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The great thing about Skil's Octo sander is the series of LED lights letting you know when you're applying too much pressure on the pad. This sander runs at an amazing 23,000 opm and also comes with 8 interchangeable attachments that can be used in place of the tip part of the sanding shoe. Read Full Review
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Milwaukee's 1/4 sheet sander is a real powerhouse, with a 3.0 amp motor. That will help you in those times when you really have to bear down on the sander to get rid of cutting marks in the workpiece. Read Full Review
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Makita designed their 1/4 sheet sander with ball bearings for smoother operation, lower vibration and long life. The sanding pad is supported by a cast aluminum shoe, with an through-the-pad dust collection system. Read Full Review
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The overmolded handle on the Hitachi sander makes it the most comfortable sander to use on the market. The motor drives at at an incredible 14,000 opm, making it the fastest palm sander I've seen. Read Full Review
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Best Orbital Sander:
Finishing sanders require a lot more finesses than rough sanding, not so much on the part of the user, but on the part of the tool. Whereas belt sanders are designed to take off a lot of material as fast as possible, orbital sanders (especially random orbital sanders) are designed to provide the smoothest possible finish.
The random orbital action is specifically designed to prevent gouge marks and swirl marks in the finish. A standard orbital sander can cause these swirls and gouges because the same part of the sanding disk will pass over the same point in the work piece from the same direction, several times. With a constantly changing random orbital, it provides a smoother, error-free finish. That’s what has made them popular in industry, auto-body repair, and more recently in woodworking.
Even with this great finish, random orbital sanders take off material much faster than a vibratory sander can. That’s mostly due to the greater amount of movement that the sander has over the work surface. Even using the same abrasive, you’ll get better results out of a random orbital than you will out of a vibratory sander.
Some woodworkers have been leery over moving to the random orbital, because they’re afraid of the results of sanding across the grain. Traditionally, that has been a problem, especially when using orbital sanders; however, the random action eliminates this concern. Even so, it’s not recommended using random orbital sanders with coarse grit sandpapers on wood as they should only be used with fine and very fine grit sandpapers.
The problem with a random orbital sander is the vibration. The random orbital action is accomplished with an off-center cam. This creates a considerable amount of vibration, which translates to operator fatigue but can be offset somewhat by counterbalancing the cam.
Today, most random orbital sanders use hook-and-loop sanding sheets. While considerably more expensive than plain sandpaper, or even adhesive backed paper, they last well. They’re also removable for reuse, whereas adhesive backed disks must be thrown away once removed. You can still buy pads for the sanders which allow the use of adhesive backed disks, but most of them do not come with that pad.
This innovative sander has been redesigned to eliminate vibration. The pad is divided into two concentric sections, which counter-rotate, pushing the vibration into the work piece, where it's going to help sand and not tire your hand out. Read Full Review
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Festool's line of power tools are some of the best designed and manufactured power tools around. This innovative sander provides three sanding modes to go anywhere from rapid material removal to fine finishes. Read Full Review
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Bosch has gone a step farther with their random orbital sander, providing another mode for faster material removal. With a 6.5 amp motor it has plenty of power, even when you bear down on the sander. Read Full Review
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If you're the type of handyman who leans on his sanders, then you’ll need this model. Milwaukee has made the most powerful random orbital on the market, strong enough that you shouldn't be able to bog it down without really trying. Read Full Review
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Comparable to Milwaukee's sander, the DeWalt is also much more comfortable. This one is designed to be easy to hang on to, whether using it as a palm sander, or holding around the sides. Read Full Review
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Best 6" Dual Action Air Sander:
There are a wide variety of sanders on the market, designed for a number of different purposes. For automotive finishing, the random orbital sander has been long considered the best way to go, providing an extremely smooth finish, no gouging and no swirl marks. However, when a lot of material removal is needed (such as for rough smoothing of body putty), a random orbital isn’t as good as a straight orbital. Some manufacturers have solved this problem by combining the two into what is known as a dual-action sander.
More recently, woodworkers have started using random orbital sanders as well, especially with fine and very fine sandpaper so that they can take advantage of the fine finish these models provide. They cut considerably faster than a vibratory sander (such as a palm sander), combining quick material removal with fine finish.
These dual-action sanders are air powered, so you’ll need a compressor that can provide a minimum of 4 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of continuous air. Check your compressor before buying, as most small home compressors won’t provide that much. Typically, you need a compressor that’s at least 2 HP with an 8 gallon tank to be able to produce this much air volume. However, under load most DA sanders have a much higher air consumption, often at 11-17 CFM. To meet that requirement, you’ll need a 5 HP compressor with at least a 16 gallon tank.
As air tools, these sanders must be oiled every day they’re used and a couple of drops of oil in the air inlet is all that’s needed. Please note, the air pressure will blow the oil through the motor and some will spray out the exhaust so be sure to run the sander for a minute before getting near any wood that you might be sanding. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up with oil spots in the finish. The air motor in these tools can wear constantly, especially if not oiled. Low quality air tools tend to wear out quickly, as the rubbing of motor vanes against the housing eventually wears them out.
Like any sander, these units will create quite a bit of vibration, especially in random orbital mode. This can’t be designed out of the tool, as the orbital action itself causes the vibration. However, a counterweighted orbital mechanism reduces the effect of the vibration. Rubber covered housings and handles help reduce the vibration as well.
Of any sander company, Dynabrade is the choice of professionals, both in industry and in auto-body work. This sander has a built in vac, increasing dust pickup before the suction from a dust collection system. At 12,000 RPM, it's fast, making work easier and faster. Read Full Review
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This sander has a larger orbital action, 3/8" which helps it remove more material than most do. At the same time, the larger orbit reduces the tendency to scratch the work surface, making it ideal for fine finish work. Read Full Review
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The built-in muffler and light weight of this sander make for lower operator fatigue. With an adjustable built-in regulator, you can control speed without having to use the trigger. Read Full Review
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Chicago Pneumatic is the only company I've seen that puts a lock-off feature in the handle for safety; a nice feature, especially when many people are using the shop. Another variable speed unit, this one tops out at 10,000 RPM. Read Full Review
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Campbell Hausfeld has one approval from woodworkers from all over for the finish their sanders provide. This one has been designed as a multi-use tool, which can be used on wood, fiberglass and automotive body putty. Read Full Review
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Best Detail Sander:
Detail sanders are a fairly new addition to the sander lineup. These tools allow the user to sand in tight areas, where once before it was virtually impossible. While there are several different variations on what could be considered a detail sander, they all allow the ability to sand into inside corners, which are traditionally considered the hardest thing to sand.
Detail sanders and multi-tools are almost the same thing. In fact, it’s a bit of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” sort of scenario. Multi-tools are detail sanders that can take other types of accessories for cutting and scraping, as well as having a sanding pad. These two tools work pretty much the same, and multi-tools are used by a lot of people as detail sanders.
These are vibratory sanders, which use a self-stick sanding pad. The self-stick is usually accomplished by Velcro, rather than using an adhesive. The nice thing about the Velcro is that it makes the pads reusable, which considering their price, is almost a necessity to avoid bankruptcy.
The key to an effective detail sander is the number of oscillations per minute (OPM) it offers. Along with the sandpaper grit, that determines how fast the sander takes off material. Some of these units have built-in connections for air hoses, allowing them to be hooked directly into a shop-vac or dust collection system. Considering the amount of dust any sanding operation can create, I personally like tools which allow dust collection.
Some manufacturers are starting to create cordless versions of these tools, but they are rather new to the market. The problem with cordless detail sanders, like several other types of tools, is that they run continually for a long period of time when being used. So, no matter what, they eat up batteries fast. The only practical way to use a cordless detail sander is to have a Li-Ion one, with several batteries and a fast charger.
The great thing about this tool is that it’s truly universal. I don’t care who you're getting your sanding pads and accessories form, the one ton over-center clamp on this tool will accept them just fine. Read Full Review
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Fein invented the multi-tool/detail sander and still makes one of the best ones out there. A bit pricey, but this is a top quality tool which comes with a wide range of accessories. Read Full Review
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Festool is big on dust collection, so this tool, like all their tools, has a built-in dust collection system. I like that, especially in a sander which produces too much dust. Read Full Review
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Dynabrade makes professional sanding and grinding equipment. As such, this is an air-driven tool, making it smaller and lighter to work with. Read Full Review
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Best Finish Sander:
There are lots of different types of sanders which could accurately be called finish sanders including random orbital sanders, vibratory palm sanders and detail sanders. However, this list is to deals with the units which typically fall through the cracks; mostly 1/3 and 1/2 sheet finish sanders.
It’s easy to think of these as just the big brother of the quarter-sheet palm sander and that newer designs have made them obsolete; however, nothing could be farther from the truth. These sanders will blow away any other finish sander for sheer production. The larger pad is backed by a bigger motor, with a much larger vibration which allows these sanders to take off material much faster than you could with a palm sander.
While some would say random orbital sanders fulfill the place that these sanders do, even a really high quality random orbital sander can create gouges and swirl marks, which these sanders avoid. These sanders approach the efficiency of belt sanders for material removal, minus the risk of gouging and other types of damage to your work piece. They’re designed for finish work, which no belt sander can do. Besides taking off material fast, these sanders are excellent for when an extremely flat finished surface is needed. The larger pad size makes it a much better sander for use on tabletops and doors, or any other large surface that needs to be sanded flat.
There really aren’t a lot of features to look for in a finish sander. Sandpaper attachment is important, as having a clamping system that’s hard to work with can destroy paper way too quickly. Variable speed is nice to have in order to adjust the sander to the work you’re doing.
The big issue for a lot of users is the efficiency of the dust collection system. These babies create a lot of dust, so you want something that will collect as much of it as possible. Not all of them have dust collectors, and not all the dust collectors work well. Nevertheless, that’s the biggest difference that you often find between one finish sander and the next.
Like everything else in Festool's lineup, this one is designed to work together with their dust collection system. Sanding sheets connect with a hook and loop system, and the sander has adjustable speed. Read Full Review
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Bosch OS50VC 120-Volt 3.4-Amp Variable Speed 2-Sheet Orbital Finishing Sander with Vibration Control
Bosch has really done an excellent job with the redesign of their 1/2 sheet sander. Besides adding variable speed, they've done some great things with vibration control. Their reworked paper clamp is easier to work with, holding the paper taut on the extra-thick pad. Read Full Review
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This Makita is variable speed with a pad that can handle both hook and loop sanding sheets and half sheets of sandpaper. The internal dust collection system uses paper bags for better filtration and ease of disposal. Read Full Review
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This Festool is a rather unique sander, designed for tight places. It operates just like the bigger finish sanders, but isn't a quarter-sheet sander. It's in a category all by itself. Read Full Review
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Sander Buyer's Guide
Before sanding, skilled carpenters had to use planes and scrapers to smooth out a piece of wood they were working on. This is why there’s so much old woodwork around in which you can still see cutting marks. Unless it was necessary, the time consuming process of smoothing out a surface was seen as an unnecessary cost.
Sanding has made it possible for anyone to properly finish a project, giving a smooth, even surface to finish. When electric sanders came along, that just made it possible to finish off workpieces all that much easier. For people who don't have a lot of patience for sanding (like myself), having a sander or two (or three) around makes projects much more enjoyable.
The trick is figuring out the type of sander you need in order to provide the finish you’re looking for. While the grit of the sandpaper has a lot to do with the finish a sander gives you, so does the type of sanding action said sander provides.
Types of Portable Sanders
While we could break down the types of sanders there are into a wide range of specialties, there are seven basic categories of portable power sanders.
Belt sanders, whether portable or hand-held, are designed for taking off a lot of material quickly. This makes them perfect for final shaping of workpieces, before finishing sanding. However, the same thing that makes them good for taking off a lot of material quickly makes them a poor choice for finishing sanding. Even with a fine sanding belt, a belt sander will reshape material quickly and possibly destroy it if you’re not careful; you’re really not going to get a smooth finish with a belt sander either.
Palm sanders fall into two sub-categories; quarter sheet sanders and "mouse" sander with both operating the same way, being vibratory sanders. That means the motor is attached to an eccentric cog, which is in turn attached to the sanding pad. This creates the vibratory action which cuts the material. This is a fairly typical sander for woodworking and probably the most common one you'll find in a woodworker's shop. It is not used for metalwork at all.
The basic difference between the two types of palm sanders is their shape. Quarter-sheet sanders are designed to use a quarter sheet of sandpaper. There’s a clamping system used to hold the sanding sheets in place but they’ll also work quite well with self-stick sanding disks which stick directly to the pad without having to use the clamps. The mouse style usually uses sanding sheets that stick with Velcro. The biggest advantage of these types is they’re extremely good for getting into inside corners.
Detail sanders are the new kid on the block, stealing that title from the mouse style palm sanders. They’re based on the oscillating tools that perform so many tasks and in fact, many are the exact same thing. Like the palm sander they work by vibration; however, the vibration in a detail sander is much finer which helps eliminate scratch marks from the sanding medium. The sanding pad is smaller on these tools so they don't take off a lot of material at any one time.
There are also a few unusual detail sanders which still fit best in this category rather than any other. These would include pneumatically driven sanders and pencil sanders. These don't operate the same way as the oscillating ones do but still designed for detail-oriented work.
In reality, all of the sanders we’re talking about can be called finish sanders because that's what they’re used for. However, we are actually referring to a specific type of sander when we talk about finish sanders, either the 1/3 or 1/2 sheet sander. These are essentially the big brother to the quarter sheet palm sander and have clamps to hold the sanding sheet as well.
These sanders have two main advantages over the quarter sheet sander. First of all the larger pad size means you can cover more territory at a time, speeding up the sanding process. To speed it up even more, they operate at a faster speed. These sanders are usually heavier, meaning you don't need to provide as much pressure when sanding horizontal surfaces; but you might want to have a quarter sheet sander available for sanding vertical surfaces.
Orbital sanders fall somewhere in between the extremes of being a fine finish sander and taking off material like a belt sander will. They can take off material much faster than vibratory sanders, while providing a much better finish than belt sanders can. Originally, orbital sanders were developed for auto-body work, but woodworkers are starting to use them as well, especially for use with tight grained hardwoods. The caution that needs to be taken when using orbital sanders with wood is sanding isn’t done across the grain.
Orbital sanders almost exclusively use self-stick sanding disks, although Velcro sanding disks are gradually replacing them. These higher quality disks will last a long time if used correctly.
Dual Action Sanders
Random orbital sanders, a sub-category of orbital sanders combine the orbital pattern with a second rotating pattern, eliminating the possibility of causing a swirl pattern in the surface being sanded. This is especially good for fine finish work, whether in wood or metal.
Dual action sanders allow you to choose between normal orbital action and random orbital. This allows you the faster cutting of the orbital pattern and then you can switch over to the random orbital for the fine finish work.
What to Look for in a Sander
The first thing is always to select the type of sander you need for the work you’re going to do. Don't be surprised if you can't find one sander to do everything as most people end up with multiple sanders.
When looking at sanders, the issue isn’t power but rather control. Being able to accurately control the sander, especially for finish sanding, is a major issue. Sanders operating at a higher speed will cut faster and provide a smoother finish along with less swirl than slower operating ones.
Operator comfort is a major issue with any sort of sander. Both vibratory and orbital sanders shake constantly which contributes to operator fatigue. Rubber over-molded handles, shock-mounted mechanisms, and dual hand grips all help in dealing with operator fatigue.
Many vibratory and orbital sanders now use self-stick sanding sheets. These can either be adhesive or hook & loop. The added convenience of self-stick sheets is time since changing sanding sheets is limited to a few seconds, rather than several minutes of struggling with latches and trying to make the sanding sheet smooth. Although costlier, these very convenient self-stick sheets really pay for themselves.