Orbital, belt and disc sanders: What’s the difference and when should I use them?

Sanders are a popular type of power tool used to smooth out surfaces by applying an abrasive force. They come in many shapes and sizes, and for many different applications. Three popular types of sander include orbital sanders, belt sanders and disc sanders. Here we explore the main features of each and outline how they can be used.

What is an orbital sander?

As the name suggests, orbital sanders get their name from their rotating (or “orbiting”) disc. Also called ‘random orbital sanders’, they achieve a sanding effect by simultaneously spinning this disk and moving it in small ellipses (or circular motions). 

Small holes found on the disc of orbital sanders allow dust to be sucked away from the surface into a sander bag or chamber. This prevents dust from building up under the disk; improves air quality; and ensures quality of work.

Unlike the more aggressive rotary sanders, orbital sanders are ideal for light sanding and finishing – helping to remove imperfections from wood. On hardwood floors, orbital sanders can be used prior to staining or varnishing, to achieve an ultra smooth finish. Orbital sanders do not need to follow the grain of the wood, and they do not leave swirl marks on surfaces.


What is a belt sander? 

Belt sanders are another versatile type of tool for sanding and shaping wood – and other materials. A strip of sandpaper wraps around two drums positioned at either end of the tool, forming a continuous “belt” of sandpaper. 

Suitable for large and small projects, belt sanders thrive on large, flat surfaces. They are robust enough to quickly strip many different surfaces – so long as you choose the right type and grit of sandpaper for the job at hand. Belt sanders are typically handheld, but they can also be mounted on a workbench. 

What is a disc sander? 

Like orbital sanders, disc sanders have a rotating disc that is used to sand and grind wood or metal to create a smooth finish. However, unlike orbital sanders, disc sanders feature a circular platter (or wheel), with an abrasive disc attached to one face. The wheel and disc then spin around the centre axis of the sander, powered by either an electric or battery-powered motor, or by compressed air. Disk sanders can be hand held, or stationery (i.e. they sit on top – of or are fixed to – a workbench).

What is a floor sander? Can floor sanders be used on decks?  

A floor sander is just another name for a drum sander – a heavy-duty sander that can be used on hardwood floors, decks, parquetry, cork, fibreboard and more.

Is a drum sander or orbital sander best for hardwood floors?

Both drum and orbital sanders are useful for restoring hardwood floors. Depending on the size of your floor you may find that a larger type of drum sander has more grunt, for making lighter work of sanding large areas. Orbital sanders can also be used for finely finishing floors after sanding, to get them ready for varnishing or staining. 

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