DIY Tools

5 Types of Sanders Every DIYer Should Know—Plus 4 You’ve Probably Never Seen Before

Picking the right power sander for your project will save time and result in a high-quality wood finish.
Bob Beacham Avatar
Person holding yellow disc sander.
Photo: istockphoto.com

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn More ›

The variety of electric sanders on the market can be quite bewildering for the new DIYer. Sanding machines come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, and choosing the wrong one can mean the job takes forever, or might even be ruined. On the other hand, the right sander can be fast, efficient, and a pleasure to use.

Below are nine types of sanders that DIY renovators and woodworkers should familiarize themselves with, including the tasks to which each sander is best suited—as well as staff-reviewed and researched recommendations for specific models from retailers.

1. Random Orbital Sander

Blue orbital sander on piece of plywood.
Photo: amazon.com

Of the many different types of sanders out there, the random orbital sander is by far the most popular. It’s probably the first sander most DIYers buy or use, as it’s a versatile, general-purpose wood sander capable of tackling everything from stripping paint and varnish to sanding fine furniture.

The random orbital sander is an improvement over the orbital sander, which simply rotated around a fixed center and often left swirl marks on wood as a result. On a random orbital sander, the circular sanding pad still spins, but it also oscillates following an elliptical path. As a result, it can remove material quickly when the job requires speed. With a change of sandpaper, it is also capable of producing a very smooth finish.

Double-action (DA) sanders also can fall under the random orbital category. Unlike standard double orbital sanders, DA sanders are more specialized tools used for vehicle bodywork and often powered by compressed air.

Best For: All kinds of DIY woodworking around the home and yard.
Our Recommendation: Makita 18V LXT Lithium‑Ion Cordless 5″ Random Orbit Sander at Amazon for $123.03
Makita came out on top in our hands-on testing of the best random orbital sanders, thanks in part to its fast, smooth action making it easy to control even when working hard.

2. Detail Sander

Red detail sander with pointed nose end.
Photo: amazon.com

Detail sanders are the smallest of the electric hand sanders covered here. Because of its compact dimensions and pointed nose design, the detail sander is also frequently referred to as a mouse sander. Like mice, this sander type can reach tight corners and the smallest of gaps. Detail sanders usually come with several interchangeable sanding pads of various sizes and matching sandpaper.

Detail sanders normally have a vibrating or oscillating action similar to a random orbital sander, so they also can be aggressive. Despite that, detail sanders can provide delicate enough handling for sander finishing when necessary. As a con, they won’t remove material as quickly as a random orbital sander. When using the two in combination, however, there are few sanding jobs that a DIYer won’t be able to tackle.

Best For: Hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.
Our Recommendation: Skil 1.2 Amp Multi-Sander at Amazon for $33.80
This Skil was the best value choice in our tests of the best detail sanders on the market for its numerous accessories and excellent maneuverability.

3. Palm Sander

Man holding blue sander to wooden table.
Photo: lowes.com

It’s worth making comparisons between orbital sanders and palm sanders, as the two tools have some similarities. Many palm sanders have 5-inch diameter sanding pads that work with a random orbital motion. There are also 1/4 sheet sanders (which have square pads that use a quarter sheet of standard sandpaper) that are better suited to sanding corners than circular models.

The key difference of palm sanders compared to orbitals can be guessed from their name: Palm sanders are more compact tools designed for one-handed use. They are less aggressive than random orbital sanders, and they are not the best choice for stripping paint. They are, however, light and easy to control, and arguably the best finishing sander for furniture.

Best For: When accuracy is a must, such as when sanding furniture.
Our Recommendation: Bosch 5 In. Palm Random Orbit Sander/Polisher at Lowe’s for $79
This Bosch model was our testers’ top pick as the best palm sander because of its quiet, smooth, and comfortable operation.

4. Handheld Belt Sander

Close up of the sander belt in handheld sander.
Photo: lowes.com

There are two types of belt sander: handheld and benchtop. Their shared name aside, their use cases are quite different. First up are handheld belt sanders, powerful tools designed for heavy-duty tasks like stripping the finish off recycled wood and sanding rough lumber. They are also the most affordable power sander for the initial sanding of hardwood floors. While you can use a belt sander or orbital sander for the latter job, the bottom line is that a belt sander is the better tool for quickly removing a lot of material over a large area.

Handheld belt sanders are specified by the width and length of their sanding belts. A 3-inch-by-21-inch model is a good general-purpose size for DIYers, though pros can find more aggressive 4-inch versions. Using a belt sander can be difficult handling-wise, potentially “running away” from the user if not held firmly. These tools invariably feature an extra grip at their front to improve control and safety, but they should still be handled with extra care.

Best For: Cleaning up recycled wood, rough beams, and floors.
Our Recommendation: Metabo 3 Inch x 21 Inch Variable Speed Belt Sander at Lowe’s for $169
Our favorite handheld choice in our guide to the best belt sanders is this 3-inch-by-12-inch Metabo. It has a powerful 9-amp motor and can sand right up to the wall when working on floors.

5. Benchtop Belt and Disc Sander

Man with goggles sanding wood with large green table sander.
Photo: homedepot.com

Then, there are the bench sander types of belt sanders, which (true to name) are meant for stationary use. Belt and disc sanders’ versatility arguably makes them the best bench sanders for DIYers and amateur woodworking enthusiasts. Disc sanders typically consist of a 4-inch wide belt and a 6-inch disc. A heavy (often cast-iron) base provides added stability, but these sanders should be bolted down for maximum precision—all models will feature mounting holes for this purpose.

The belt section normally runs horizontally, though it can also run vertically on high-end models. A small work table support allows the user to guide workpieces across the belt without danger of sending any wood flying. The work table usually includes a miter gauge to help sand pieces accurately at any angle. Both sanding surfaces can be used to work on flat or curved pieces.

Best For: Sanding and shaping at multiple angles.
Our Recommendation: Ryobi 4″ X 36″ Belt/Disc Sander at The Home Depot for $199
This terrific all-rounder (voted Best Overall in our best bench sanders guide) from Ryobi sports a belt that can run horizontally or vertically, a 6-inch disk, worktable, and miter gauge.

6. Oscillating Spindle Sander

Large oscillating spindle sander.
Photo: amazon.com

Anyone who likes to make wood furniture may already be familiar with the oscillating spindle sander. There’s no better tool for sanding curves of any kind, particularly on chair parts and table legs. Floor-standing models are often found in pro workshops, but more affordable benchtop spindle sanders are also widely available.

The term “oscillating spindle” refers to the action of the sanding drum in the center of the worktable. It not only rotates at high speed but also oscillates up and down. This offers two benefits. First, it helps remove scratch marks quickly, providing a smoother finish. And second, it uses different parts of the sandpaper sleeve, prolonging its lifespan.

Best For: Sanding curved workpieces.
Our Recommendation: Shop Fox Oscillating Spindle Sander at Amazon for $215
This oscillating spindle sander has a powerful and durable ½-horsepower (hp) motor, and includes a choice of drum sizes, plus several sanding sleeves to get started.

7. Drum Sander

Large drum sander for flooring.
Photo: homedepot.com

There are two tools commonly referred to as drum sanders, and both are quite different from one another. The first is a rotary sander, which is a freestanding or benchtop sander featuring a drum that runs horizontally above a table surface. The drum can be moved up and down to sand wood of various thicknesses. These are very large power-sanding machines, usually only found in pro workshops or manufacturing environments.

The other type of drum sander is the one designed for floors. Imagine an oversized vacuum cleaner, but instead of a suction head, it has a wide rotating belt. There’s no faster way to sand hardwood floors than with a drum floor sander, but these tools cost thousands of dollars unfortunately. For that reason, a handheld belt sander may be more practical for most DIYers. However, it is possible to rent a floor sander from several retailers, making it an affordable and convenient option if you need to sand larger sections of flooring than would be feasible with a handheld model.

Best For: Industrial-scale sanding (rotary sander) or sanding hardwood floors (drum floor sander).
Our Recommendation: American Sanders Drum Floor Sander Rental at The Home Depot, price varies
With a powerful 15 hp motor and 8-inch sanding width, this high-quality machine makes short work of sanding wood flooring.

8. File Sander

File sander with black handle.
Photo: homedepot.com

File sanders are a lightweight and maneuverable detail sander popular in both woodworking and metal shops. This type of belt sander uses belts that are just a half-inch wide, making it particularly useful for sanding in hard-to-reach areas without using a bench sander—as well as for shaping wood. In metalwork, file sanders are frequently used for removing burrs and tidying up welds.

Most file sanders operate at variable speeds, so they can be adjusted to suit different materials. Metal, for example, usually requires faster speeds than wood. The angle of a file sander’s belt can also be adjusted to offer further versatility. The narrow belt can easily become dislodged, so adjustable tracking is a key feature. The best file sanders do this automatically as you work.

Best For: Detail-sanding wood and metal.
Our Recommendation: Wen Variable Speed Detailing File Sander at The Home Depot for $36.40
This budget-friendly model has automatic belt tracking, variable speed, and tool-free belt changing.

9. Drywall Sander

Drywall sander with long pole with extra sanding discs.
Photo: amazon.com

Anyone who’s ever sanded drywall with a handheld pad knows how tiring and messy it can be. Fortunately, there are plenty of power sander alternatives to make life easier, as our testers discovered when ranking the best drywall sanders against one another. At the entry level are affordable pole sanders and vacuum cleaner attachment kits; at the opposite end of the scale are high-quality corded and cordless drywall sander models.

Many powered drywall sanders have rotating heads, which are great for covering large areas quickly—but not so good in corners or where walls join ceilings. Some higher-end models have a triangular head to overcome this problem. Weight, reach, and dust extraction are the other key features to consider in a drywall sander.

Best For: Sanding drywall, and even floors with the right model.
Our Recommendation: Wen Variable Speed 5-Amp Dual-Head Drywall Sander at Amazon for $154.36
WEN offers an affordable, reliable tool with the advantage of two heads.

Choosing the Right Sandpaper for the Job

Technically speaking, these products should be called abrasives, not sandpaper, as sand hasn’t been used in sandpaper for many years. However, the term has stuck around. The two key qualities to look for when picking out sandpaper for a task are the material and the grit. Here are some common sandpaper materials:

  • Silicon carbide is arguably the most common sandpaper material and a great option all around. It can be used for hand or machine sanding.
  • Aluminum oxide is more durable than silicon carbide and better for sanding metals. Some people also use it on hardwoods. This type also is suitable for hand or machine sanding.
  • Zirconia alumina and ceramic alumina are abrasives that are mainly used for metal, usually in sanding machines.
  • Flint, garnet, and emery sandpaper are also available but largely surpassed by the above materials.

A sandpaper’s grit indicates its performance, with lower numbers being more aggressive and higher numbers resulting in smoother finishes. Here’s a rough guide to sandpaper grit:

  • Extra Coarse (20 to 40 grit): This is for heavy-duty sanding of rough hardwood beams or floorboards. It can be too aggressive for softwoods, and many DIYers may never need it.
  • Coarse (60 to 80 grit): This can be used for removing old paint, initial sanding of rough store-bought lumber, and similar tasks. It is a common choice when starting to sand DIY projects.
  • Medium (100 to 150 grit): This range of grits are often used for the final sanding of softwoods, particularly when pieces need to be varnished or painted.
  • Fine (160 to 300 grit): This type of grit is used to create very smooth finishes on hardwood furniture projects. Fine grits are also recommended when sanding metals.
  • Extra Fine (400 to 600 grit). 400 grit is often recommended before spraying paint for auto bodywork.

These sandpaper grit numbers will get you started, but everyone develops their own preference depending on the material being sanded and the finish it calls for. Metalworkers and even high-quality furniture makers sometimes use up to 1,000 grit sandpaper. It’s worth having a selection of grits on hand and experimenting until you’re happy with the way a piece looks.

About the Author

Bob Beacham is an engineer by trade and spent 25 years working on everything from auto parts to oil rigs. He then followed his passion for woodworking, and ran his own pro shop for 11 years. Along the way he and his wife completed two home renovations, virtually from the ground up. Bob started writing for the Bob Vila team in 2020 and covers tools, outdoor equipment, and home improvement projects.