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What are the Different Types of Portable Sander?

By D. Monda Dill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The electric sander is one of the most widely used woodworking power tools. The two basic models are the portable sander and the bench sander. Portable sanders also fall into two categories: belt sanders and finishing sanders, which include finishing sanders, random orbit sanders, and detail sanders.

The portable belt sander is usually considered the most aggressive type of portable sander. It is engineered for heavy-duty sanding applications, and is mainly used to remove large amounts of material from a surface. This portable sander is designed with a continuous loop or belt of sand paper that is stretched across two pulleys that spin it. It is well-suited for smoothing down and leveling rough or uneven surfaces in the initial steps of a sanding project.

The portable finishing sander is often used after a bench sander for further, finer leveling and smoothing of a surface. The three main types of portable finishing sanders are straight-line sanders, random orbital sanders, and detail sanders. While all three types may be used for finishing purposes, they each excel in different applications.

The random orbital sander gets its name from its unique sanding motion, which incorporates two simultaneous motions. It is designed with a circular sanding pad, which is spun in a circle while simultaneously being moved in a random, elliptical loop. This dual sanding action eliminates the problem of swirl and belt-sander marks, creating a very smooth surface.

The random orbital sander is an aggressive type of sander, and is best-suited for sanding large surfaces. This tool’s random sanding motion allows the operator to sand the surface in any direction without scarring or scuffing the wood. It is often designed with a dust collector for nearly dustless sanding.

The straight-line finishing sander is designed with a rectangular, block-shaped base that holds a sheet of sand paper. This type of portable sander moves in a back-and forth motion along the grain of the wood. Unlike the random orbital sander, which has a circular sanding base, the straight-line sander has the capacity to get into corners, and also creates a much smoother surface. Smaller straight-line sander models are referred to as "palm" sanders.

Also called a profile or mouse sander, the detail sander is designed for use on contoured or odd-shaped surfaces and for detailed, intricate sanding applications. It often comes with attachments, and can be used for a number of different projects. The detail sander is well suited for use in millwork and craft projects.

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Discussion Comments

By kentuckycat — On Oct 13, 2011

What type of sander is usually used to prepare hardwood floors when they are being refinished? I know the vast majority of work is done by a larger sander that is pushed over the floor, but how do they get into the corners?

I would guess it is with a belt sander, but I don't know. My friend is wanting me to help refinish the hardwood floors in his dining room. As I have been reading about it, I am starting to think maybe it will be too much work for us. He might be better off trying to get a professional.

By jcraig — On Oct 12, 2011

@emilski - If you can get a cheap belt sander, it will definitely come in handy, but you're right, smaller sanders are a must have.

I don't know exactly what types of small projects you will be doing, but it sounds like a mouse sander might be the best bet for now. Like the article says, they are small and have a pointed tip, so they let you work on almost any project. When I first started, all I had was a mouse sander, and I got by.

If you are going to be working on projects with a lot of flat surfaces, I would suggest adding a random orbital sander to you collection once you have some money to spare. It will give you a much nicer surface than the mouse sander and eliminate the possibility of creating any low or uneven spots.

Personally, I like Bosch sanders, but any should do for starting off.

By Emilski — On Oct 12, 2011

I am just getting into woodworking. I need to buy some type of sander, but I'm not sure what the best kind would be. Most of what I am going to be making is small craft types of things. Probably not anything large like furnature.

I was planning on getting a belt sander, since my friend is offering me an inexpensive used one. After reading this, I'm thinking maybe I need something else this is more precise. What would everyone recommend?

Is there anything I should be looking for when I am buying it? Also, what brands does everyone think are the best, or are they all about the same?

By JimmyT — On Oct 11, 2011

I think for anyone serious about woodworking, all of these are a must have. If you won't be working on large projects, a belt sander might not always be necessary, but it can still be used on a wide range of things.

The thing that brought me to this article in the first place is that I was looking through a catalog the other day and saw a lot of odd portable sanders. Personally, I've never seen them before, but they were selling portable drum sanders and spindle sanders.

I guess there is nothing wrong with making these, but I usually just think of those as being more stationary tools. I could see if you were a contractor who needs them they would be useful, though.

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