The main difference between a belt sander and an orbital sander is that a belt sander is more effective on a large flat surface. On the other hand, an orbital sander is more suitable if the surface you are working with is small and uneven (For example a curved surface). That covers the basic use-cases, but hang around and we’ll look at all of the pros and cons for each type of sander.
If you are an amateur and plan to take on the next step in your carpentry journey or a professional looking for an upgrade on his workshop, this article might be the guidance you need.
We will shed some light on the debate and decide which type of sander is suitable for your needs.
Pros and Cons of the Belt Sander
The belt sander is the biggest type of sander. It is designed to be used aggressively on larger pieces of wood to remove lots of different kinds of material from the surface of the wood.
In essence, a belt sander consists of a motor and attached to it, two drums that rotate. By the time the drums begin to turn, the sandpaper belt is moved along, and across the surface, we desire to sand.
There are two types of belt sanders, handheld belt sanders, and benchtop belt sanders. As their name suggests, the handheld type is a portable version of the belt sander, which you can take with you when you are going somewhere to work.
On the other hand, the belt sander’s benchtop version is larger, heavier, and packs more power. The benchtop belt sander is supposed to be functioning as a mounted tool aimed for more burdensome duties, while the portable ones are lighter but can be grabbed on the go. So it all depends on what job you need the belt sander for.
If you intend to buy a belt sander, you should pay attention to some basic features of the tool. These include:
- Motor power. The motor of your belt sander is its core, be it benchtop or handheld, motor power should be the first thing you should look at and draw conclusions. Ideally, you want to get as much motor power as possible by paying the same amount of money.
- Belt speed. The power of its motor determines the speed of your sander’s belt. What you should look for regarding belt speed is variable speed control. This is an important feature; it allows you to work with a variety of sandpaper grits while also granting you control of your sander’s power.
- Dust collection. This is a pretty essential feature of almost any sander in the market. The process of sanding creates a lot of dust and splinters, and for that reason, you need a mechanism that collects this dust. Most sanders include a dust bag, while others can be connected to a vacuum. While the vacuum is working better than dust bags, you need to check compatibility before choosing a sander with vacuum connectivity.
Durability. Another vital feature of your tool is its durability. You don’t want a sander that will start to break down after a few months of using it. Specifically, you need your tool to be made of strong materials and include a mechanism that absorbs vibrations.
Since the belt sander is a large, aggressive tool that functions at high speeds, it is best to work it on surfaces that are flat and kind of large. The belt sander’s power does not only remove wood, but it can also remove paint, adhesives, or any other type of material used to coat wood.
Proper belt sanders can even be used to sand surfaces made from a soft type of metal.
The belt’s sandpaper strips got a greater length than those of other sanders; this makes them more durable as they wear down at a slower pace. Also, the increasing length allows you to sand down larger pieces evenly at once, like planks, for example.
Since we have already mentioned that the belt sander is a massive, powerful tool, you are probably thinking that it is not meant for making details and giving shapes to the piece you work on.
And you are right if you think that, belt sanders are not designed for finesse tasks but rather for straight-up sanding.
Also, since this tool is large and powerful, it is not meant to be used by amateurs or inexperienced people. If you are not appropriately trained to use a belt sander, you will most likely damage the piece of wood you are working on.
Pros and Cons of the Orbital Sander
The orbital sander is a light, handheld sanding tool that grants flexibility and can be applied to various places and materials.
Previously we mentioned that a belt sander is an aggressive tool that packs a lot of power. So if the belt sander holds the power of an axe, then the orbital sander holds the accuracy of a scalpel.
An orbital sander is usually used at the last stage of a project, to even out some rough spots and to do polishing.
Orbital sanders come in two types, the regular orbital sanders known as sheet sanders, and the random orbital sanders.
These sanders have a sanding pad with sandpaper attached to it. The sanding pad spins in circles, or orbits, fast enough to remove material from your working piece and smoothen it.
The difference between a regular orbital sander and a random orbital sander is that the regular one spins its sanding pad in the same consistent pattern. The random one spins randomly orbiting in a way that does not follow any pattern.
Generally, orbital sanders are being used in small-scale carpentry jobs for smoothing out spots that were done unevenly by the belt sander or for some finishing touches and details.
But there is a catch; regular orbital sanders can leave swirling marks on the wood or metal piece you are working on because of the consistent orbiting pattern.
To avoid this, you need to be extra careful while maneuvering the regular orbit sander. Alternatively, you can use the random orbit sander, which does not leave marks. The thing is that the randomization of the oscillation needs more power, and the tool has to be larger, which in turn makes the random version a bit more expensive than the regular counterpart.
Considering this, if you are tight on budget and cannot afford both types of orbital sander, you need to think about what kind of jobs you need to do with this tool. Smoothing out uneven surfaces requires a random orbital sander, while corners and curves need a regular one.
In terms of power, orbital sanders vary. Ideally, what you want is a random orbital sander with a powerful motor and a speed control switch. A tool combining these two features will be able to do both the harsh job of a belt sander and the detailed smoothing of the orbital sander.
So in terms of advantages, the orbital sanders offer:
- Smooth surface finishing. Belt sanders usually leave your workpiece with a few uneven surfaces, while orbital sanders, if you put a little extra work, will provide an overly smooth surface.
- Maneuverability. Being lighter, handheld tools, orbital sanders are way easier to maneuver and tire the user way less.
- Detailed work. Because they are more delicate tools and easier to maneuver, orbital sanders grant the user the ability to do detailed work, like corners.
Versatility. While belt sanders are stronger, they are very straightforward in terms of what they can do. On the other hand, orbital sanders can be used in various ways, as long as you are creative.
Just like any other tool orbital sanders got a few weak points as well, these include:
- Decreased material removal rate. Please don’t misunderstand this, orbital sanders can be quite powerful, but in terms of power, they are weaker than belt sanders.
- Swirling marks. This is the main disadvantage of the regular orbit sander. The steady spinning patter brings a high chance to leave some swirling marks on the surface you are working.
- Extra work. These tools are not suitable for large surfaces, so if you end up using an orbital sander for a surface like that, get ready because it will take some time before you are done.
Concluding this article, we have to make a few points. First of all, both belt sanders and orbital are great tools, which ideally you want to have in your workshop. Some tasks are suited for the former, while others for the latter.
In case though you have to choose one of them, you need to consider some things.
Belt and orbital sanders are quite different tools. Belt sanders provide brute force and require an experienced user to bring out the tool’s true potential, and because of that, they are not ideal for amateurs, but they are necessary if you have to work with large pieces or harsh materials.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have orbital sanders. These are not heavy-duty tools and are mostly used for detail work, smoothing out uneven spots, and working out curves, edges and corners.
All in all, if you want to be a true professional carpenter, you need both of these tools. You might even need all three of them, belt, regular orbital, and random orbital sanders, depending on the jobs you want to do. There is no right or wrong choice; it all depends on what you want to do with these tools.