Belt Sander vs Orbital Sander

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Belt sander vs orbital sander, both have a place in the wood smoothing process. Learn about these two sanding tools, how they work, and what they do. We’ll take you through the specifications for belt sanders and explain the many variations of orbital sanders.

Find out what the major differentiating factor is between these two tools, when to use them, and which is better.

What Is a Belt Sander?

A belt sander is a hand-operated power tool used for smoothing and shaping material, usually wood.

A guy using belt sander for woods

Belt sanders have a motor encased in plastic. The motor drives two spinning drums. A continuous loop of sandpaper loops around the drums.

This abrasive belt is introduced to a relatively soft surface to smooth or shape it.

Belt sanders are powered by electricity, using a power cord or rechargeable battery pack. They sand in a linear motion rather than back-and-forth, side-to-side, or around in circles.

A belt sander can also be mounted upside down on a homemade or prefabricated stand. When used in this configuration, belt sanders are usually referred to as bench sanders.

When sanding any material, clogged sandpaper is a concern. Sanding belts tend to clog less than other types of sandpaper, thanks to the way they move around the sander.

As the sanding belt moves around the drums, the sandpaper is pushed into a convex shape. This opens the space between abrasive particles, allowing dust to escape.

Learn about the differences in a drum sander and a planer for smoothing the surface of your wood.

Belt Sander Specifications

If you’re considering adding a belt sander to your toolbox, familiarize yourself with some of the most common specifications for these machines.

Size

Belt sander size is communicated through the width and length of the sanding belt. Belt width ranges from one to four inches, and belt length can be up to 24 inches. The larger the machine, the more difficult it is to control.

Platen

The platen is a piece of metal or graphite that helps keep the sanding surface flat, even during aggressive sanding.

A belt sander with a warped or twisted platen (as is often the case with metal) will produce uneven sanding results. The platen is replaceable, so it is possible to upgrade a belt sander with a graphite platen.

Tracking

Belt sanders rely on perfectly aligned front and rear drums to function properly. Some belt sanders have an auto-tracking function, while others need to be adjusted manually.

Speed

Belt sanders may be single speed or variable speed. At higher speeds, the belt sander will remove material more quickly. A slower speed gives you more control during the sanding process.

A man using orbital sander

What Is an Orbital Sander?

An orbital sander is a handheld power tool used for smoothing and shaping wood, with a base that moves in circles rather than back-and-forth or side-to-side.

The base of an orbital sander might be circular, triangular, or rectangular. Some orbital sanders accept regular sheets of sandpaper, while others require special sanding pads or sanding discs.

The plastic-encased motor of an orbital sander is responsible for driving the motion of the base. They are powered using rechargeable battery packs or built-in power cords.

The base and sanding pad or disc may attach via hook-and-loop fabric, or the base of the orbital sander may have clamps to hold the sandpaper in place.

Types of Orbital Sanders

Any sanding tool that moves the base in a circular motion can be referred to as an orbital sander. This category of tools spans several different types of orbital sander, including detail sanders, sheet sanders, and random-orbit sanders.

Random-Orbit Sanders

Random-orbit sanders are a subcategory of orbital sanders. In addition to moving in tiny circles, the head also moves back and forth. A sanding pattern of irregular, constantly overlapping circles allows the random-orbit sander to smooth wood without leaving sanding marks behind.

Random-orbit sander size is communicated through the size of the sanding discs. The sanding pad on a random-orbit sander may be anywhere from one inch in diameter to six inches or even more. The standard disc size for a random-orbit sander is five inches, and this is a good fit for most jobs.

Orbital Sheet Sanders

Orbital sheet sanders are the precursor to random-orbit sanders. They are less powerful, remove less material, and tend to leave sanding marks behind.

The two advantages of an orbital sheet sander are its rectangular base and its compatibility with regular sandpaper. The rectangular base allows an orbital sheet sander to get all the way into tight corners. No special sanding discs are required.

Instead, a sheet sander takes regular sandpaper, cut to size.

The size of an orbital sheet sander is communicated based on how much of a standard sheet of sandpaper it uses, e.g. quarter-sheet sanders use one-fourth of a sheet of sandpaper.

A man using an orbital sander for wood

Orbital Detail/Finishing/Sanders

Another option for sanding in corners with an orbital sanding pattern is a detail sander, also called a finishing sander. These sanders have triangular sanding pads and use an orbiting motion to remove material. Small, one-handed detail or finishing sanders are also known as ‘mouse sanders’.

Orbital Palm Sanders

Sanders that can fit in the palm of your hand (or at least be operated one-handed) are often referred to as ‘palm sanders’.

Orbital Sander vs Belt Sander

Now that we’ve covered the basics about these two tools, let’s compare and contrast them.

Similarities

The similarities between belt sanders and orbital sanders include their purpose and the amount of dust they produce.

Purpose

An orbital sander and a belt sander share the same basic function: they use abrasion (sandpaper, sanding discs, or sanding pads) to remove material, usually from wood. Both tools can be used to sand metal or concrete, although neither is really designed with this in mind. 

Dust Production

Belt sander and orbital sanders produce a lot of dust. Controlling the dust is a major part of using either tool. All orbital sanders and belt sanders should come with a dust collection bag.

Some models may be able to connect directly to a vacuum hose.

Differences

The differences between a belt sander and an orbital sander are the amount of material they remove, and the sanding pattern used to remove material.

Material Removal

Belt sanders remove material much more aggressively than orbital sanders. Resting a belt sander too long in one spot can quickly ruin your workpiece.

While it’s possible to oversand with orbital sanders, especially more powerful random-orbit sanders, the slower rate of material removal makes it less likely.

Sanding Pattern

Orbital sanders move the abrasive material around in tiny circles known as orbits. The sanding belt of a belt sander moves in a linear motion, sanding in a straight line.

Major Differentiating Factor

The major differentiating factor between a belt sander and an orbital sander is how quickly it can ruin your workpiece.

Belt sanders excel at removing old finishes and removing lots of material, quickly. This makes them a great choice for sanding large, flat, rough surfaces where finesse isn’t an issue.

Orbital sanders are much more delicate. While they will certainly sand down a sharp corner if you run them over the edge, they don’t chew through wood like a belt sander.

When to Use a Belt Sander

One of the best uses for a belt sander is to remove old layers of paint and finish. Its quick sanding action can remove old finishes faster than any other handheld sanding tool.

Use a belt sander to aggressively remove material from both hardwood and softwood. It can also be used to grind softer metals such as aluminum.

While a belt sander won’t take the place of a floor polisher or even an angle grinder with a diamond wheel, it can be used to smooth the surface of concrete.

Belt sanders are often used to level material of different thicknesses, such as when adding a new plank to an existing hardwood floor.

When trimming wood down to meet a scribed line, a belt sander can be used to quickly blast away the excess material.

When to Use an Orbital Sander

Use an orbital sander to take wood from slightly rough to super-smooth. It’s not the best fit for removing old finish.

An orbital sander with a rectangular or triangular base, such as a sheet sander or mouse sander, can be used to sand the corners of hardwood floors.

Orbital sanders tend to leave cross-grain scratches in wood due to the regular circular pattern.

A random-orbit sander will remove material efficiently without these cross-grain scratches.

Any orbital sander can leave swirl marks in the wood, so they aren’t usually used for the last sanding pass. Hand sanding, or a sander with a back-and-forth motion, is better for sanding with the grain on finished pieces.

Which Is Better, a Belt Sander or an Orbital Sander?

Belt sanders and orbital sanders are both valuable tools, and each has a place in your workshop.

Belt sanders are better at removing lots of material, such as trimming down to a scribe line or blasting away old finish.

Orbital sanders are better at detail and finish sanding, where the goal is more about improving the appearance and feel than changing the size, shape, or thickness of the wood.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.