Drum Sander vs Planer

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Drum sanders and planers are two tools with a considerable amount of overlap. But they are not the same! Learn about the similarities and differences between these two tools, and when to use each one. We’ll also highlight the major differentiating factor and tell you which one is better.

What Is a Drum Sander?

A drum sander is a large tool used to remove excess material from a surface, using an abrasive material.

A yellow planer inside work room

Drum sanders are electric tools. A drum sander has a large drum that spins when the motor is running. Sandpaper is wrapped around the drum.

When the drum is introduced to a stationary surface, the abrasive material on the sandpaper scrapes away minute amounts of material, reducing them to dust.

You have to be careful using a drum sander, as they are large, powerful machines capable of removing a lot of wood in a short period of time.

Types of Drum Sander

There are three main types of drum sanders: handheld drum sanders, walk-behind drum sanders, and bench drum sanders.

Handheld Drum Sanders

Handheld drum sanders are expensive, specialty tools used for giving a brushed appearance to sheet metal after repairs or fabrication.

Walk-Behind Drum Sanders

Walk-behind drum sanders resemble a push lawnmower in shape and size. They quickly sand down horizontal surfaces such as hardwood floors.

Stationary Drum Sanders

Stationary drum sanders are large machines mounted on stands or placed on top of workbenches.

What Is a Planer?

A planer is a tool with a blade-studded cutterhead, used for shaving off layers of wood.

When used properly, planers make smooth, even cuts at a precise depth. Planers are used to mill lumber, flattening stock and trimming boards down to size. A planer can take warped, cupped, or twisted wood, cut away the excess, and leave behind a usable board.

There are several different types of planer.

A guy holding a wood in a drum sander

Types of Planer

The three main types of planers you’ll find in a woodworking shop are manual hand planers, electric planers, and bench planers. Depending on the type, using a planer can range from very easy to very difficult.

Manual Hand Planer

A hand planer is a manually operated tool, requiring muscular strength to draw it across the wood. There are many, many different kinds of hand planers, varying by region and purpose.

The best hand planers have an angled cutting edge tucked inside a broad, flat base, and an adjustable knob. The knob controls the depth of the cut. As the flat base rides along the surface of the board, the blade slices away high spots, trimming the board to a more consistent thickness.

Electric Hand Planer

An electric hand planer cuts more quickly and easily than a manual hand planer due to its spinning blade. To use an electric hand planer, you grasp the handle, turn the machine on, and control the progress of the electric hand planer as it moves across the wood.

Bench Planer

Bench planers are much larger than electric hand planers and must remain stationary during use (usually on top of a workbench or stand.)

With a bench planer, instead of moving the tool over the surface of the wood, you pass the wood over the cutting surface. An infeed and outfeed table sandwich a spinning cutterhead. Setting the depth of the tables changes the depth of the cut.

Because boards must be fed into the planer and extracted from the other side, bench planers require a fair amount of clearance on either side. The amount of room you have dictates the length of boards you will be able to plane.

Drum Sander vs Planer

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be comparing the benchtop models of each of these tools.

Similarities

The similarities between drum sanders and planers include the safety precautions you must take, their purpose, and the material they are used on.

Safety Precautions

When working with either a drum sander or a planer, there are certain safety protocols you must observe.

First, any loose clothing or dangling jewelry should be removed, lest it gets caught in the rotating parts of these tools.

Eye protection in the form of safety glasses is essential to protect your eyes from dust and debris that may be ejected from either machine.

Remove staples, nails, screws, or any other fasteners and hardware before running wood through a drum sander or planer.

When using a drum sander, you should also don a dust mask.

Planer resting on the table

Material

Another similarity between drum sanders and planers is the kind of material they are intended for. Both drum sanders and planers are woodworking tools and are not used to change the thickness of other materials such as metal or plastic.

(While metal planers exist, they are mostly used in specialty shops and are outside the scope of this article.)

Purpose

Both drum sanders and planers have the same essential purpose. These tools are both designed to change the thickness of a board, enabling you to create planks of consistent thicknesses.

Differences

Planers and drum sanders are different in several key ways. Differences include their speed, how they achieve their purpose, the smoothness of the resulting board, and how much they cost.

Smoothness

When you use a planer to change the thickness of wood, it will still need sanding. Drum sanders remove significant amounts of material through sanding, which leaves the surface of your plank or board very smooth.

Mechanism of Action

Though both drum sanders and planers serve the same purpose, they achieve their goal in different ways. A drum sander changes the thickness of a board by sanding away the excess with abrasive material. A planer shaves away excess wood using blades.

Speed

Planers, especially power planers, remove material from wood much more quickly than drum sanders. A drum sander can only sand away a limited amount of material in each pass, requiring multiple passes to make a considerable change in thickness.

Cost

There is a significant difference in the cost to acquire a planer vs a drum sander.

Manual handheld planers can cost as little as $20. A mid-range benchtop planer can be sourced for around $350.

Even the least expensive electric handheld drum sanders cost hundreds of dollars. A benchtop drum sander is even more expensive, usually costing at least a thousand dollars.

Major Differentiating Factor

The major differentiating factor between a drum sander and a planer is the speed at which they remove material.

A drum sander gradually changes the thickness of a board while also sanding it smooth. Drum sanders are limited in the amount of material they can remove in a single pass. Usually, a drum sander will not remove more than 1/64”.

Planers do not smooth material. However, they are capable of removing more material with each pass. Planers can usually cut at depths of 1/32”, 1/16”, or even ⅛”.

When to Use a Drum Sander

If you’re refinishing a hardwood floor, a walk-behind drum sander is the best tool for the job.

Use a stationary/bench drum sander to quickly and evenly smooth material of varying widths.

You can also use this type of drum sander for extremely thin stock. Planer knives are more aggressive than the abrasive surface of a drum sander and have a tendency to shred thinner material.

Finally, if you want to change the thickness of figured wood, a drum sander is the best choice. Figured wood has grain that runs in all directions, and is vulnerable to tear out when confronted with a planer blade. Drum sanders can handle figured wood without tearing it apart.

When to Use a Planer?

Use a planer to mill lumber. Planers are ideal for flattening and evening rough-cut planks, turning them into usable stock.

Planers can be used to correct deformations in wood, such as warping or cupping.

Planers work quickly and can remove a significant amount of material in one pass. When you have a lot of material to flatten and process, use a planer.

Hand planers can be used to shave off very thin strips of wood. Use a hand planer to trim down a sticking or bulging door. A hand planer is also perfect for chamfering. (Chamfering is turning a right-angled corner into a sloping surface.)

Which Is Better, a Drum Sander or a Planer?

One question that repeatedly arises when discussing these tools is which one is better. A planer has the edge over a drum sander in almost every category.

Planers are cheaper than drum sanders. They remove material more quickly and are suitable for processing large amounts of material. Planers are an essential tool if you’re serious about woodworking.

Unless you are a professional cabinet maker, a drum sander is a luxury. They automate the process of smoothing and flattening panels, decreasing the amount of work you need to do with a hand sander.

You can get by without a drum sander by using a planer to change the thickness of boards and a hand sander for finish sanding. A drum sander removes material too slowly to be an adequate replacement for a planer.

However, if your purpose is to smooth wood, the planer won’t do anything for you. Of these two tools, only the drum sander can both flatten and smooth wood at the same time.

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.