Palm Sander vs Orbital Sander

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When it comes to smoothing wood, there are innumerable ways to accomplish the job. Two of the most popular sanding tools are the palm sander and the orbital sander. Find out how they compare, what each tool is best at, and which is better.

What Is a Palm Sander?

A palm sander is a generic term that can be used to describe any handheld, electric-powered sanding tool that is operated with one hand. It may refer to any of the following small power sanders.

A man using palm sander for woods

Types of Palm Sander

The different types of palm sanders include; mouse sanders, sheet sanders, orbital sanders, random-orbit sanders, and finishing/detail sanders.

Mouse Sander

Small, triangular-based palm sanders are known as ‘mouse sanders’.

Sheet Sander

Sheet sanders have rectangular bases. They use regular sheets of sandpaper, the same kind you would use with a sanding block.

The sizing of sheet sanders is communicated by what size sandpaper they take. A ‘quarter sheet’ sander, for instance, has a base the size of one-fourth of a standard sheet of sandpaper.

Orbital Sander

An orbital sander is any sander with a head that rotates in small circles. When the sander is small enough to be operated with one hand, it may be referred to as a palm sander.

Random-Orbit Sander

A small random-orbit sander may be considered a palm sander.

Finishing/Detail Sander

Small sanders of limited power used to access tight spaces may be referred to as palm sanders, finishing sanders, or detail sanders.

Palm Sander Uses

Palm sanders are used with sandpaper or special sanding discs to remove material from a surface, usually wood. Palm sanders can also be used on concrete and metal.

The abrasive sandpaper attaches to the base of the palm sander, which may be circular, rectangular, or triangular.

Sanding is accomplished through the motion of the base. Some palm sanders have bases that move in a back-and-forth motion. Others rock back and forth in an oscillating pattern or rotate in tiny circles called orbits.

Passing a palm sander over a surface introduces the abrasive material of the sandpaper to that surface. They can be paired with sandpaper of various grits to achieve a number of smoothing effects.

It is possible to purchase palm sanders that can switch back and forth between different sanding patterns.

A man holding an orbital sander

What Is an Orbital Sander?

An orbital sander is any sander with a base that moves in tiny circles (known as ‘orbits’). Many palm sanders, for example, are orbital sanders. There are also larger models meant for two-handed operation.

What most people mean when they refer to an orbital sander is a subcategory of orbital sanders—the random-orbit sander.

Random-Orbit Sander

The head of a random-orbit sander moves in irregular directions, while also swirling in tiny circles. The result is an overlapping, circular sanding pattern. Random-orbit sanders are known for excellent material removal.

Random-orbit sanders are also known for leaving minimal sanding marks behind, although improper use, low-quality sandpaper, and excess dust can cause a random-orbit sander to leave swirl marks in wood.

Palm Sander vs Orbital Sander

A small, handheld sander may be a palm sander, an orbital sander, or both. The terms are not mutually exclusive. Any sander that fits in the palm of your hand can be called a palm sander; even if it has an orbiting base.

Additionally, any sander with an orbiting base can be called an orbital sander.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be comparing palm-sized sheet sanders with random-orbit sanders.

Now that you understand what these tools are and how they are used, consider their similarities and differences.

Similarities

The similarities between palm and orbital sanders include their main purpose, their dust production, their size relative to other sanders, and the way they are powered.

Function

A palm-sized sheet sander and a random-orbit sander achieve the same basic function. Both tools use an abrasive material to smooth and shape wood. Both can also be used on metal or concrete.

Dust Production

All sanders produce wood dust. Inhalation of wood dust has been linked to breathing problems, so make sure to use the sander’s dust-collection system and wear a dust mask to protect your respiratory system.

Size

Sanders come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Palm-sized sheet sanders and random-orbit sanders are among the smallest available types of sanders, as both are handheld tools. Floor mounted, bench-mounted, and walk-behind sanders are all considerably larger.

A guy polishing wood using palm sander

Power Source

Random-orbit sanders and palm-sized sheet sanders are powered by electricity. The source of electricity is either a power cord or a rechargeable battery pack.

Differences

The differences between random-orbit sanders and palm-sized sheet sanders include their shape, speed, and motion, the marks they leave behind, and how much material they remove.

Shape

A random-orbit sander has a circular sanding surface. Palm-sized sheet sanders have rectangular bases. Other palm-sized sanders may have triangular or circular bases.

Motion

Random-orbit sanders move in tiny circles called orbits, while also moving back and forth. The effect is a continuous, overlapping sanding pattern, where one piece of abrasive material does not cross the same path twice. Palm-size sheet sanders have various sanding patterns, including, orbital, oscillating, or back-and-forth.

Price

Random-orbit sanders are generally a bit more expensive than palm-sized sheet sanders.

Accessories

A palm-sized sheet sander uses regular sheets of sanding paper. Random-orbit sanders require sanding discs, which are sold in various sizes to accommodate the circular base.

Major Differentiating Factor

The major differentiating factor between a random-orbit sander and a palm-sized sheet sander is the sanding marks they leave behind.

Sanding across the grain leaves small scratches in the wood that affect its appearance. Because of this, it is generally preferable to finish the sanding process by sanding back and forth in the same direction as the grain.

Random-orbit sanders can’t accomplish this due to their circular sanding pattern.

Some palm-sized sheet sanders can switch between orbiting and straight-line sanding, while others only utilize a back-and-forth motion.

When to Use a Palm Sander

Use a palm-sized sander paired with appropriate grit sandpaper to accomplish almost any sanding job.

  • Triangular palm-sized mouse sanders can fit into tight spaces. Sanding discs with a hook and loop fabric backing are attached to the base of the sander.
  • Palm-sized sanders with a back and forth sanding motion can be used for the final stages of sanding to remove swirl marks.

Due to their small size, expect limited power from any sander categorized as palm-sized.

You would not want to use a palm sander of any shape or size for sanding through old finish, sanding very rough wood, or sanding hardwood floors.

When to Use an Orbital Sander

Orbital sanders are great for rapid material removal. If you need to bust through several coats of old finish, it makes sense to start with an orbital sander.

Orbital sanders can be used to refinish furniture, sand cabinets, or expose hardwood floors. Larger orbital sanders and random-orbit sanders are suitable for smoothing even relatively rough wood.

Which Is Better: Palm Sander or Orbital Sander?

As discussed above, it is possible for a sander to be both a palm sander and an orbital sander. Thus, it isn’t really possible to say one is better than the other.

Orbital sanders are best at rapidly and efficiently removing material.

Palm-sized sanders are highly maneuverable. They are best at fitting into tight spaces.

A palm-sized orbital sander would rapidly and efficiently remove material in tight spaces.

What Is the Difference Between an Orbital Sander and a Random Orbital Sander?

An orbital sander is any sander that removes material in a circular pattern. The base could be triangular, rectangular, or circular. The sander could require special discs, or use traditional sandpaper.

A random-orbit sander not only moves in a circular pattern but also moves back and forth. Each circle it makes overlaps with a previous circle, helping to erase sanding marks as they happen.

Random-orbit sanders have circular bases and use special sanding discs.

What Type of Sandpaper for Orbital and Palm Sanders?

The type of sandpaper used with a handheld sander depends on the size and shape of the base, as well as the job you are attempting.

Triangular and circular-based sanders have sanding pads or sanding discs. You must choose the pad or disc of the appropriate size for your machine. There are usually holes on the disc or pad that must be aligned with the air intake holes on the base of your sander.

Handheld sheet sanders with a rectangular base do not have special sanding discs. Instead, regular sandpaper is attached to the base through the use of tiny clamps.

Orbital and Palm Sander Sandpaper Grit

Whatever type of sander you’re using, the goal is to progressively smooth the wood. Sanding sheets, pads, or discs are available in all grit levels. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper and move through medium-grit sandpapers before finishing with some variety of fine-grit sandpaper.

Very rough or new wood might require 40 or 60 grit paper at first. Wood that has been previously sanded can usually be started with 80, 100, or even 120 grit. To remove splinters and make the wood ready to accept finish, most projects are sanded to at least 150 or 180 grit.

Further smoothing of the wood is done with very fine grit sandpaper (220 and 240), extra fine-grit sandpaper (between 280 and 320), or super fine-grit sandpaper (360-600).

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.