Orbital sanders or random orbital sanders are inevitable in woodworking, furniture making, furniture restoration and in preparing all kinds of materials for painting. They are also called random orbital sanders because of the random orbit sanding pattern which is produced by simultaneously spinning the sanding disk and moving it in an ellipse. This ensures that no single part of the abrasive material travels the same path twice. Because of this unique random sanding action, the tool does not leave swirl marks and is not sensitive to the direction of the wood grain.
First orbital sander was developed in 1968 but they haven’t mass produced them until the early 1990s. Belt sanders and orbital sanders needed additional hand sanding to remove the swirls and random orbital sander decreased the time of preparing the material by half. With a large range of speeds and sandpaper grits to choose from, orbital sander will most definitely get the job done better than any other machine. The sanding pad has also a degree of flex, making orbital sander ideal for sanding flat or slightly curved materials such as curved furniture or car bodywork. You can sand almost anything with orbital sander and it is commonly used to sand wood, plastic, metal, paint and filler, varnish, stone, ceramics, glass, auto paint etc.
We can all agree that the orbital sander is the tool that we most definitely need in almost any project but the problem arises when you have to choose what orbital sander to buy. There are hundreds of orbital sanders on the market and it is very hard to choose what orbital sander is best for you. In this article we will explain you everything you need to know when buying an orbital sander.
There are three main types of handles on orbital sanders, a pistol-grip handle, a jug-grip handle and a palm-grip handle. Orbital sander with pistol-grip handle provides you the best control when working because this type of sander is used with both hands, one is used for direction and one for pressure. The pistol-grip handle are mostly used on professional and bigger orbital sanders. Orbital sander with jug-grip handle is a strange mix of palm-grip and pistol-grip orbital sanders and it is not so common but this design maybe provides best control if you are working underneath the surface. Orbital sanders with palm-grip handle are most common on the market and they are the first choice of hobby woodworkers and they are most popular in DIY restoration projects. Those sanders are lightweight and can be easily handled with just one hand and they are essential for best final finishing before painting.
Orbital sanders come in two sizes which is determined by the size of the sanding plate. The 5 inch (120 mm) orbital sanders are most common and they are used for all types of sanding and they are essential for final finishing because bigger sanders can not provide needed smooth finish. The 6 inch (150 mm) orbital sanders are usually heavy duty tools for rust removal on big surfaces and they are not used for small project which require nice smooth finish. Don’t be mistaken, those are great tools and you can remove the paint and rust from the entire car three times faster than with smaller 5 inch orbital sander but those tools are not for small projects in your garage. The reason why we recommend 5 inch orbital sander is because they provide much better finish than the 6 inch orbital sander and that is because the plate on the 6 inch sander has much bigger orbit and leaves much bigger swirl marks than the plate on 5 inch sander with smaller orbit. The 5 inch orbital sanders usually have 1/8 inch orbit and 6 inch orbital sanders usually have 3/16 inch orbit and they are mainly used for paint and rust removal.
There are three types of orbital sanders when it comes to the power source, the corded orbital sander, air powered orbital sander and cordless orbital sander. Corded orbital sanders are most common on the market and they are the cheapest version of orbital sanders. Air powered orbit sanders are heavy duty tools which use air from an air compressor to run. They are mostly used in workshops and factories where they have an easy access to compressed air. Cordless orbital sanders combines portability with almost the same capabilities as the corded model. They are the best solution because there is no cord or a hose in the way while working but they also cost much more than the same corded models.
The motor is the most important thing in every power tool but it is the only thing that can’t be visually inspected when buying the tool. Don’t buy the sander with highest stated power of the motor because manufacturers are usually state only the input power of the motor and it only states the demand value that the tool will place on a power outlet under normal operating conditions. Input power doesn’t mean a lot, the output power is what you want to know. The output power is the power that the tool provides to the sanding plate. The average power of orbital sanders is around 3 amps but only few manufacturers state the output power on the product.
Transmission and speed control
The transmission or a gearbox determines the speeds that the orbital sander is capable of operating at. These speeds are usually between 1600 opm (oscillations per minute) and 26000 opm. You don’t usually need 26000 opm and 11000 opm is just fine for a good and sturdy orbit sander. Maximum operating speed is important but not as important as the number of speeds to choose from. More speeds means more adaptability to the material and in time you will learn that you can not sand all the materials with the same speed and get good results. Cheaper models up to 100$ usually have just one speed and they are also called “finishing sanders” which means that their main purpose is to give a smooth finish before painting. Better orbital sanders are versatile and can be used for various tasks on various materials. If you don’t mind spending a little more for a quality tool then we recommend buying the orbital sander with speed control.
Sanding plate and sanding discs
Orbital sanders usually come with just one sanding plate and there is no changing system for sanding plates. Top of the line orbital sanders have easy pad changing system which allow you to use the pad specially designed for each material for best results. This is normally a great feature but it comes with the price and orbital sanders with pad changing system cost much more than regular orbital sanders.
Sanding plate is usually a rubber pad with six, eight or more holes. The number of holes isn’t that important and they are usually dust extraction points when sanding. Keep in mind the number of holes when buying sanding discs!
There are two types of sanding discs, the Hook-and-Loop Sanding Discs and Adhesive Sanding Discs. The hook-and-loop sanding discs goes only on orbital sanders which have hook-and-loop sanding plate but nowadays most of sanders have hook-and-loop sanding plate so you don’t have to worry about that. Hook-and-loop sanding plates are replaceable and they wear over the time but they can be bought separately and they are easy to change.
Adhesive sanding discs don’t require special plates and they can be used on every sander. Don’t buy cheap adhesive discs without holes because they get clogged very fast and the dust extraction system don’t work if you don’t have holes on discs.
There is no difference in quality of grit or sandpaper on hook-and-loop discs and adhesive discs. The main difference is that hook-and-loop discs can be used more than once because of the hook-and-loop system and adhesive discs can be used only once.
Nowadays it’s hard to buy orbital sander without dust extraction system. The dust is extracted through the holes on the sanding plate and to the canister or a bag for smaller jobs with less dust. For bigger jobs almost every orbital sander has the ability to connect the vacuum hose. The dust extraction system is a great thing but keep in mind to empty the dust bag or canister regularly. If you buy cheap adhesive discs without holes the dust extraction system can’t work.
There aren’t a lot of accessories for orbital sanders because they are relatively simple tools. You can buy Backing Pads For Fibre Discs which are used for easier stripping of wood and metal or you can buy Polishing bonnet kit for waxing and polishing surfaces with your orbital sander. Some orbital sanders have Vacuum hose adapter in the package but if you have one without it then this is one thing you must have. All other accessories are about various sanding discs for various materials. If you are not certain what grit to choose for each job you can look it up in the table below.
Brands and top models
We have covered all the main things you should know when buying an orbital sander and the only thing left is the brand and selection of best orbital sanders. The top brands for all power tools are the top brands for orbital sanders also. Top brands guarantee quality and have longer warranties and most importantly network of service shops if you need repair or spare part. The brands you can’t go wrong with are Bosch, Makita, DeWalt, Porter-cable, Milwaukee, Festool, Rockwell, Ryobi or Metabo.