Belt sanders and orbital sanders, especially the random orbital sander, are the primary electric wood sanders. Orbital sanders are slightly more popular for small-to-medium projects.
Meanwhile, belt sanders rule the large woodworking project world. Nonetheless, both ensure a faster sanding process and guarantee smoother surfaces.
But which one should you use? For example, if you can only buy one for your next project, which should it be – and why? This guide explains everything you need to know to make the right decision.
Belt Sander Vs Orbital Sander: What’s the difference?
The main difference between belt sanders and orbital sanders is belt sanders use a belt, while orbit sanders use sanding discs. Additionally, belt sanders are rough sanders designed for heavy material removal and less finesse. In contrast, orbit sanders are finishing sanders designed to deliver an ultra-smooth surface.
What’s a Belt Sander?
A belt sander, sometimes called a strip sander, is a power sander used for trimming to a scribed line, free-hand rounding and shaping, and smoothing extremely rough surfaces, such as replacement boards in hardwood flooring.
They are among the most powerful electric-powered sanders and accept extremely coarse grits. Thus, they excel at heavy material removal. Belt sanders move in a linear motion, unlike rotary and vibrating sanders, which move in circular motions.
Do you know what to look at when purchasing a belt sander? Look at our guide on the Best Benchtop Belt Sanders to help you make informed purchases.
How do Belt sanders work?
A belt sander features an electric motor that rotates a pair of drums onto which a continuous loop of sandpaper is mounted. Thus, rotating the drums rotates the sandpaper.
Stationary vs portable Belt sanders
There are two main types of belt sanders, stationary and portable. A stationary belt sander (or fixed belt sander) is permanently fixed on a table or workbench so that it doesn’t move.
Instead, during sanding, you bring the material to the sander. When mounted on a sanding bench, they are known as bench sanders.
Meanwhile, a portable belt sander, also known as a handheld belt sander, is hand-operated, similar to orbital and palm sanders. They can be corded (with a power cord that connects to the power outlet when sanding) or cordless.
Cordless units are sometimes called rechargeable sanders because they use rechargeable batteries.
Pros and Cons of Belt sander
The main advantage of belt sanders is their massive power. Few sanders are more powerful than a bench-mounted belt sander. Therefore, it’s the perfect choice for heavy projects or heavy stock removal.
Power belt sanders are also exceptionally fast. Therefore, you should consider it if you need to sand down a large area or multiple pieces quickly.
Other pros and cons of belt sanders are as follows;
- Strong and powerful
- High-speed and fast sanding
- Excellent for large, flat surfaces
- Exceptional results sanding along the wood grain
- Large and expensive
- Requires both hands on deck
What’s an Orbital Sander?
An orbital sander is a power tool with tough circular sanding discs mounted on a circular sanding pad. An electric-powered motor rotates the sanding pad, which rotates the sanding disc to facilitate the sanding process.
How does an Orbital Sander work?
There are two main types of orbit sanders – regular orbit sanders and random orbital sanders. Regular orbital sanders vibrate, moving the sanding head in tiny circular movements. Thus the sanding disc goes over the same spot severally to remove material and ensure a smooth finish.
On the other hand, random orbit sanders combine the circular motion with vibrating back-and-forth movements to ensure that no single part of the abrasive disc travels the same path twice. Thus, random orbital sanders produce smoother surfaces with fewer swirl marks.
Pros and Cons of Orbital Sanders
The main advantage of orbital sanders, especially random orbital sanders, is they produce fewer sanding marks. The vibrating motion combined with elliptical movements ensure a smooth surface with minimal swirl marks.
In addition, orbital sanders are more convenient. For one, they are designed for one-hand sanding. So, you can use the weaker hand to steady and control the workpiece for more accurate sanding. You can also use the free hand to improve your balance to minimize muscle fatigue.
Unfortunately, orbital sanders aren’t ideal for heavy material removal. Though fast, they are best for finishing projects and removing minimal marks.
Other pros and cons of orbital sanders are as follows;
- Perfect for fine sanding work
- Exceptional finishing work
- Automatic dust collection
- Perfect for shaping and edges
- Unsuited for large projects
- It’s expensive
Belt Vs Orbital Sander: A Head-to-Head Comparison
Now we have a brief understanding of the two power tools. But what are the differences between them, and which is better? Below is a side-by-side comparison to help you decide.
Belt sanders are typically more powerful than orbital sanders. For instance, the Festool BS 75 E-Plus packs 1010 watts, about twice as powerful as the biggest orbital sanders.
The belt sander’s power allows it to remove lots of material, explaining why belt sanders are the best power sanders for rough surfaces.
Another advantage of the belt sander’s power is that you can process several boards in a short time. This is crucial for full-time woodworkers.
A belt sander allows you to quickly sand down your boards so you can move to the next step. Bench-mounted models are the most powerful
However, be warned that high-powered electrical equipment poses a few challenges. First, there’s little room for error. For instance, you should be keen enough to achieve the desired surface smoothness in as few passes as possible.
Otherwise, you risk removing too much material. Also, more power often means a greater injury risk.
Orbital sanders aren’t slouches, either. But they are significantly less powerful than belt sanders. It makes them unsuited for heavy material removal or fast-moving projects.
However, a slower speed gives you greater control over the sanding process for greater accuracy. Therefore, orbital sanders are better for fine sanding tasks.
Winner: Belt sanders
Comparing the speed of orbital sanders versus belt sanders is a little complicated because the speeds are measured differently. Orbital sander speeds are measured in orbits per minute, referring to the number of times the sander head makes a complete revolution in a minute.
On the other hand, belt sander speeds are measured in inches per minute, essentially how fast the sandpaper travels over the workpiece.
So, how do you compare the two? The easiest method is to determine how quickly each sander completes a specified sanding task.
Unsurprisingly, belt sanders complete sanding projects faster. First, the belt sander covers a larger surface area at any given time.
So, it’s likely to complete the job faster. Additionally, belt sanders move at faster speeds (inches per minute).
For instance, consider the Jellas 2-in-1 belt sander versus a typical RO sander. The 3×18-inch Jellas 2-in-1 bench sander covers 54 square inches in one sweep.
Meanwhile, a typical RO sander has a 6-inch diameter sanding surface, covering 28 square inches in a sweep. So, the Jellas sander covers twice the area in one sweep. Interestingly, extra-large belt sanders comprise sanding belts up to 60 x 360 inches.
This is why you should use a belt sander for fast-moving projects or wide surfaces. They do the job faster than any other sanding machine.
Winner: Belt sanders
Both the belt sander and RO sander offer some level of precision. However, random orbital sanders are more precise, therefore, ideal for fine sanding projects.
First, random orbital sanders give you more control. The slower speeds mean you can remove less or more material when you want. On the other hand, belt sanders offer limited control.
Also, random orbital sanders are easier to use when working across the grain. Although belt sanders move faster, even across the grain, any slight resistance can cause kickbacks that may damage the project.
Moreover, kickbacks are dangerous when using power tools. Random orbital sanders eliminate this problem through lower speeds and sideways movements.
For instance, you can alter the sanding direction if you encounter resistance, reducing the risk of removing too much material. It’s also easier to guide the orbital sander into tight corners where the belt sander may not reach.
Finally, consider delicate projects, such as cabinetry. Every detail in cabinetry is critical. So, you cannot remove too little or too much material.
The same applies to antique furniture. Every minor detail counts. An orbital sander’s greater precision is invaluable in these circumstances.
Winner: Orbit sanders
4. Sanding abrasive
Belt sanders and orbital sanders use completely different sanding abrasives, including grit materials. If you’re new to sanding grits, the grit material is the “sand” in sandpaper. It’s what gives sandpaper the “teeth” to bite into the wood.
For one, belt sanders use a sanding belt, while an orbital sander uses sanding disks. A sanding belt is an elongated loop that fits around the belt sander’s two rotating drums. Also, it’s a flexible material, typically with a cloth or paper backing.
On the other hand, orbit sanders use sanding discs. A sanding disc is a hard disc with a solid backing. For instance, fiberglass backings are popular because they last longer.
Unfortunately, sanding belts don’t last as long, requiring replacement multiple times within the same project. Also, sanding discs are round. Therefore, the diameter or radius is the most important factor when choosing one.
Finally, the sanding abrasives on sanding belts and discs often differ. A belt sander, being a rough sander, utilizes larger, tougher grits.
This explains why zirconia alumina is the grit material of choice for sanding belts. On the other hand, orbit sanders use softer aluminum oxide grit materials, typically in lower grit sizes.
Winner – orbit sanders
5. Ease of use
Both belt and orbital sanders are easy to use, provided you match the right tool with the right job. However, orbital sanders are easier to handle overall. They also offer more controls and greater convenience than belt sanders.
Consider the size, for example. Orbital sanders are compact devices designed for one-handed operation. The idea is to grab the sander with your dominant hand and support the project with the weaker hand for a comfortable and productive sanding experience.
On the other hand, belt sanders are two-handed power tools that require both hands on deck. So, they feel a little uncomfortable and offer limited control.
The other consideration is the weight and torque of the sander. Orbital sanders are lightweight for easy handling. Moreover, they produce less torque and run at lower speeds, giving you more sense of control.
Meanwhile, belt sanders are heavy, fast, and produce significant torque. Therefore, you must expend more energy to keep the belt sander in control.
Fortunately, you can always opt for smaller, less powerful belt sanders for greater control and ease of use. Indeed, you can use cordless belt sanders for maximum convenience.
The only issue is that a smaller, less powerful belt sander may not handle traditional belt sander tasks.
Winner: Orbital sanders
6. Dust collection
Modern sanding machines include a dust collection system that sucks all the sanding dust into a dust collection bag or uses a different approach to remove the dust. It ensures a clean, safe sanding environment.
Moreover, a built-in dust collection system eliminates the need to stop and manually blow away the dust. Fortunately, nearly all belt sanders and orbital sanders have dust collection systems.
Personally inspect the machine to ensure it does and consider a different model if the current option lacks a dust collection mechanism.
But, you must closely check the dust collection method to ensure it suits your needs. Power sanders utilize two broad dust collection approaches – active and passive.
Active dust collection systems connect to a vacuum cleaner to proactively pull dust from the sanded surface. Meanwhile, a passive dust collection system attaches to a dust collection bag instead of a vacuum system.
Also, consider the ease of operating the dust collection system. For instance, does the system automatically come on when the sander is running?
Or must you manually switch it on? In addition, is it easy to troubleshoot? Can you fix common malfunctions?
7. Uses and applications
An orbital sander vs belt sander comparison is incomplete without considering each machine’s versatility and range of applications. Unsurprisingly, both machines have multiple applications and thus can prove invaluable in the woodworking shop. However, orbital sanders are more versatile.
Orbital sanders are primarily designed for smaller projects and tinier surfaces. But they offer unmatched control. Therefore, they’re perfect for precision work and fine projects.
Additionally, orbital sanders, especially random orbital sanders, excel at sanding tight corners and unique shapes and edges. For instance, you’ll enjoy using a random orbital sander when finishing a cabinetry project.
The best part is that random orbital sanders don’t leave swirl marks on your project. This is critical for fine woodworking projects. Fewer sanding marks mean a more uniform surface for easier staining or painting.
On the other hand, belt sanders are rough sanders ideal for large projects rather than precision work. So, you should consider sheet sanders for large and flat surfaces.
They are also perfect for heavy material removal. For instance, consider a belt sander if you need to remove a whole inch from the wood surface.
Lastly, belt sanders excel in applications that require plenty of power, such as old-growth hardwoods.
Related read: Orbital sander vs Sheet sander.
Belt Sander Vs Orbital Sander for Furniture
Belt sanders and orbital sanders are both useful in furniture making. But you need them at different stages of furniture-making.
Belt sanders are valuable at the early stages for leveling and heavy stock removal. Meanwhile, orbital sanders are necessary at the finishing stages when sanding corners, smoothing surfaces, and removing visible marks.
Belt Vs Orbital Sander for Paint Removal
Both belt and orbit sanders are applicable in paint removal jobs. But they suit different needs. Belt sanders are perfect for heavy-removal tasks.
So, you should consider them at the early stages of the paint stripping project. Meanwhile, orbit sanders excel at precision work.
So, consider them at the tail end of the project to access hard-to-reach corners and remove leftover paint marks.
Belt Sander Vs Orbital Sander for Floors
Belt sanders are better than orbital sanders for sanding hardwood floors. First, belt sanders are more powerful and capable of handling larger projects more easily.
Secondly, larger belt sanders cover more surface area per unit of time, allowing you to finish the job faster. That said, orbit sanders are ideal for the finishing touches.
Belt Sander Vs Orbital Sander for Decks
You’ll find belt sanders more useful than orbital sanders when working on a deck. First, a belt sander is more powerful and thus handles stubborn hardwood decks more easily.
Also, belt sanders are faster, allowing you to finish the project more quickly. However, an orbit sander offers greater precision. So, you should consider it for the finishing passes.
Orbital Vs Belt Sander for Walls
Orbital sanders are best suited for small jobs requiring precision work. They are also ideal for getting into tight corners and sanding around the edges.
But they lack the power and speed to finish large projects on time. Meanwhile, belt sanders excel at quick sanding on flat surfaces where precision isn’t paramount.
Belt Sander Vs Sheet Sander
The main difference between a belt sander and a sheet sander is the design or working mechanism. Belt sanders are medium to large power sanders that use a sanding belt looped around two electric-powered drums.
On the other hand, sheet sanders are compact, one-handed power sanders that utilize rectangular sandpaper sheets attached to a rectangular sanding pad.
Palm Sander Vs Belt Sander
Palm sanders and belt sanders are completely different sanding tools. First, palm sanders are compact devices designed to fit in your palm.
Contrastingly, many belt sanders are large and heavy tools that you must permanently mount on a workbench. More importantly, palm sanders target light, precision, and finishing jobs, while belt sanders target large rough sanding tasks.
What are the disadvantages of a belt sander?
The main disadvantage of belt sanders is the lack of precision. These sanders perform very poorly when accuracy and precision are critical. They tend to “grind” the surface, leaving multiple sanding marks. Also, belt sanders require both hands on the machine, making them a little inconvenient.
What is a belt sander good for?
Belt sanders excel at medium-smoothing over large surfaces. They are powerful and fast, removing heavy stock with little effort. Also, they’re perfect for preparing the wood surface for less aggressive tools, like random orbital sanders. They also make light work of leveling projects over large areas.
Should I use a belt sander or an orbital sander for the deck?
Ideally, you should have both the belt and orbit sander on hand for a decking project. You need the belt sander at the early stages when removing lots of material to level the wooden planks. Belt sanders also remove visible grooves more easily. Meanwhile, you need the orbit sander for the finishing stages and to sand between paint coats.
What type of sander will give the best finish?
Random orbit sanders give some of the best finishes. They give you enough control for maximum convenience and precision. Moreover, random orbital sanders are low-speed sanders that leave no swirl marks. Consider variable-speed models with dust collection mechanisms for the best results.
Belt sanders and orbital sanders are two of the most common power sanders. They offer many advantages over hand sanders and beat comparable power sanders in many ways. But they’re different sanding tools targeting different applications.
When to Use a Belt Sander: Belt sanders are ideal for heavy material removal and fast sanding over large surfaces. So, they’re perfect for sanding floors, decks, walls, and fresh boards from the sawmill.
When to Use an Orbital Sander: An orbital sander is best suited for small projects requiring precision and accuracy. Therefore, it’s great for sanding furniture, cabinets, and shelves.