Drum Sander vs Planer: Choosing the Best Fit for Your Woodworking Projects

We have an article about the must-have tools a beginner should plan to have in his woodworking shop.  We wrote this article with the woodworking hobbyist and enthusiast in mind and not for the professional woodworker. 

We wouldn’t presume to tell an experienced woodworker what he or she needs in their shop.  That beginner woodworker piece is here.

Key Points:

  • Each removes material from a piece of wood’s surface.
  • One removes more than the other in a single pass.
  • Each has its own purpose and place in your woodworking shop.

There isn’t much we’d change about our recommendations in that piece.  But beginners become more experienced, and the list of must-have tools continues to evolve and expand as their woodworking projects become more involved, complex, and ambitious.  Today we write this article with the evolved woodworker in mind as we compare and contrast a drum sander and a thickness planer.

What is A Drum Sander?

Grizzly Industrial G0458Z - 18" 1-1/2 HP Open-End Drum Sander w/VS Feed

In the beginner’s piece, we recommended a random orbital sander as an essential power tool.  We also had files and planers (hand, not power) on the list.  It is unlikely a beginner who is just learning the hobby of woodworking would have the use of a drum sander in his or her shop.  But, with more experience, a drum sander might become an oft-used power tool.

Drum sanders are power tools generally used to sand flat surfaces and are sometimes referred to as thickness sanders.  They have a cylindrical wheel on which is placed an abrasive material like sandpaper, and the drum is spun by an electrical motor at speed.

Pieces of wood are run through the sanders beneath the drum holding the abrasive, and the abrasive will remove a small amount of material from the wood’s surface as it passes beneath the drum. You can see, then, why they are sometimes called thickness sanders. 

They differ from a belt sander, another power tool, in that the belt (the abrasive) is spun between two wheels as the belt sander is moved along the wood’s surface, or if it is a standing belt sander, the wood is moved against the abrasive.  In the case of the drum sander, the abrasive is attached to the spinning drum, and the wood is drawn beneath it to remove small amounts of wood from the wood’s surface.

A steady hand is required to use a belt sander, whether it is a hand-held model or a standing model.  Damage can be done to the wood’s surface by a belt sander.  The drum sander is different in that the plate on which the pieces of wood ride as they are brought beneath the drum is set, and the material being removed is controlled and uniform.

Wide-Belt Sanders and Drum Sanders

Grizzly G1066Z Drum Sander, 24-Inch

Drum sanders are also distinguished from wide-belt sanders in several ways.  Wide-belt sanders are designed to sand pieces of wood to a defined finish (smoothness) and thickness.  They serve this dual purpose.  

In order to do so, though, they have many more moving parts that are more delicate than those of a drum sander. To keep them lasting longer, wide-belt sanders will require more attention and maintenance.

A wide-belt sander with a medium grit, something like a 100 – 120 grit, is capable of removing 1/32 ” of material from a wood’s surface in a single pass beneath the abrasive.  After material has been removed, a higher-grit abrasive, 150-grit or higher, should be used for finishing.  

Wide-belt sanders will run more money than a benchtop drum sander, too.  They are larger, and again more parts, and need much more attention to keep them operating well and long.

What is A Planer?

Oliver 12-1/2" Thickness Planer with BYRD Shelix Cutterhead and Wixey DRO

A planer also called a thickness planer, and in other countries called a “thicknesser,” is also a power tool that is designed to remove material from the surface of pieces of wood.  In the case of the planer, though, the removal is done by a rotating cutterhead.

We recently wrote about different cutterheads, both spiral and helical, and you might want to take a look to get a better idea of how planers work.

Basically, a plate, or sled, holds pieces of wood as they are drawn into a planer chamber, where the spinning cutterhead then removes a layer of wood from its surface.  The sled is adjustable up and down to control the amount of material being removed.  It removes the wood fibers as shavings, as distinguished by the saw dust a sander, including a drum sander, will remove with each pass over the wood’s surface.

This machine is used to trim boards to a uniform thickness from one end to the other, and this is why it is called a thickness planer – it planes a wood’s surface to a uniform thickness along its entire length.

The progression of work on a piece of wood would be to first run the wood through a jointer in order to create a perfectly flat face. Then, using that flat face as the reference on the plate of the planer, the wood is run through the planer to create a uniformly flat face on the opposite side of the wood.  Of course, this would be done to create the desired thickness, too – so as to live up to the name of thicknesser, if you will. 

Comparison of Drum Sander to Planer

The best way to compare a drum sander and a planer is to determine the amount of material each can remove from a wood’s surface.  The wood removal power of each is different, and that may help you determine which you might want to purchase for your woodworking shop.

A drum sander can be expected to remove between 0.005″ and 0.007″ of material from the wood’s surface per pass beneath the drum.  You might surmise correctly from this small amount that creating a smooth surface is the goal and purpose of a drum sander. 

A planer, on the other hand, even a small bench top model, with its sharp cutterheads can remove 0.125″ to 0.250″ of material from the wood’s surface as it passes beneath the cutterheads. The resulting surface will be uniformly flat, matching the flat bottom face that was run through a jointer first. 

The material removed by a drum sander will be sawdust, as you would expect from a sandpaper abrasive.  The material removed by a planer, though, will be shavings from the cutterhead blades.  From the former, you will get a smooth finish; from the latter, you will get a rougher surface that will then need to be sanded, whether running it through a drum sander or with a random orbital sander (a hand-held power sander).

Put another way, you could look at a planer as the second step in the process of creating a smooth wood face (the first being the jointer), and the drum sander as the third step in smoothing the finish of the wood’s face after it has been properly sized by the planer.

Planers remove much more material with a single pass than can a drum sander, where achieving a 0.125″ material removal would take many passes through the machine than the single pass on the planer.

This is not to say that only a planer is needed in an experienced woodworker’s shop.  Actually, they both serve a particular role in preparing a piece of wood for your project.  One removes a lot of material from wood surfaces in a single pass but leaves a rough surface; the other removes less material in a single pass but creates a smooth wood surface. 

Video Comparisons of Drum Sander and Planer 

In this article, we’ve mentioned and discussed drum sanders, planers, and jointers.  This video is as good an explanation, analysis, and demonstration of the three as we have seen.  It is definitely worth a watch.

Do you need both a drum sander and a planer?

We can make the argument and the case that, eventually, a woodworking shop will benefit from both of them.  As you become more advanced in your woodworking skills, you’ll likely reach the same conclusion now that you know the difference and their respective strengths.