What is The Difference Between a Random Orbital Sander vs Belt Sander?

Just how many types of wood sanders are there to choose from?  Have you ever wondered that as you develop your list of “must-have”  tools for your woodworking shop?

Virtually every woodworking project requires some sanding, whether by a power tool or by hand.  Choosing the right sander for the job is an important consideration, so knowing the types of projects you will be undertaking can help determine which sander or sanders you should have in your shop.

Basically, there are four main types of sanders to consider:

Each of these main types has a particular purpose, although there is some overlap in capability and use.  In this piece, we will examine the differences between a belt sander and a random orbital sander. 

What Can I Use a Belt Sander For?

Belt Sander

Belt sanders are powerful, so let’s start with that.  They’re capable of stripping down a piece of wood very quickly as a result of that power and can remove just about anything from the wood, including multiple layers of paint.

Belt Sanders are high-speed, which can save time.  They’re also powerful, able to remove any material and the best sander for aggressive removal down to the wood.  When working with the grain, they are the perfect sander for large surfaces.

What Can I Use a Random Orbital Sander For?

While we’ve written on these pages about orbital sanders and random orbital sanders in the past, we’ve never compared or contrasted with a belt sander.  But the differences are somewhat significant.

Random orbital sanders are much more capable of removing material than an orbital sander.  The difference is in the movement of the sheet of sandpaper. 

Orbital sanders are suitable for fine sanding and finishing work.  They are also good for sanding around curves, although they are not good on large pieces of wood.  While they can get into corners, they are not necessarily better at this than a random orbital sander.

On the other hand, random orbital sanders are the “tweener” sander:  they are good at both stripping wood and fine sanding.  Their “random” sanding pattern leaves much less visible cross-grain scratches and none of the swirl pattern an orbital sander can leave.

Random Orbital Sander

Random orbital sanders are not as powerful as a belt sander and will strain to remove some materials that belt sanders would find easy.  They are also good at fitting into corners with a finishing touch and without the swirls created by orbital sanders. 

They are easy to grip and require minimal pressure.  In that sense, it’s like using a good knife in a kitchen – – let the tool do the work it was meant to do. The dust generated by a random orbital sander is finer than that created by a belt sander, as you’d expect.  The belt sander removes chunks of material, old paint, or varnish. In contrast, the random orbital sanders are closer to finishing sanding work and removing lesser materials.

Which Sander Is Best At Removing Paint?

We’ve already touched on this briefly above.  Depending on the wood being worked on, the belt sander is going to remove more material faster.  Multiple layers of paint or several old coats of varnish will come off quickly with the power of the belt sander.

A random orbital sander can also remove paint and strip wood.  It’s a less powerful sander, though, and will take more time to do its work.  But, it can be done.  The random orbital sander will do a better job in corners, and switching out a higher number sheet of sandpaper will give those corners a finish without swirls or scratches. 

For a large, flat piece of wood, go with the belt sander; for smaller pieces with inside corners to clear or a small piece of wood with a single layer of paint, the random orbital sander might be better.

It creates a uniform finished surface with virtually no visible scratches.  It gives a finer finish with a slow removal of materials.

Is a Belt Sander Better Than an Orbital Sander?

Is a Belt Sander Better Than an Orbital Sander

It depends.  What’s the task? What’s the piece of wood?  Are you removing materials like paint or varnish?  Is it a finish sanding job?

Again, large, flat pieces of wood needing to be stripped are for your belt sander.  An orbital sander won’t do that.

For fine sanding work or rounding edges, the orbital sander is the tool for the job.  It has much more flexibility than a belt sander and works well around corners.  It can fit into corners, too, although a random orbital sander might be the better choice. 

So, which is better?  It really does depend on the job and the piece. Now that you understand the talent and strength of each, your choice should be easy to make.

Quick Guide:  Belt Sander vs. Random Orbital Sander

Belt Sander

  • Powerful and fast
  • Best for larger flat pieces of wood with lots of material to remove
  • Excellent results when you can work with the grain
  • Depending on the size, belt sanders can run from $50 to $250

Basically, the belt sander gets wood ready to be worked on; it will not serve you well as a finish sander.  It will not work into corners and can leave gouges if you are not careful.

Random Orbital Sander

  • Less powerful, but nonetheless able to strip pieces down to the wood
  • Excellent for fine sanding on smaller pieces of wood
  • Leaves no swirl scratches and will not gouge as a belt sander can
  • Can be used on wood, plastic, and metal
  • Depending on the size, random orbital sanders can run from $50 to $200

These sanders are best for fine sanding on smaller pieces of wood, can reach into corners, and is more adaptable than orbital sanders. 

In fact, because of its adaptability, you will likely find more uses for it than for other types of sanders.  Absent large, flat pieces needing to be stripped of something (paint, varnish, etc.), it is likely the best choice for a power sander in your shop if you have to choose.

The right tool for the right job is as true for power sanders as it is for any other shop tool.  The one you choose will be based upon the task to be performed.

If you are new to woodworking and just starting out equipping your home woodworking shop, the random orbital sander is the right one to purchase first.  Of course, a little hand-sanding is always going to be a part of your projects.  But when a power tool is required, it’s most often going to be your best choice.

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