Orbital Vs. Belt Sander: Which One Do You Need?
Choosing the right sander for your woodworking job is critical. If you opt for the wrong one, you could spend way more time sanding than you would prefer, or you could choose a machine that is a bit too powerful. When looking at an orbital vs. belt sander, what are the differences?
An orbital sander is ideal for smaller projects that require precision, angles, or need rounding/shaping. They leave behind orbital rings, so they work best on projects you plan to paint or finish. Belt sanders are far more powerful and work well on large, flat surfaces providing a deeper strip.
If you are struggling to choose between an orbital or belt sander, you are not alone. However, it is imperative that you determine the intended use of your sander before deciding which one to bring into your woodworking shop or home. Since they are used for vastly different projects, they can complement each other well when used for their unique purposes and specialties. Let’s take a closer look to see how orbital and belt sanders compare.
What is the Difference between an Orbital and Belt Sander?
As you head to the local hardware store to select the right sander for your next project, you need to know what different types of sanders are capable of. There are a few different sander variations on the market, but two of the most common are orbital and belt sanders. So, what is the difference between the two?
Orbital and belt sanders vary in terms of power, speed, precision, type of sandpaper, uses, ease of use, dust collection, and markings. Typically, orbital sanders provide more precision for smaller projects while belt sanders can provide a quick sanding job on a large, highly ridged surface.
Still, if you want to find a sander that is right for a large project that still requires precision, or a small project that still needs a lot of sanding to get through tough ridges and unevenness, it can be tough to decide which type of sander to use. The major differences in orbital and belt sanders can help you to determine which type of sander is right for your project.
That said, let’s dive deeper into the differences between an orbital and a belt sander.
Understanding the power differentials between orbital and belt sanders can tell you a lot about the two types of tools. However, it is important to remember that the difference in the power behind an orbital and a belt sander does not make either of these tools inherently better than the other. On the contrary, it simply gives the tools different purposes and functions in the woodworking and tool world.
That said, a belt sander is going to definitely be the more powerful sander compared to an orbital sander. Unsurprisingly, this is what gives the belt sander its purpose. The belt sander can operate at a highly powerful level creating an ability to sand highly rigid surfaces rather quickly.
If you are working in the same direction as the natural wood grain, this is perfect for a belt sander to be able to handle. It can quickly and effectively pass over the ridges and sand them down to a smooth surface. However, this power is something that has to be used carefully with a belt sander. Because it is so powerful, there are very few take-backs when it comes to using this type of tool.
Once you pass over the surface of your wood (or metal) with a belt sander, there is very little room for error and the sanding will occur instantaneously. Consequently, this is one of the main reasons why the belt sander is perfect for jobs that require a bit more power but not so much for jobs that require higher levels of precision.
Still, orbital sanders can provide a high-quality sanding job even though they operate on a slightly less powerful level. This is not to say that orbital sanders do not have a good amount of power behind them, as many orbital sanders have a considerable torque and high amp ratings.
Even so, orbital sanders are not used to move quite as quickly on large, flat surfaces like belt sanders are. Instead, you can use a more moderate level of sanding power with an orbital sander as you pass over smaller surfaces, angled corners, stairs, or any type of project that you are simply rounding or shaping.
All in all, the orbital sander is not as powerful as the belt sander. But, remember, this does not make the belt sander inherently better- it simply makes it more appropriate for larger tasks that need a quicker, deeper sanding job done well. So, if you are working on your home’s hardwood floors, a belt sander can be a great option to sand down the ridges. But, once you get to the stairs, it is time to take out the orbital sander.
Speed is another area that orbital and belt sanders differ. However, they are measured a bit differently. While the orbital sander’s speed is measured by Orbits Per Minute (or how many times the circular sandpaper rotates in orbit per minute), the belt sander is measured in feet per minute determined by how quickly the belt of sandpaper can travel.
Because the two are measured in differing units, it can be a bit difficult to try to compare the two pieces of equipment. However, this can come back to the power behind them and how quickly they are able to complete a sanding job. For example, if you are working on your hardwood floors, you are probably going to be spending quite a bit of time by using an orbital sander- even one with a high Orbits Per Minute rating. Contrarily, using a belt sander for this task will be accomplished much more quickly.
This comes back to the speed at which these pieces of equipment can be used on the wood (or another type of surface) that you are applying them to and how quickly you plan to move across this surface. Because the belt sander is highly powerful, it can move at a high rate across very rigid areas where an orbital sander would take quite a bit more time.
Interestingly, this ends up affecting the precision of the two types of sanders. So, if you are looking to complete a large sanding job quickly, and you do not have tight curves that you will be hugging with your sander, then you can opt for the belt sander. But, if your project requires a bit of a slower pace so that you can round the edges, hit unique angles, or pay more special attention to detail, then you should opt for the orbital sander.
As mentioned above, the speed and power largely play into the precision of an orbital sander vs a belt sander. For this reason, you will want to pay special attention if you plan on using your sander for a project that requires more accuracy. For example, if you are working on a smaller project that has round angles, requires you to shape it, or needs sanding in a very tight angle, then using an orbital sander will be what you are looking for.
However, if you are just looking for a sander to plow through a large sanding job, one that does not require quite as much precision in the angels that you are going for, then a belting sander can do so quickly and effectively.
On this note, it is important to consider the natural wood grain and if you plan on going along with it or if you will be sanding without regard to the natural wood grain. When using a belt sander, for example, you should always attempt to go in the direction of the natural wood grain. Since you will more powerfully be smoothing over ridges, this will allow a slightly decreased amount of pressure to be applied.
On the opposite end, if you are sanding down the finer details on your woodworking craft using an orbital sander, you might not have the same ability to go with the natural wood grain direction. Sure, you can try to stay with it as much as possible, but if you are working in the grooves of your piece, the sanding motion might not be as one-directional. Instead, you will work with the piece and the orbital sander to reach the particular area.
Another example is when sanding stairs or cabinets. Since these are more precise angles, and since they are likely to be painted or finished, you can use an orbital sander to smooth over the edges without having to worry if the sandpaper will take too much off. Using a belt sander on this type of piece, however, could leave you with too much of the wood smoothed down because of the power and speed at which the belt sander is capable of working.
The type of sandpaper that an orbital sander versus a belt sander uses can help to distinguish the distinct purposes of these two tools. While you can adjust the coarseness of the grit in sandpaper on each type (to have a more thorough or less harsh sanding application), the ways that the sandpaper is used varies.
Primarily, on an orbital sander, you will attach circular pieces of sandpaper that can come in a variety of sizes and varying levels of grit. For smaller projects, you can attach (stick on) a smaller-sized piece of sandpaper. From there, you can adjust the necessary size based on your specific sanding project.
As an example, if you were working to sand a woodworking piece that you can hold in your hands, or something that had a more ornate design, you might choose to use a smaller piece of sandpaper on an orbital sander. However, if you were using an orbital sander on a larger surface, you might opt for a larger piece of sandpaper. Regardless, the ability to adjust the size is a major benefit of working with an orbital sander.
Contrarily, a belt sander does not use pieces of sandpaper attached in the same way. Rather, it uses a sheet of sandpaper that circles through (hence, the belt). For this reason, belt sanders often use more coarse pieces of sandpaper from the start.
However, if you are using a stationary belt sander, you will be moving the piece of wood through the sandpaper and will adjust the piece rather than the sander. On the other hand, if you are using a non-stationary belt sander, you will need to ensure an appropriately-sized belt for the project you are working on. Some woodworkers have even used 18” or more belts to operate in a similar manner as a planer, but this can get quite expensive.
Regardless, it is important to note that the size variations really point back to the appropriate projects for these two types of machines. While smaller, more precise sanding tasks can be accomplished with an orbital sander, leave the larger, flatter, and less precise sanding projects for the belt sander.
Many of the uses for an orbital sander versus a belt sander have already been mentioned, but this is the primary difference between the two devices. While both are capable of providing a sufficient sanding job, they are to be used for very different purposes. Otherwise, you end up working for the tool instead of the other way around.
With that said, here are a few of the main ways that an orbital sander can be used:
- Smaller surfaces
- Sanding angles
- Sanding corners or edges
- Rounding or shaping
- If you are planning to paint or finish the piece (since an orbital sander can leave behind orbital patterns, it is recommended to use it on a piece that these markings can be covered up)
- When less power but more precision is required
On the other hand, a few of the main ways that a belt sander can be used:
- Installation of flooring/sanding hardwood floors
- Large and flat surfaces
- Can be used on metal (with appropriate directions)
- Large pieces of flat furniture
- For a quick but deep sanding job on a highly rigid surface
- When more power and less precision is required
As you can see, these unique uses change the perspective on which type of sander you should use for your woodworking projects. As referenced, an orbital sander can be used for smaller, more detailed sanding projects compared with a belt sander that can provide an efficient sanding job on a larger, more rough (but flat) surface.
Ease of Use
Another way that orbital sanders and belt sanders differ is their general ease of use. However, these are not overly complicated for either, and they often come down to personal preference. And, of course, as mentioned several times above, this comes back to the question of “Are you using the right sander for the task?”
With that said, many find that an orbital sander is overall pretty simple to use. There are a few different models of orbital sanders, but many are designed with a comfort grip when they are handheld or palm grip handles. Other options include jug grip and pistol grip handles which are for more controlled sanding projects like getting at a peculiar angle or working to apply pointed pressure.
On the other hand, belt sanders come with stationary or nonstationary options. Both are relatively simple to use, but you will notice that a belt sander has more torque aka power, so controlling it might require a bit more pressure on your end, physically. That said, a stationary belt sander will require you to move the wood (or another type of material) through it whereas a nonstationary belt sander will move over the material.
Ultimately, this comes back to the type of project you plan to be using these sanders for. If you are looking for a more precise sanding job that requires a bit of manual pressure added to the machine, the palm grip orbital sander will likely be the right fit. But, if you are wanting to send a large piece of flat wood through a sander (similar to using it as a planer), then you can opt for a stationary or tabletop belt sander.
Interestingly, the dust collection methods of both orbital sanders and belt sanders are relatively similar, although they might show up a bit different looking on the machines. Still, although these are similar methods, it is important to note these in this list considering the importance of this part included on your sander.
Dust collection is quite obvious in its function (removal of sawdust stirred up by the sanding process), but it is often overlooked in its importance. However, using a sander with dust collection is imperative for clean, safe, and effective sanding.
On your orbital or belt sander, you will either find an active dust collection system like a vacuum that sucks up the dust, or you will find a passive dust collection system like a dust collection bag. Either should work fine as long as the dust is removed. Along with this, most orbital and belt sanders will have filters to prevent the dust from entering into the sander itself.
Regardless of which type of dust collection method that your sander provides, it is incredibly important that some type of system is put in place. Maintaining a clean and safe workspace and workshop will help you to reach your woodworking and crafting dreams for long term success.
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