Belt Sander Vs. Orbital Sander (Both Have Specific Jobs)

Last Updated on October 21, 2022 by Barry Gray

The thing I love about power tools for different projects is the fact we have so many options out there regarding the machines. However, that sometimes leads to a need to understand what each machine can do.

Take the world of sanders as a prime example. You have several versions all capable of performing different tasks. So, how do you know which machine to use to achieve the desired result?

Well, I’m here to help. However, with so many different versions out there, I’m going to focus on just two: the belt sander and the orbital sander.

Now both of these tools will prove highly effective in so many situations and scenarios, so I think they are good examples to talk about. 

belt and orbital sander

Which is Better? The Differences Between a Belt Sander and Orbital Sander

I’ve shown how the belt sander and orbital sander have their own roles when sanding down wood, so which is better?

Honestly, it all depends on what you want to achieve. Both sanders have specific jobs, and one cannot really do the job of the other.

If you need to remove a lot of material, you shouldn’t touch an orbital sander. It will burn through so much sandpaper and take such a long time that it’s not worth the effort. On the other hand, a belt sander will rip through a lot of material, just don’t expect it to produce a smooth finish.

On the flip side, if it’s the finesse you want, you would avoid the belt sander and focus on the orbital sander. It’s the only option available to you out of those two sanders.

Consider it a two-step process when dealing with rough wood where you want an ultra smooth and clean finish.

First, you get your belt sander. Use that to get down close to the finish you want on the wood. Then, move on to the second part of the process by getting your orbital sander. The end result you can achieve is impressive.

So I can honestly say there’s no way you can decide that one sander is better than the other. Both tools are fantastic at what they do. You just have to understand how to get the best out of them.

Belt Sander

belt sander

The belt sander can come in two primary forms, with either a stationary version or a handheld version. However, they both work in the same way: the sander loops like a belt which then rotates, effectively sanding off the top layer of the wood.

One of the main reasons you would use a belt sander is to quickly remove large strips of wood at once. The design of a belt sander allows you to work efficiently, and they are highly effective at sanding off those initial rough surfaces and finishing off a board.

How They Operate

A belt sander runs by having two different drums at either end with the sanding belt in between. The power turns the drums, then rotating the paper, allowing the surface to be sanded off. This applies to both the stationary and handheld versions.

The Stationary Belt Sander

stationary belt sander

Your stationary belt sander must sit on your workbench as it needs this solid base to prevent the sander from moving around. Larger models may come with their own stand, but a benchtop version will often be enough.

To work a stationary belt sander, you must hold the wood against the sanding belt while it rotates. It’s up to you to move the wood as you need to then get the end result you were hoping for.

Due to the need to move the material yourself, I see a stationary belt sander as a tool you should only use with smaller stock. It becomes too challenging to handle boards and hold them steady enough to get the desired result.

The Handheld Belt Sander

handheld belt sander

The handheld belt sander still runs off those two rotating drums, but this time it’s the sander you move around rather than the material. That’s why this option is best for larger stock where you can lay the boards down flat and work on them.

Their portability is critical here and offers you significantly more control when sanding that large stock.

The Key Components of Belt Sanders

Aside from how it works, I think you should be aware of several other vital components of belt sanders.

Speed

Thanks to how they work, a belt sander’s speed is measured in feet per minute. Clearly, the higher the number, the faster the sander works.

However, you need to have the ability to control the sander, or you won’t get the perfect finish. If you’re new to using a belt sander, do you really want one that generates a crazy amount of speed? 

So, what I often prefer is to use a belt sander which has a variable speed option. Several models on the market do this, and it just gives you a bit more control over your project.

Sandpaper

The sanding belt used on a belt sander will almost always be 3” wide. You do get mini belt sanders where it’s thinner than 3”, but the overwhelming majority of these sanders work with the same type of sanding belt.

That does make it easier for you to get the correct sandpaper. You only have to think about the different grit of it rather than worrying about the width.

Dust

A belt sander can create a crazy amount of dust, which may prove problematic. However, you will tend to find most belt sanders offer you one of two options.

First, some may allow you to connect a vacuum system to the machine to suck up the dust. This works mainly with the stationary version. The other option is a dust collection bag, which will also manage to pick up a lot of the dust rather than it flying around you.

The Advantages of a Belt Sander

sanding a table

I see a belt sander as coming with several clear advantages

Fast Removal of Rough Wood Over a Large Area

First, a belt sander can quickly remove rough wood or old paintwork over a large area and do so without much fuss. If you plan on renovating furniture and wish to remove that old varnish and get down to the pristine wood, then this is the tool I’d use.

The power and area size of the sanding belt makes a huge difference. You will see the changes to the wood which will, in turn, push you to complete the task.

Easy to Use

A belt sander does not go out of its way to complicate matters, so I must say they are straightforward to use. You don’t have to go through a process of setting up and adjusting all sorts of things on a belt sander. Basically, you get the sandpaper on the belt, switch it on, and get started.

I love when a tool keeps things nice and simple, and a belt sander certainly falls into that category.

It’s Tough

I also see a belt sander as being a rugged old tool. You can throw it up against any old wood, and it will still work. Of course, it will work better with the more power you have, so keep that in mind.

The Disadvantages of a Belt Sander

changing sand paper belt sander

But in the interest of fairness, I also need to point out that a belt sander comes with a few disadvantages.

It Doesn’t Work for Finer Sanding

A belt sander is not the tool you should use if you want to avoid generating any sanding marks or wish to get a perfectly smooth finish. Also, if you have any intricate details, a belt sander is more likely to destroy them rather than bring them back to life.

So, only look to use a belt sander when dealing with rough surfaces and where finesse is just not important.

They are Exceptionally Loud

A belt sander also tends to be exceptionally loud. It’s best to have some ear protection, or prolonged use of a belt sander could lead to hearing issues. Obviously, this is not the only power tool where this may be a problem, but when it comes to sanders, the belt sander is on a different level of noise compared to other options.

Overall, the benefits and advantages of a belt sander will undoubtedly outweigh the disadvantages.

Orbital Sander

using orbital sander

An orbital sander is a handheld machine that uses sanding discs or sheets rather than a belt. The sander then moves the sanding disc in a set motion, responsible for generating those smooth results.

I certainly feel that an orbital sander is more portable, and it’s undoubtedly easier to handle as well. However, it’s not all plain sailing with this tool.

How it Operates

This sander operates by a motor rotating the sanding disc. This rotation is responsible for sanding down the top surface of the wood. It’s a nice and simple motion, and the orbital sander is always very easy to set up and use.

The Key Components of Orbital Sanders

An orbital sander has several key areas that I think you should focus on when getting to grips with what it can do for you and your projects.

Speed

An orbital sander has its speed measured in OPM, which stands for orbits per minute. Basically, that’s how many times a minute the disc will rotate when the sander is fired up and used.

Generally, most orbital sanders will sit around 10,000 OPM with some variation. Also, some models do come with a variable output, and that’s something I would certainly keep in mind when considering which model I should go ahead and purchase.

But here’s an important point. The higher the number, the less control you may have over the sander. This becomes key when dealing with intricate areas or where that issue of finesse comes into its own. That is where having a variable speed option could prove vital.

Power

You will notice that the power of an orbital sander is usually mentioned in Amps. The higher the number, the more powerful the sander is and the faster it can cut through those surfaces.

But I have another key thing to say here.

An orbital sander is not designed for those heavy-duty tasks. That means having a lot of power is not something you should focus on. If you need to remove a lot of material to sand some rough surfaces down, that’s where the belt sander would be used first before switching to an orbital sander to round things off.

The Handle

An orbital sander is designed to be held, but the handle comes in different forms. In short, you have three options.

First, there’s the palm grip. As the name suggests, this sander is designed to sit comfortably in the palm of your hand. It does mean this sander is often smaller in size, but it offers you significant control when in use.

Another option is the jug-grip. This is also known as a D-handle, which means you can hold the sander more to the rear rather than on top of the tool. This works well when you have limited space above the sander as it still allows you to work the device and maintain some sense of control.

Finally, you have the pistol grip, which is perfect if you want to only use one hand. However, this grip tends to be viewed as best for people experienced in using an orbital sander.

The Advantages of an Orbital Sander

using small orbital sander

I have identified a number of clear advantages associated with an orbital sander, and I’m sure you will quickly notice some of your own as soon as you start to use one of these tools.

The Sandpaper and Sanding Disc

Thanks to the sanding disc’s size, it means you can cover a substantial area with an orbital sander. I also find it very easy to attach the sandpaper in the first place.

Most orbital sanders will use velcro to attach the sandpaper. Others may utilize a peel-and-stick approach, and both are undoubtedly good enough options.

In addition, the sandpaper is inexpensive and easy to find, and that’s highly useful as you could burn through the paper quite quickly on those larger projects.

The Shape and Size

I find the shape of an orbital sander works well, especially when using rectangular or square sheets. It allows you to work into fine edges and corners without too much of a struggle.

For me, this is the best advantage. I find I can really press on with different projects as an orbital sander allows me to get smooth results without fighting to get into those more awkward places.

The Smoothness

The final advantage is undoubtedly the smooth finish you can achieve with an orbital sander. They work by moving backward and forwards, which means you can largely avoid producing those annoying sanding marks.

I feel that with a light touch, you can achieve the smooth end result you want with an orbital sander.

The Disadvantages of an Orbital Sander

orbital sander workshop

As before, I should mention that an orbital sander is not perfect as it comes with several disadvantages.

Time Consuming

An orbital sander is time-consuming. This is thanks to it having less power than other types of sanders, but that’s directly related to the job it’s intended for. 

However, it does mean you should not expect to rip through sanding down those boards. That’s not the role of the orbital sander.

Limits of Removing Material

It’s also true that an orbital sander is not designed to be used to remove a lot of material at one time. It’s not intended to sand down more than the very top of the wood, so that does limit when it can be used.

In short, an orbital sander is only for getting that smooth finish when all the hard work has already been completed.

Overall Conclusion

So those are the differences between the belt sander and orbital sander, and you will hopefully have better insight into when you would use either tool. I also hope it has opened up new possibilities with your projects, thanks to having more of an understanding of what they are capable of doing.

Ultimately, having the right tools only benefits you when you know how to get the best out of them. Anything else is entirely pointless, so hopefully, now you will know when to use your belt sander or your orbital sander. 

Photo of author

Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.

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