7 Orbital Sander Uses That Show Why This is Such a Good Tool

Last Updated on August 28, 2022 by Barry Gray

In my opinion, the orbital sander is a fantastic tool to have in your arsenal, and I’m going to show you why I think that’s the case. I feel the best way to do this is to provide you with a list of uses that help show its versatility when it comes to the jobs it can do.

I always feel any individual who plans to work with wood should have an orbital sander to hand. This hand-held tool works by moving in circular motions, hence being called an orbital sander, while it also vibrates in order to sand down a surface.

It’s a straightforward tool to use, which I always appreciate, and that’s why this tool is one that I recommend beginners should have. Not only is it easy to use, but it also delivers some pretty impressive results with minimal fuss.

But I don’t want to just give you some ideas of where an orbital sander can be used.

So, I’ll also provide a better explanation as to how you can get the perfect end results should you decide to go ahead and use your orbital sander in the same way.

By the end, I think you will have some new confidence in the orbital sander as a tool.

I think part of the problem is we can fall into the trap of believing a tool can only be used in a specific way. We just relate using a sander with wood, and while I admit that is the primary way in which people use a sander, you will see it’s not the only way. 

I know I too fell into that trap.

However, one of the cool things about using power tools is the ability to experiment and see how something else can work.

It didn’t take long before my eyes were opened as to the possibilities, and I think you will feel the same after you discover these seven different ways in which you can use an orbital sander.

Use 1: Working on Wood

using orbital sander on wood

Let me start by getting the most obvious one out of the way: wood. This will be the primary material you work on when using an orbital sander, but I have some extra advice here.

I personally prefer to use a random orbital sander when working on wood. It delivers better results, and that’s because it will not leave those tell-tale circular marks on the surface. You will find it hard to get a perfectly smooth finish without a random orbital sander. So if that’s what you are after, then you only have one option.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used my orbital sander on wood. When using a random orbital sander, I find you can achieve an ultra-smooth finish, and it’s easy to see why this would be such a good thing.

The result you can achieve depends on the grit of the sandpaper you use, which runs from coarse through to ultra-fine. Typically, a coarse grit is around 40 to 60, while ultra-fine can be over 400, so that’s a huge difference.

But if you plan on simply removing small issues or imperfections, then I would be quite content to use sandpaper of between 80 and 120. That should work well, and it should result in you having a clean piece of wood, no matter your intended end result.

Finally, if you intend on getting an ultra-fine finish, then I suggest going for a grit of somewhere between 360 and 400. That should lead to the perfect finish every single time.

Do keep in mind that you do not only have to use an orbital sander on a flat piece of wood or board. It also works well when sanding down edges to get them nice and smooth for whatever your purpose may be. 

For me, I’d look at getting as many different grits as possible and prepare yourself to use your orbital sander more often than you would ever expect. It’s going to prove to be one heck of a tool.

Use 2: Working on Metal

sanding metal

This may come as a surprise to some people, but an orbital sander can be used on metal, so if you thought it would only work on wood, think again.

But with this, I would certainly recommend something other than going for a rough grit on the sandpaper. All that’s going to do is to roughen up the surface of the metal, and it will look horrible.

Instead, I would opt for a grit of around 320 if you want to get the perfect end result. That means the sandpaper falls into the fine category, meaning the metal can be sanded but left smooth. This results in a far superior end result.

But here is an additional tip. If you want to achieve the finest of results, then opt for more of a specialist sandpaper with a grit count of around 1000. However, that’s in extreme circumstances. 

The final main tip related to working with metal is to reduce the speed of your orbital sander. Also, it’s better if you can use a random orbital sander. Once again, it will mean you do not get those circular marks on the surface, as that will only make your life significantly more challenging.

With the correct sandpaper attached to your orbital sander, there’s no reason why you cannot manage to sand down the metal and get a fantastic smooth surface.

Use 3: Working on Plastic

sanding plastic car part with orbital sander

Plastic is another material where your orbital sander can make a significant difference. Again, I believe people feel surprised that it can work on plastic, but I promise it can generate some decent results.

For this, I advise you to avoid coarse grit because plastic will stretch, and it’s also very easy to scratch it when you are hitting it with this power. If you drop the grit too low, you will damage the plastic and ruin your project.

So, what grit do I suggest? Something around the 220 mark is perfect. At that level, it will sand down the plastic without going over the top and actually damaging the material. That’s what you should be aiming for, and I guarantee you will find it significantly easier to get your intended end result.

Once again, it’s best if you have a random orbital sander to prevent those marks where the sander has managed to dig into the plastic. I do also find it works better when I can slow the speed of the sander down as well. It offers me better control, and I feel more confident I can get the outcome I was hoping for.

But why even bother sanding plastic? Well, you will find it easier to add a new coating to the plastic when the surface has effectively been roughed up a bit. However, there is a limit on how rough it can be without ripping out the actual strength of the plastic.

For that reason, keep your sandpaper to that grit level, and you should be fine.

Use 4: Stripping Off Paint or Varnish

If you have an old piece of wood that you want to bring back to life, but where it’s covered in paint or varnish, then don’t stress. An orbital sander has the ability to do exactly what you want, and I think it’s the best option available.

Now, I will again suggest using a random orbital sander to get the best results.

The grit you need to use will vary depending on how much paint you need to sand away.

After all, perhaps you are attempting to remove layers of paint built up over the years to reveal the fresh wood below? If so, that’s clearly harder to do than just one single layer of paint, which takes little in the way of effort to remove.

So, keeping that in mind, I suggest you opt for sandpaper of around 80 to 120 grit to really break down that surface and remove the paint or varnish without making it difficult.

Also, you can then go back over the surface with finer grade sandpaper to make everything smooth.

But the result you hope to achieve clearly influences the sandpaper you will use.

However, if it’s to get things stripped down and where you are not too concerned with anything else aside from having no paint or varnish, then an orbital sander will allow you to rip through the paint and make it easier to move on with your project.

Use 5: Sanding Drywall

Dealing with drywall can be time-consuming, but I’ve found that an orbital sander can speed things up. Thankfully, it will still generate a smooth finish for you to then add paint or whatever you want to throw on top of the drywall.

But this is a use where you need to be careful as to how you approach the project. You cannot go full power or with the roughest grit out there, or you will clearly damage the drywall.

Remember that drywall is actually quite fragile if dealing with it in this manner, so you don’t want to cause yourself another problem.

So, I suggest using something between 180 and 220 regarding the grit. Also, you need to ensure you keep your sander moving. If you don’t, it will dig into the drywall and damage it. 

In addition, I would not hit it with full power either. That’s just not required when sanding down drywall, thanks to the surface you are working on. 

The same approach also applies if you intend to sand down wood filler. Use the same grit level as you would with drywall, and you should be happy with the result. 

Use 6: Polishing

polishing a car with orbital sander

One thing people really do not think of when it comes to an orbital sander is the prospect of using it to polish surfaces. Well, with a change of equipment, it’s entirely possible for you to get a stunning end result. 

Clearly, things need to be different when it comes to using an orbital sander to polish up metal. In this instance, you need to swap out the sandpaper that usually sits on the surface of the sander and replace it with a special foam pad.

This foam pad works amazingly at buffing up metal surfaces, leading to everything shining as you have never seen before. Also, you can reduce the speed a bit, and I would look at varying the speed and see the type of end result you can achieve.

When you think about it, using an orbital sander for this purpose makes a lot of sense. It has the motion you need to buff up surfaces but also saves you from doing it physically. In addition, the number of rotations it produces in a minute does mean you will find it easier to get your desired end result in less time.

If you want to polish anything and want to do so with speed, then using an orbital sander is a highly effective method.

Use 7: Prepping a Surface for Paint or a Different Coating

getting ready wood for painting

The final use is in prepping a surface for paint, and this is another obvious one to mention. You must remember that a smooth surface is the best way to get a classy-looking painted finish. One of the best ways to achieve this is via an orbital sander.

It’s generally accepted that it’s easier for another coating to adhere to a surface when it’s not perfectly smooth. It just sticks better, and you do get a far superior end result.

That is where the orbital sander can make a difference. Of course, it doesn’t mean you need to go ahead and use a coarse sandpaper to get your desired end result. Instead, often something around the 120 to 180 grade should be enough. That generally applies no matter the material you are working with.

However, if I was looking at applying a varnish to wood, I would go for a finer sandpaper rather than even something around 180 grit. You want the surface to be relatively smooth for your varnish since it will really show any marks if not careful. 

Really, if that’s what you are trying to achieve, then I would look at only using something around 300 grit. It will still lightly break the surface to allow the varnish to adhere better, but it will not be as visible as other grits.

Why an Orbital Sander is So Good

changing grit orbital sander

There are several other uses for an orbital sander if you really put your mind to thinking about it, but the seven listed above represent the most common reasons. 

You see, I think the reason why an orbital sander is so good is down to the motion.

By moving in that circular way, thanks to it oscillating, I feel it manages to do a far superior job in removing that upper surface on the material you are working with.

The movement works better at breaking the bond of the paint, varnish, or even the top layer of the material. 

But I also think that the other reason why an orbital sander works so well in so many situations is thanks to most sanders offering a variable speed option.

I love this because it allows you to take control over what’s going on, and there’s the opportunity to be somewhat delicate when the need arises.

In addition, it’s very easy to find sandpaper of different grits depending on your requirements. Most sanders will then use a hook and loop system to attach, and it’s not even that costly to get your hands on different sandpaper.

Overall Conclusion

The seven uses above do not represent everything the orbital sander can do, but the different uses will show its versatility as a tool. I know several of the uses will come across as obvious, but there will also be a few surprises thrown in there as well. 

I highly recommend you go out and buy an orbital sander if you do not already have one. I promise it will quickly become one of your main go-to tools when it comes to finishing projects and simply getting things smoothed down. 

Hopefully now, you will see how an orbital sander has many more uses than you ever thought possible. Get your hands on one, and see the difference it will make to your projects.

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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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