Belt Sander vs Orbital Sander: What’s the Difference?

There is a ton of difference sanding tools out there to choose from. The tricky part is knowing which one of them you need. Sanders come in a wide variety of different shapes and serve different sanding purposes. We have belt sanders which are either handheld or mounted on a table. They utilize a long sheet of sandpaper for quickly sanding blanks for further processing. And then we have orbital sanders which are handheld and are glided along the surface of an object to give it a smooth, splinter-free finish.

Belt Sander vs Orbital Sander

Belt Sander

In today’s article, we’re going to discuss what makes a belt sander different from an orbital sander, what sort of projects each one would excel in, and finally which of the two, if any, you will need for your line of work.

What is a Belt Sander?

A belt sander is a sanding tool in which you strap on a length of sanding paper to the built-in drums. The drums are then spun by a motor which then turns the sandpaper. The quicker the speed, the more material the tool will remove per second.

There are also benchtop belt sander models in which two vertically standing drums quickly spin a long sheet of sandpaper. Instead of bringing the tool to the material, you bring the material to the tool. If you plan on getting a benchtop belt sander, or any power sander for that matter, make sure that you have the right PPE – gloves, respirator, safety goggles, and ear protection.

Orbital Sander vs Belt Sander

Orbital Sander

What can a Belt Sander do?

Handheld belt sanders are excellent for removing old finishes on your workpieces such as stains or varnish. It’s important to start with a coarse-grit sheet of sandpaper – 60-grit will do – and progressively increase the fineness of the grit to leave a smooth, handsome finish.

Even though handheld belt sanders can be used on a large stock, a benchtop belt sander would be more appropriate since it comes with a longer sanding belt, a more powerful motor, and a work table to help keep larger pieces balanced.

Belt sanders are the most aggressive type of sanding tool out there. They’re great for processing rough lumber, smoothing edges, adding curves, and removing beads of glue that bleed out from in between boards.

Belt Sander vs Orbital Sander: What's the Difference?

Belt Sander

Downsides of a Belt Sander

The main drawback of a belt sander is that no matter how fine a sheet of sandpaper you use there are always going to be unsightly sanding marks left on your workpiece. Essentially, a belt sander is for smoothing rough lumber in preparation for further sanding. It’s not a tool to use for final sanding or adding finishing touches to your project. Furthermore, when sanding where two different grains meet, you’re going to end up with some rather nasty scratches.

Another downside is the sheer power of a belt sander. It can be good for aggressively shaping and removing a considerable amount of material each second, but if you’re not careful, you could end up warping the shape of your workpiece in an instant.

What is an Orbital Sander?

One of the most common mistakes that any aspiring woodworker can make is equating an orbital sander to a random orbital sander. An orbital sander is a handheld sanding tool with a square or rectangular sanding pad. The pad moves back and forth at high speed to remove a very minimal amount of material. On the other hand, a random orbital sander uses a round sanding pad and includes an orbiting motion to the spin of the disc.

An orbital sander is a tool that you would most likely use to smooth out any scratches left over after using a belt sander. This tool is much gentler in sanding, but it does leave scratch marks going in one direction.

Orbital Sander: What's the Difference?

Orbital Sander

This tool doesn’t require purchasing large sheets of sandpaper. Instead, you need to purchase square or rectangular sandpaper sheets of varying coarseness – between 60 and 220 – and stick it onto the sanding pad. Unlike a random orbital sander, you don’t need to purchase individual discs or small sheets of sandpaper. Instead, you can buy sandpaper in bulk, manually cut it to the correct length and width, and stick it onto the square/rectangular sanding pad.

Belt Sander

Belt Sander

What can an Orbital Sander do?

An orbital sander is used to sand workpieces that have just been sanded by an aggressive belt sander. It smoothens the surface while eliminating deep gashes left by abrasive sandpaper. The forward and backward motion of the sanding sheet helps reduce the risk of deep scratch marks while making the surface as smooth and free of splinters as possible.

One of the greatest advantages that an orbital sander has over a belt sander or even a random orbital sander is that the square/rectangular sheet allows the tool to fit into corners and flush against edges. This makes sanding the underside of an assembled table or cabinet possible without leaving any parts untouched.

Orbital Sander vs Belt Sander: What's the Difference?

Orbital Sander

Downsides of an Orbital Sander

Unfortunately, there are several disadvantages of using an orbital sander. First, the tool isn’t meant to remove a ton of material per second. It mildly scratches the top of your workpiece, meaning that you’ll spend a lot of time on one section while hardly removing anything.

Even though orbital sanders leave considerably fewer scratch marks than a belt sander, the marks are still quite noticeable. There’s no way around it – any one-direction sanding tool (belt sander and orbital sander) will leave visible marks. The best sander to eliminate or at least reduce the visibility of scratches is a random orbital sander.

Belt Sanders

Belt Sander

Belt Sander vs. Orbital Sander – Which to Get

In all honesty, most sanding projects can’t be completed with only one of these tools. You’ll need a belt sander for heavy-duty sanding and shaping. An orbital sander comes in handy when you need to eliminate deep gashes left by a belt sander and when dealing with pesky corners and edges. On top of that, you may need a random orbital sander to eliminate all unsightly marks that both of these sanders leave behind.

However, if we had to recommend one tool over the other, we’d say go with the belt sander. They use larger sheets of sandpaper for quicker sanding, and you can mount finer-coarse sandpaper for adding final touches. There’s no elegance in a belt sander, but when it comes time to sand large woodworking projects, it’s the more time-efficient tool.