Orbital Sander vs. Sheet Sander: When to Use One Over the Other

Sanding is the essential final step in any woodwork project to achieve a professional, polished finish. However, unless you have the right tools for the job, it can be tedious and time-consuming…
That’s where mechanical sanders come in. The two types that you’ll most often encounter are the orbital sander and the sheet (or square) sander. Both can help you with your sanding task, but which one is better?
This article will attempt to put the orbital sander vs. sheet sander debate to rest.
Orbital Sander vs. Sheet Sander Overview
There are many types of mechanical sanders, each with its own specialized use. Sometimes, you’ll need all of them to take care of your woodworking tasks.
However, suppose you had to pick only one. In that case, woodworkers will generally recommend that you get either a random orbital sander or a sheet sander (also called palm, square, or finishing sander).
Despite the differences between a random orbital sander vs. palm sander, they work roughly the same way. They both move abrasive sandpaper at high speeds to sand down any surface with little effort.
The difference, though, ends there.
A sheet sander moves a piece of sandpaper in a circular or lateral motion. This sander has a rectangular shape that’s suitable for reaching small surfaces and corners. You can also adjust the sanding level by switching to sandpaper with a different grit.
Sheet sanders are lightweight, easy to use, and tend to be cheaper than orbital sanders.
In contrast, an orbital sander moves a sanding pad in a circular yet random motion. The latter helps prevent the swirl marks that a sheet sander can leave. When comparing orbital vs. sheet sander, the orbital sanders tend to have more powerful motors to sand even the roughest surfaces.
However, with that much power, orbital sanders are also more expensive.
When to Use an Orbital Sander vs. Palm Sander
So, what is an orbital sander used for?
An orbital sander is the best tool if you want to smooth out a very rough surface as quickly as possible. An orbital (vs. palm sander) will remove a much more considerable amount of material when used with the same grit paper. Thus, it’s best used for a “first pass,” making quick work of the material to prepare it for refining work with a sheet sander.
An orbital sander uses a circular sanding pad of around five to six inches in diameter housed in a convenient secure-in-place attachment. You can switch between pads if you want something a little more or less abrasive. You use it with broad strokes, thoroughly passing across the wood’s surface until you reach the desired smoothness.
When to Use a Palm Sander vs. Random Orbital Sander
A palm sander is designed for refining work and finishing touches, hence why it’s also called a finishing sander. The smaller, rectangular surface also works best to reach the smaller corners and edges that you can’t access with a circular sander.
This sander requires portions of a full sheet of 9 x 11 sandpaper held in place by a clamp. You can easily swap sandpapers of different grits to adjust the level of abrasiveness of the sander. Some models also allow you to pick between a circular or in-line motion.
Pros and Cons of Orbital and Sheet Sanders
Here are a few more pros and cons of an orbital sander vs. hand sander.
Orbital sanders are a much more versatile tool, thanks to their powerful motors and randomized circular motion. They leave a smooth finish without any swirl marks. Also, most models have a vibration absorption feature that reduces hand fatigue on the user.
However, orbital sanders tend to be more expensive than sheet sanders to buy and maintain. Plus, the aggressive and powerful motor can damage certain materials or surfaces. Thus, more care and skill are required when using an orbital sander.
A sheet sander is relatively lightweight, portable, and cheap. Its gentle motions give you more control when filing down delicate surfaces like paint and coating.
Where a sheet sander falls flat is when trying to smooth an excessively rough surface. Even if you sanded all day, you’d make minimal progress while expending a considerable amount of effort. Also, if you’re not careful, sheet sanders can also leave unsightly swirl marks on the finished product.
Now that we’ve covered both these tools, it’s pretty clear that they complement each other. The orbital sander gets the brunt of the work done, while the sheet sander touches up minor flaws and accesses hard-to-reach surfaces.
Whether you prefer an orbital sander or sheet sander, both tools have a place in your woodworking arsenal.
Need Tools for Your Next Sanding Project?
At Plastic Materials Incorporated, we offer various sanders, accessories, and other equipment for your next project. Visit us today to learn more about our products.

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