Orbit sanders are a popular tool in any woodworkers lineup and they can be used for a lot more than woodworking. Let’s take a look at what sets these types of sanders apart from other sanders and what to look for when buying.
Orbit Sander vs Random Orbit Sander
Orbit sanders come in two different varieties. There are the normal orbit sanders that simply spin the sanding disc in a circular rotating motion. Then there are the random orbit sanders that add an elliptical motion to the rotating sanding disc so that it creates a smoother surface without the visible circular scratch lines or circular patterns that a normal orbit sander can leave behind.
Random orbit sanders are preferable in most cases due to the smooth finish they leave on any surface. Also, due to the motion of the disc, you don’t need to put much pressure on the sander or surface to get a good sanding action.
Orbit Sander vs Other Sanders
When compared to other types of sanders, orbit sanders do have some drawbacks to consider. They are typically used to refinish surfaces that are easy to access without a lot of tight corners to get into.
The biggest issue with orbit sanders is that they typically won’t be able to get into corners, for obvious reasons. The round sanding pad and disc just can’t reach into a corner properly. For this reason an orbit sander won’t be an all-in-one sanding solution.
Another reason is the expense. They can be more expensive to purchase and maintain than other types of sanders. The sanding pads can wear out and need to be replaced, although not as often as the discs will need to be replaced.
Motor & Sanding Power
The random orbit sanders we’ve looked at typically operate in the range of 12,000 OPM. In this case OPM stands for “orbits per minute” and is similar to RPM, and it can give you a relative idea of how fast any particular sander will be spinning it’s disc. Most orbit sanders will also draw little power and their motors usually require somewhere in the range of 3 amps.
It’s not uncommon for a random orbit sander to bog down a little bit when too much pressure is applied. This isn’t necessarily the mark of a bad sander when this happens. The orbit action helps to provide good sanding capability even when less pressure is applied, so you don’t have to constantly push and create more pressure to get a good result.
Variable Speed Motors
Variable speeds are common to find on random orbit sanders. They allow you to tune the speed of the sanding disc to better match the type of surface and sanding pad you are working with. For example, when sanding wood you may want a higher speed, or when polishing a car you may want a slower speed. So it’s good to think about what all you might actually use your random orbit sander for and determine if it’s worth it to spend on a variable speed model.
Brushed vs Brushless Motor
Brushed motors are the more traditional approach for power tools. They can provide good power but the friction caused by the brushes can cause excess heat or noise during operation and can wear out more quickly from regular use.
Brushless motors are the newer approach and are becoming more common as tool manufacturers develop the electronics to control them efficiently. Brushless motors don’t have the friction to deal with that brushed motors do, and as a result can be more responsive during use, produce less heat, operate more quietly and last longer.
Sanding Pads & Discs
Orbit sanders employ a sanding pad in which the sandpaper discs are attached to. The pad on most random orbit sanders these days is a rubber pad about 5 inches in diameter. There are some adhesive style pads out there, but more common these days are the hook and loop style pads.
8 Hole Design
The 8 holes that you see on the pads of random orbit sanders are the industry standard for dust extraction. Most sanders will pull the dust through these holes into the dust bag during sander operation, or at least they will try. Some sanders do it better than others.
Hook & Loop Sanding Pad
The most common type of sanding pad is the hook and loop (like Velcro) style pads. It’s usually 5 inch diameter with an 8 hole hook and loop surface that allows quick attachment and removal of sanding discs. These types of pads tend to offer a little more flex when working with rounded edges or surfaces.
The hook surface on the sanding pad can get full of sawdust or the hooks can wear out, get damaged or bend over time – when this happens the pad will lose it’s ability to hold a sanding disc securely. For this reason it’s best to take care to not damage the hooks and to keep the pad clean.
PSA Sanding Pad
PSA sanding pads are still out there as well, and some people prefer them over the hook and loop style. PSA in this case stands for “pressure sensitive adhesive”. They basically just peel and stick. These types of pads offer a little less flex than the hook and loop style pads and some woodworkers prefer them for evening out surfaces.
Weight & Portability
Most orbit sanders are pretty small and portable. Most are going to weigh in at around 4 lbs or less. With their small weight and generally small size, they are very portable tools. When transporting or storing orbit sanders it’s best to try to protect the sanding pad, especially if it’s a hook and loop style pad, to prolong the life of the hooks and to keep them from getting damaged.
Orbit sanders are very safe tools to use and even if you make a mistake with them you’re probably not going to severely injure yourself. However, as always, take typical safety precautions. Most of the safety with an orbit sander is how easy it is to grip and how easy it is to power on and off. Most orbit sanders will offer a top and vertical grip area, so you can operate them either one or two-handed. The power switch is usually on the front of the top grip so that you can power on or off with one hand.
The most dangerous part of sanding is usually the dust cloud created. If you are refinishing wood or metal surfaces, depending on what you are stripping from the surface, you may be creating a toxic dust cloud. For this reason eye and breathing protection is very important, especially if you are in enclosed areas with poor ventilation. You may want to consider using a HEPA filtered dust extractor or a constantly operating air filter in the areas that you are working and sanding. At a minimum wear sealed eye protection and use a dust mask.
We’ve just touched on dust collection a bit, and some sanders offer decent dust extraction to help control the dust clouds. Most orbit sanders will come with a dust bag but they do not usually work very well. To get the best dust extraction it’s best to use a dust extraction system, and one with a HEPA filter will be even better.
The dust collection ports on the different types of sanders out there are of all different sizes – there isn’t really a standard dust collection port size. So you most likely will have to hunt down adapters or use duct tape to adapt your sander to a hose or collection system. In our orbit sander reviews we try to point out what will work best for adapters or extraction for each model.
Most random orbit sanders come with very few accessories. You are usually going to get the sander, a sanding pad, maybe a couple sanding discs (but not usually) and the dust bag. Some sanders come with bags or cases. The hard cases can actually be kind of nice since they give you a storage option that will help protect the surface of the hook and loop pad and prolong life a little bit.
Warranties for most power tools are at least 1 year. For orbit sanders it’s no different. Most of these sander that we cover, as well as most others out there, will have a 1 year warranty or longer. This is usually long enough to find any manufacturer defects or workmanship issues, which are usually what’s covered by a warranty.
As you can see, there’s not a whole lot to look into when picking an orbit sander. You’ll want to decide if you prefer the hook and loop or PSA style pad and then also likely decide if you want variable speed or not. After that, it comes down to budget and brand preferences.
For more check out our orbit sander reviews and our orbit sander comparison chart.