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The Best Handheld Power Sanders: a Beginner's Guide

Some types of power sander.
Some types of power sander.

There is a unique satisfaction in bringing out the potential of a home that has fallen on hard times. Furniture that has served you well can be given a second life with a little tender, loving care. If you have the skills to create useful and beautiful objects from a pile of bare timber, you are one of the chosen few.

All of these tasks require great finishing skills and at the heart of good finishing, is the careful preparation of surfaces. Having the right sander makes all the difference.

This page explores:

  • sanders ideal for home decoration,
  • sanders that will strip varnish and paint from old furniture
  • finishing sanders that produce scratch-free surfaces
  • flooring and deck sanders
  • detail sanders

The Three Main Kinds of Power Sander

  • Random orbital: The abrasive paper moves back and forth very rapidly in a random, elliptical way.
  • Belt sander: The abrasive paper only moves in one direction, in a continuous loop.
  • Rotary sander: a spinning disc with abrasive.

Belt vs. Random Orbital vs. Rotary Sanders

Belt sanders are very powerful and quickly remove a lot of material. They are ideal for leveling uneven wooden surfaces or stripping coatings from floors or decks. Random orbital sanders are ideal for either light to medium preparation, or fine finishing work.

In terms of ease of use:

  • belt sanders drag you forward, if you let them.
  • random orbital sanders hardly fight you at all.

Rotary sanders are rarely used on flat surfaces. They can remove material fast but leave ugly scratches and indentations.

Different Kinds of Random Orbital Sander

Kinds of random orbital handheld sanders
Kinds of random orbital handheld sanders


  • quarter-sheet sanders use a quarter of a sheet of standard sized sandpaper or other abrasive. Those models shaped to fit comfortably into one hand, are called palm grip sanders
  • half-sheet sanders are twice as big, usually heavy, need both hands to operate and are best suited to bench work or furniture renovation.
  • a finishing sander is any sander that leaves a smooth, scratch-free surface that is good enough for staining or applying a clear finish like varnish or lacquer.
  • detail sanders are designed to get into tight corners
  • round sanders are ideal for large surfaces where corners are not a problem

Best for Home Decoration

Palm grip sanders are the best choice for vertical surfaces.
Palm grip sanders are the best choice for vertical surfaces.

Palm-grip Finishing Sanders

For most kinds of home decoration work, the kind of sanders that work best are palm-grip, quarter-sheet sanders. They are light enough to use on vertical surfaces like doors, paneling and walls.

You can remove, bumps and lumps in old paintwork, strip crumbling surfaces and quickly scratch good surfaces to provide a 'key' for new paint.

Be wary of sanding drywall, though. The machine will quickly rip through the paper surface.

Belt sanders and the better quality half-sheet sanders are heavy. These are best used on horizontal surfaces.

Best Abrasives for Home Decoration?

Very few people use old fashioned sandpaper. The most popular abrasives are aluminium oxide, silicon carbide or powdered ceramic.

Aluminum oxide paper is my first choice for home decoration and most woodworking. As the crystalline material breaks down in use, it creates new, ultra-sharp edges to maintain a good performance.

Aluminum oxide abrasive is more expensive than sandpaper but lasts many times longer.

Silicon carbide can be used with water as a lubricant and is well suited to auto body work. Or maybe preparing an old refrigerator for repainting.

Ceramic abrasives are valuable for metalworking and sanding floors.

Use Different Grades of Abrasive

Coarse abrasives can rip through old varnishes and thin paint layers fast but will leave ugly scratches in wood or stucco. Finish with fine abrasive paper, and the surface will be mirror smooth to the naked eye.

Remember, if you are stripping old, thickly layered paint, you will need to remove the paint with a chemical stripper first. Oil based paints quickly clog abrasive papers.

For most home decoration, three grades of abrasive are all you need. Usually makers give codes like this: P60, P80 and P120. The P stands for 'particle' and the number tells you how many particles there are per square centimeter.

P60 is coarse, P80 medium and P120 is fine. P180 can be useful for sanding between coats of paint or varnish.

Save Money by Avoiding Pads

Abrasives
Abrasives

There are two ways to fix abrasive sheets to a sander:

  • adhesive-backed pads grip special, grooved plates
  • clips at either end of the plate hold the abrasive tight

Individual abrasive pads, purpose-made by the manufacturer to fit a specific model, are convenient and ideal for smaller jobs, but they are expensive.

If you have a lot of work to do, using rolls or sheets is much more economical.

You cut the right size and attach it to the sander with clips. These clips are critical in the long term use of a sander, so look for a model with robust features. If the clips break, the sander is useless.

You can buy abrasive rolls with adhesive on the back, too. This is a good option for bench work. For rough, home decorating jobs the adhesive pads tend to ruck.

Abrasives with a backing that includes cloth reinforcement is more durable than a purely paper backing. Thin, non-reinforced sheets break easily on rough surfaces or edges.

Ways to attach abrasive sheet.
Ways to attach abrasive sheet.

Detail Sanders and Round Sanders

Iron-shaped, detail sander
Iron-shaped, detail sander

If you have a project to fix up a piece of furniture, a detail sander can be useful.

Detail sanders are shaped like irons and designed to get into corners.

The downside is that the 'tips' of the abrasive wear very quickly and you are routinely throwing away expensive abrasive that is otherwise hardly worn.

These are best used by patient, careful people. Anyone, in a hurry (I include myself) is better off with a square-cornered sander that will tackle corners well enough.

Round sanders are comfortable to use, and ideal for work where corners are not involved at all. The rounded shape allows you to sweep comfortably and evenly over large surfaces, with the same pressure in all directions.

Neither detail sanders, nor round sanders, allow you to use the more economical option of inexpensive abrasive rolls or sheets.

Best Sander for General DIY Use in the Home?

Makita Quarter-sheet, Palm Grip Sander

I have restored many old houses and had many disappointments with power tools along the way.

Sanders used for home decoration inevitably receive a lot of rough treatment. Dust, falls, misuse and poor storage all find the weaknesses of lesser sanders.

Makita is the only maker that I could recommend.

Makita sanders are quiet, low-vibration, and powerful. Not only is the motor good, the clips on a Makita sander are durable and hold the paper tightly, even after years of use.

Vibration and noise are especially important if you are working for a long period. Inferior sanders can leave your hands numb and your ears ringing. Excess vibration, common with cheap sanders, also means slow, very tiring work as you force the abrasive to its task.

Best Sanders for Benchwork and Furniture Renovation?

Half-sheet Sanders

The big plus of a half-sheet sander is that the large surface area allows you to achieve a flat finish more easily. But that large abrasive surface needs to be driven by a powerful motor to work effectively. Cheaper half-sheet sanders are often so under-powered it is quicker to sand by hand.

If you do not want spend too much money, a cheap palm grip machine is a far better buy than a cheap half-sheet sander. A good palm grip like the Makita above is infinitely better.

Good half-sheet sanders like the Makita BO4900V, pictured above can be found for around $150 online.

Round Random Orbital Sanders

Pressure indicator lights on a Skill sander
Pressure indicator lights on a Skill sander

Round sanders are easy to use on big surfaces. They sweep back and forth more smoothly than their square or rectangular cousins and many people find it easier to get a flat finish as a result.

Some sanders of this kind have a brake that automatically cuts in if you apply too much pressure. This prevents you from accidentally damaging the surface and also eases pressure on the motor, giving it a longer life.

Skil is one manufacturer that has a system of indicator lights to tell you how much pressure you are applying. This is very useful for beginners who might otherwise find it hard to get a flat finish. It gives you feedback on the best technique for steady, even sanding.

Best Detail Sander?

Detail sanders are designed for small projects like fixing up a treasured chair, or giving a chest of drawers a second life.

They are not usually heavy or especially powerful and that can be an advantage if you are simply looking for a relaxing pastime.

The Black and Decker version pictured below has been around for a long time and has the advantage of replaceable tips for the abrasive. As you work your way into a corner, it is the tip that does the most work and wears out quickest. Rather than ditching an otherwise perfectly good sheet of abrasive, you just change out the tip.

Detail sander from Black and Decker with replaceable tip.
Detail sander from Black and Decker with replaceable tip.

Belt Sanders for Tough Jobs

Some uses of a belt sander.
Some uses of a belt sander.

Belt-sanders are not suitable for fine finishing but they are invaluable for tougher work.

If you are stripping a large wooden floor or deck of its old finish, a large drum sander that you push back and forth is the best option. A smaller, handheld belt sander is needed to reach edges and into corners.

A small floor or deck can be sanded with a handheld belt sander on its own, with a little patience.

A venerable drum sander.
A venerable drum sander. | Source

Belt sanders can also be used to true up bent boards, flatten warped or buckled table tops or strip tough finishes from furniture.

If you do use them on furniture of any kind it is best use finer abrasives and to finish with a random orbital sander.

Stripping a Small Deck

Best Belt Sanders?

Genesis Variable Speed Belt Sander

Genesis Belt Sander
Genesis Belt Sander

As a general purpose, low-cost belt sander, the Genesis machine pictured above performs well.

It is small and light at around eight pounds. It is easy to use in corners and can even be used on vertical surfaces for rough prep work.

It will tackle deck and floor stripping at a reasonable speed.

The belts are easy to load and self-adjusting (no fiddling with knobs or levers needed to get a smooth performance). There is variable speed control.

The Powerful PORTER-CABLE 362V

A more powerful belt sander that home users choose is the Porter-cable pictured above. This is a powerful machine, twice as heavy as the Genesis described above but very capable on horizontal surfaces.

If you have a significant amount of decking to maintain, a 12 amp machine like this is a good choice.

Protecting Yourself from Dust

Dust extraction for power sanders.
Dust extraction for power sanders.

If you are engaged in any big home decorating project, dust is a major issue. Dust in your lungs, dust in your eyes and around your home should be avoided.

There are various options but most involve protection of yourself with a mask, filters on your sander, dust extraction units, or a combination of these things.

In my experience dust bags on sanders are effective with the coarser particles but poor at providing protecting from finer dust.

If you happen to have something like a Shopvac vacuum with standard, large-diameter hose connectors, it is worth checking if a sander you are thinking of buying can hook up (many can).

Even if you use a vacuum unit, sanders blow out a lot of air to stay cool and quickly fill interiors with fine dust. A quality face mask is always a good option.

Also, open windows, close doors to living areas and change your clothes before entering. This can save many arguments, as well as your health...

Redecoration of older homes can be hazardous. Old paint can have high lead content and asbestos can be found in textured wall coatings. Extra care is worthwhile and a mask capable of dealing with toxic dust is a good investment.

Inexpensive particulate dust mask and toxic dust mask (right)
Inexpensive particulate dust mask and toxic dust mask (right)

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