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Which Sander, When?

This is an old video, and the text below was originally posted as a blog post on the old website. As I mentioned in AWITW 149 I did this because I could go into more detail in a blog post than I could in the video description on YouTube; it was a short-lived experiment, but I thought I'd repost a few of these for you here, as the information contained remains valid. Let me know what you think! Peter

Direct video link -

As has been pointed out a few times, I have many sanders, though in all honesty the bulk of the work I’m currently doing can be mostly covered with just two - more on that below.

The truth though is that there are many different types of sander, and many reasons to use them, and in my recent ‘Which sander, when?’ video (at left) I took a journey - a timeline if you like - through the common availability of the various sander types. This blog post expands on that a little, and talks more about the specific uses that we might put these sanders to...


  • The sanders I recommend below are great all-rounders, but all these other sanders exist for a reason, and there's nothing quite like having the right tool for the job.

  • The vast majority of sanders available new today will have some kind of dust collection/extraction available (other than e.g. a bag) but some are better than others, especially with entry-level sanders, so keep your expectations realistic.

  • If you're considering buying second-hand, the physical appearance of the sander is often a good indication of how hard it's been used - it's rare to find a hard-used sander that's pristine. As always, caveat emptor - try and get a demonstration of the sander working before parting with any money.

  • Abrasives make a difference! A good quality abrasive will last longer and produce a better finish.

  • If you're using dust extraction (recommended) try turning the suction down - it help to stop the sander getting sucked onto the workpiece. If you don't have variable suction, try mis-aligning the holes in the abrasive with the pad slightly - this reduces the suction at the pad.

  • If you have several sanders of different types, a mesh backed abrasive can simplify your stock.

Health & Safety Notes:

All wood dust is hazardous, so be sure to take appropriate precautions; I recommend using dust extraction/collection with all power tools

Your safety in the workshop is your responsibility; treat tools with respect and if you feel at all uncomfortable carrying out any operation, stop!

Related videos:

Festool v Cheap tool, orbital sanders (3-part series + follow-up) P1

Mirka abranet test and Abranet follow-up

Sanders by type of sanding pattern:

Oscillating: What ‘power sanders’ were, originally, they simply swing back and forth around a central pivot point so don’t produce a particularly even sanding pattern (as the ends of the pad move much further than the centre) but if it was the late 60s or early 70s and you’d only ever sanded by hand, they were pretty amazing. These days, as far as I know, pretty much the only oscillating sanders you can buy are detail sanders (see sanders by size/type below).

Orbital: The next generation of sanding technology took away the pivoting, and changed to moving the pad around in a a circular motion - hence orbital - to help even out the sanding ‘power’ across the pad. This works pretty well, and for a while orbital sanders were the go to tech, and even now, many of the entry-level rectangular or square sanders are orbital sanders. The smaller rectangular and square sanders (sometimes called ‘palm’ sanders, see below) are very useful for lighter,or more careful sanding, like edges. The only downside of orbital sanders is that as you move the sander around, the regular orbit can produce a predictable swirl-pattern, which isn’t what you want in a fine finish.

Random orbital: Sought to avoid the swirl-pattern of orbital sanders by spinning the sanding pad freely at the same time as moving in an orbit, and as such random orbital sanders have circular pads. Random orbital sanders make an excellent all-rounder, with common pad sizes of 125mm and 150mm (and other extremes) and a wide range of orbits (sometimes called the ‘stroke’) there’s almost certainly a random orbital sander to suit your requirements, whether fine finishing or aggressively stripping back.

Gear driven: First featured (I think?) in the Festool Rotex sanders, the technology is also used in sanders by Makita, Bosch and Triton. Capable of functioning as a regular Random Orbital, these sanders can also be switched to be gear driven for much more aggressive sanding (or polishing with the appropriate pad) so an extremely versatile package, albeit at a price. Other compromises are in size and weight; use these for sanding anything other than on the flat, and you’ll feel it next day.

Linear: Meant to mimic hand-sanding, this is a specialty sander that only moves back and forth (hence ‘linear’) and the pads can be custom shaped for eg handrail. These are intended as paintwork prep machines, so something of a one-trick pony.

Sanders by type

Detail sander: Typically a triangular pad, designed to get into tight corners, and often the only oscillating sander you can buy these days - the unevenness of the sanding across the pad actually works in its favour, as you’re typically using the ‘points’ of the triangle anyway. Not many 'brands' making these now, it seems; perhaps all the multi-tools have essentially replaced the functionality.

Palm sander / 1/3 sheet / 1/2 sheet: Typically a rectangular pad with an orbital movement, the smaller palm sanders make good general sanders, the rectangular shape of the larger 1/3 and 1/2 sheet sanders can be good for flat areas with corners, eg door panels. The smaller ‘palm’ sanders are one that I’d recommend as a a fantastic all-rounder, especially paired with a random orbital.

Random orbital: Circular pad (see above) and a wide range of pad sizes, orbits, abrasive grits and variable speed makes this sander type extremely versatile. Many common makes restrict the smaller pad (<125mm) RO sanders to a smaller stroke (~2mm) so better for finishing than stripping paint. The larger pad (>150mm) can be had with a greater range of stroke (3mm - 7mm or so) and some have dual-orbit.

Belt sander: Uses a continuous ‘belt’ of abrasive between two wheels, these are meant for aggressive removal of stock eg rounding corners. Wide variety of sizes/widths of belt available.

Rotex/Gear driven: Circular pad, basically a random orbital sander with the ability to also be gear driven at the flick of a switch. Gear driven is good for aggressive sanding, and (with a change of pad) polishing. Very versatile, but compromised in terms of size and weight. Also, not cheap.

Linear sander: Oddball specialist sander, designed to replicate hand sanding. Customisable bases allow you to closely follow a profile e.g. a handrail - but you’ll need an awful lot of handrail to process to make it worthwhile...

File sanders: Again, a bit specialised, but popularised by the Black & Decker Powerfile. Basically a skinny belt sander, useful for shaping tight profiles, anything where a file might be useful on other material. My local glaziers use one for grinding the edge off mirrors 🤷‍♂️

And finally, about those two sanders...

A 150mm random orbital sander with a ~5mm stroke will cover a vast range of applications; slap a P60 disc on there and crank the speed up, and you can strip paint all day long. Swap it out for P240 and slow the speed right down and it’s close to a finishing sander.

Recommended; Festool ETS 150/5 - (US:

Alternative: Metabo SXE 450 - (sorry U.S. - seems to be only 240v)

And if you have the coin, add a palm (orbital) sander into the mix. Smallish stroke, smallish pad, lightweight and easy to use on edges, walls and ceilings. Makes an excellent small or second sander for finer work or anything with a frame around it e.g. door panels.

Recommended: Festool RTS 400 - (US:

Alternative: Bosch GSS 160 Multi - (US - GSS 20-40:

By all means, add other sanders as and when you need / can afford them, but these two will likely cover 95% of the sanding needs of 95% of anyone reading this. 👍👍

290 views6 comments


Thank you Peter, what a good way of explaining the different types of sander, I missed this one first time around. Cost aside, would a Rotex be a good choice for sanding outdoor furniture that has overwintered outside while getting utility for finer jobs too? I currently use a Makita 5" random orbit sander with a stroke of I think 2.8mm, and it takes forever, even starting with 40 grit.

Sep 13, 2022
Replying to

Thanks James! Rotex would be a great tool for that, and for finer work too. The compromise with the Rotex is the weight - you wouldn’t want to use it for extended vertical or overhead use, for example, so if you have any decoration prep on walls and ceilings planned, then it wouldn’t be the tool for that job. If you can live with the flappy paddle switchgear, then the Sealey 5mm stroke sander would be a solid choice; not as aggressive as the Rotex, but much lighter and quieter. Cheaper too, by a fair stretch. HTH! P



If writing this again would your alternative to the Festool RO be the Sealey?


Sep 12, 2022
Replying to

Yes, probably - though with caveats re comparative pricing and the flappy paddle switchgear. 👍


Nicely written, Peter. Even though I've watched that video a while back I still found the read useful (as I'm sure others, new and old, will).

One aside; I notice I cannot "like" or "heart" a post on the website (desktop or mobile) but I can in the Spaces app. This might be intended behaviour, though I'm sure a good few would read and hit like even if not comment 😀

Sep 12, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Peter! Can’t say the ‘like’ thing is something I’ve noticed, but now you mention it, it’s something to take a look at, thanks! 👍

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