Belt Sander vs. Orbital Sander – What’s the Difference?
Few woodworker and DIYers if at all any enjoy sanding. Besides being a tedious job, it is also a dirty one and there will always be wood dust floating all over. But the tool that you choose for your sanding jobs often has a huge effect on how tedious or easy the task ends up being.
Many regular sanding tool users will often find themselves having to choose between the belt and orbital sanders when looking for a proper tool for their sanding jobs.
As you shop for a sander, it will be crucial to know what each of the two is for to determine which will be more ideal for the projects that you do more often. Here is a simple breakdown of what each is all about and what they have to offer.
Belt Sander Overview
Belt sanders are one of the oldest and most common sander types, and you will hardly miss one in a professional woodworker's shop.
A belt sander comes with a belt-like sanding surface which will have full sandpaper strapped along its length and will sand by moving the paper in a linear motion and at high speeds.
These sanders are built for heavy material removal, and so if you have very rough wood that needs smoothening, this will be the perfect tool to use.
Better yet, their power and aggressive sanding action will also allow these sanding tools to remove rust from different materials such as metal. Also, they can be very handy when you want to remove old paint or varnish something that will be hard to achieve even with the best orbital sanders.
And at the right speed, belt sanders will not only sand the surface but can also help to flatten larger surfaces by removing more material, and this makes them great to have around for those that deal with rough stocks.
But given the aggressive nature of belt sanders, they can easily leave some unsightly marks on the workpiece which often require smoothening with other sanders. These are also quite heavy tools and will take extra effort to maneuver when sanding.
Orbital Sander Overview
While the belt sanders will excel at removing more materials on very rough workpieces, the orbital sanders have been built to give the workpiece a nice and smooth finish.
These sanders will come with a square or rectangular sanding surface that use a quarter or half the standard sandpaper. And unlike the belt sander, these sanders will not only move at a relatively lower speed but also using circular motions.
The circular sanding motion will allow these sanders to remove material from the stock without leaving some unsightly marks that require extra work to remove.
And because they will typically be more lightweight than the belt sanders, the orbital sander will not only be more portable but also much easier to maneuver even for the beginner users.
The square shape and smaller sanding head design also give these sanders an edge over belt sanders and other larger sanders as it will allow them to fit easily into tight corners and curves. This makes these better suited for sanding those hard to reach places.
However, if you have a very rough stock that requires heavy material removal or you want to remove paint and varnish from old workpieces, this sander will not be very useful.
More powerful and aggressive
Just powerful enough
High speed, linear motion
Slow, small circular motion
Heavy material removal, sanding larger and flat surfaces
Finishing touches, sanding tight corners and curves
Quick and super easy
A little tedious
Ease of Use
Size and Portability
Heavier and bulkier
More compact, lightweight and portable
Belt Sander vs. Orbital Sander
Belt and orbital sanders are the kinds of sander that you can expect to use for almost all your projects. But like most other power tools, at some point, you may have to decide which to buy between these two. When this happens, you will have a much easier time deciding if you understand the points below.
While both sanders will perform quite similar tasks, they will be designed to remove different amounts of materials which means they will require a different amount of power to perform their jobs.
Belt sanders are meant for heavy material removal and will hence need to operate at high speeds to ensure they work efficiently. Hence most belt sander will run on at least a 5-amp motor which still generates more than enough power for their intended use.
But, it is also possible to find a few models meant for lighter duties that will have a smaller motor than this, and the larger industrial-grade models with even more powerful motors than this.
The orbital sanders are not aggressive and neither will they sand at high speeds, and this means they will not need very powerful motors.
Many models will have 3-amp motors which often generate more than enough power to get the job done. But, it is also possible to get a few pricier models that will have 5-amp or even larger and more powerful motors.
2. Working Mechanism
Another key difference between the belt and orbital sander is the mechanism they use when working, and this is also one of the reasons why they will deliver quite different outcomes.
The belt sander works in a linear motion and the belt moves around the length of the sanding head at very high speeds.
The linear motion and high speeds allow it to remove more material with every pass, and so it can easily flatten even the roughest stock within a short time. However, the speed and linear motion also increase the likelihood of ending up with sanding marks.
Orbital sanders are built to give the workpieces a nice smooth finish and not for heavy material removal, and so they will not need to move at high speeds or linearly.
These sanders instead make use of a small circular sanding motion, and the sanding disc rotates at significantly lower speeds when sanding. With this motion, only a little material is removed with every pass, and you are also less likely to end up with unsightly marks.
3. Best For
Given their work mechanism and the amount of power that these saws are built to generate, their intended uses should be clear for any experienced DIYer and woodworker.
For those that are still not sure when to use either of the two sanders, the belt sander will come in handy when you want to do some aggressive material removal such as when dealing with rough stock.
Also, the aggressive nature of the belt sanders and their extra power makes them great for removing varnish and paint from wood, and they can also help sand out rust from metal sheets.
An orbital sander should be the tool to turn to when on the final stages of a project and want to give the wood some nice finishing touches.
These sanders are gentle on the piece and will only remove little material which makes them the best for rounding edges and fine sanding works. Also, the size and shape of the sanding surface will make the orbital sander the best option for sanding in tight corners and around curves.
4. Sandpaper Change
Changing the sandpaper is always part of the job when using most sanding tools and how easy it is will determine how convenient the tool will be to use and the downtimes that you get.
Despite being relatively larger than the orbital sanders, the belt sander will often give users a much easy time. Putting new paper will be as easy as adjusting the tension release lever, detaching the old sanding belt and putting a new one before tightening the lever again. For many users, this will hardly take a minute.
Changing paper on the orbital sander is also fairly easy. But given that these sanders will not use a full standard size sandpaper you will first need to measure and cut the paper to the desired size which takes more time. However, once this is done, the job will be easier as these sander come with some easy to use clamps that hold the paper.
5. Ease of Use
Like with any other power tool, the ease of use when it comes to the belt and orbital sander will be more subjective and will often depend on the user’s level of experience.
But given that the belt sanders are designed for heavy material removal and getting a super smooth finish will not be crucial, they will give many users an easier time. There is nothing much to do here as the sander moves in a linear motion, and you only need to hold it firmly when sanding.
Orbital sanders will also be fairly easy to use but given that you want to get a fine finish, extra keenness is required. And their smaller material removal capacity also means that the sanding takes a little more time which means extra work for you.
6. Size and Portability
For many woodworkers and other regular sanding tool users like DIYers, sanding will hardly ever be from one spot in a shop. Hence, there is often a need to carry your sander to different job sites.
Since you will most likely also have many other tools to carry, your sander needs to be more compact and portable like the orbital sander as it will give you an easier time.
Orbital sanders are often much smaller than the belt sander and also more lightweight which makes them highly portable. Also, their smaller size enhances their maneuverability to allow users to control them easily when sanding.
Belt sander have a larger and more powerful motor and the sanding head is also bigger than what you get on the orbital sander and so they will be much heavier and bulkier, but they are still fairly portable.
With many tradesmen, what they pay for their tool is not as important as the quality of the tool and what it can do for them. But, with that said, you still need to consider the price when deciding what to buy between the two sanders.
Luckily, both are quite inexpensive tools as you can get some basic models of either for a little over $20, but the price differences become wider when you want something with more advanced features.
Larger, industrial-grade belt sanders tend to be quite pricey, but the more feature-rich orbital sanders often cost a little more.
Belt orbital sanders can sometimes be confusing even for the experienced DIYers and craftsmen as many users do not seem to understand what each is designed to do.
These are quite different sanding tools as the belt sander has been built for heavy material removal while the orbital sander will be more appropriate when you need to give surfaces a nice, smooth finish.
If you can afford both the better as some projects might even require you to use both starting with the belt sander and finishing with the orbital sander. But when you have to pick one, go for the belt sander if you deal with rough stock and the orbital sander if you are looking for something for giving your workpieces nice finishing touches.