Why You Need a Sander & How to Choose the Right One

If you have a DIY ethos and like woodworking and construction, a sander is a great machine to have in your tool shed. Here's what to consider.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

If you’re like most hobby farmers—a DIY addict with a penchant for handling your own construction projects—you might want to consider refining the build quality of your creations with a sander.

Sanders come in multiple designs, but in essence, a sander is a power tool (either corded or battery powered) that uses sandpaper to smooth and refine rough surfaces. Sanders are commonly used in woodworking to smooth rough edges left behind by power saws, reducing the risk of getting splinters in your fingers. They’re also good for removing varnish or paint from items you want to refinish.

You’ve probably used sandpaper on its own to refine a woodworking project. Just last week, I was polishing a few thin slivers of a basswood branch about 3 inches in diameter; each round disc will soon be painted and turned into a Christmas ornament. For sanding small and intricate items, sanding by hand is a great approach.

However, for larger-scale projects—such as smoothing the new railing you’ve installed for the barn stairs, or removing the rough edges from the frame of a chicken coop—an electric sander saves your muscles a lot of back-and-forth repetitive effort.

But as with most power tools, choosing the perfect sander for your needs isn’t quite as simple as heading to the hardware store and choosing the cheapest model. First, there are a few key factors to consider.

First and foremost: What type of sander should you purchase? Random orbital sanders rotate round pieces of sandpaper in an orbiting motion to smooth rough surfaces. They make good general sanders and don’t leave behind patterns from grinding, but the rounded sandpaper they use can be difficult or impossible to squeeze into corners.

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Sheet sanders are also common. These operate by rapidly shifting ordinary sheets of square-cornered sandpaper back and forth. The widespread availability of standard sandpaper ensures you can find replacement paper. Sheet sanders are also gentler than orbital sanders, making it harder for inexperienced users to damage the item they’re sanding.

Among the most powerful sanders are belt sanders, which feature a pair of rotating drums around which a continuous belt of sandpaper travels. These aggressive units aren’t for delicate work, but they can quickly remove a lot of material. Belt sanders are ideal for sanding very rough surfaces or shaping wood in specific ways.

If you’re serious about your woodworking projects, you might consider adding all three of these sanders to your arsenal of tools. But for the hobby farmer looking to handle a general range of sanding tasks, a random orbital sander is usually considered the most versatile choice.

Another important consideration is the grit level of the sandpaper to use Numbers indicate the roughness of sandpaper, with 100 grit paper being a nice all-around choice for general use. Lesser numbers (such as 40 and 60) are rougher and best for removing large amounts of material, while greater numbers (400, 600) are finer and more suitable for delicate polishing work.

Keep in mind, sandpaper wears out over time and needs to be replaced, so if you plan to do a lot of sanding, keep a stockpile of replacement sheets on hand.

Good luck with your sanding projects!

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