Shop Talk

Which Sander Do I Need? How to Choose the Right Hand-Sander for Your Specific Needs

Posted by Mallory Kramer on March 24, 2015

Get Better Results in Less Time With the Right Hand-Sander for Your Shop and for Each Specific Project

Anyone who’s spent a minute or two looking at power tools knows that there’re a lot to choose from – especially in the camp of hand sanders. Similarly, anyone who’s spent a minute or two sanding, also knows that using the right sander is essential to maximizing your productivity and the quality of your results. It’s crucial, then, to ensure you outfit your tool box with the right sander, and that you know exactly which one to choose before you start a project.

Ask the Right Questions

Despite all the available options, choosing the best sander for your needs is mostly simple if you can ask yourself the right questions. The first question you need to ask is: what do I want to do with this tool? Your answer to this question should lie within one of three basic categories: fine sanding, course sanding, or a combination of fine sanding, coarse sanding and/or polishing. Once you know in which category you belong, there are a few more questions that will help you further narrow down your options.

The second question you need to ask yourself is: what am going to sand? Or, in other words, what will I need this tool to do for me? The answer to this question usually involves considering what, exactly, you’re preparing the surface for (i.e paint, stain, more sanding, etc), the size of the surface (are you sanding large or small pieces?), surface orientation (will the surface be vertical or horizontal?), and the speed with which you need the sander to accomplish that task.

Depending upon your answers to these questions, the following suggestions should help you find the ideal tool for your individual requirements.

Get the Right Features For Fine Sanding

If You’re Working with Large, Mostly Horizontal Surfaces:

For intermediate and fine sanding of large and mostly horizontal surfaces, you’ll ideally want a 1/2-inch sheet sander with a strong motor and a small stroke, or a random orbital sander (5- or 6-inch) with a larger stroke for intermediate and finish sanding. For superfine sanding of large materials, however, that sheet sander will still give you optimal results, but, in a perfect world, you’d want to opt for an orbital sander with a smaller stroke.

If You’re Working with Profiles and Complex Shapes:

If your work consists mostly of sanding profiles or more complex shapes, you’ll want a linear sander or a low profile sander with a triangular pad that will allow access into corners and more difficult-to-reach spaces. Linear sanders are a fairly specialized tool available almost exclusively from Festool. While you may be able to find other pneumatic models, these obviously require additional equipment to run. Like most Festool products, their linear sander is expensive but, if you use it, you will get your money’s worth; offering interchangeable pads for edges, profiles and rebates, the tool is super versatile.

If You’re Working with Small, Mostly Vertical Surfaces / Paint Prep:

For fine sanding of small surfaces, especially when they’re vertical, you’ll want a sander that’s lightweight and comfortable to use. Look for a palm sander (with rectangular or triangular shaped pad depending upon your needs) or a 5-inch orbital sander with small stroke. This will offer ease-of-use and smooth results.

Get the Right Features For Coarse Sanding

I Need Rapid Material Removal Before Finish-Work:

If you need to quickly remove material before finishing large surfaces, your most efficient option is a dual mode sander offering rapid stock removal-, finishing-, and polishing modes. To ensure you get the most removal for your effort, look for a sander with at least a 5-inch diameter pad. When sanding smaller surfaces, inside cabinets or other hard-to-reach spaces, you’ll instead want to opt for a low profile sander with a triangular pad. With a good sander, and finer grit paper, you can achieve a pretty smooth surface.

If You Need to Strip Lots of Material, Coatings, or Very Rough Surfaces:

If you need to rapidly remove a lot of material or difficult-to-strip materials, you’ll want to look for a high-performance, high-power sander. While it seems like a large diameter pad would allow you to remove more material more rapidly, in this case, you’ll get more aggressive sanding when all the power from the sander is concentrated into a smaller diameter pad; go for a high-torque rotary sander with 4.5- or 5-inch pad. This will give you the power needed for serious stock removal, paint stripping, and material shaping.

Get the Right Features for Fine Sanding, Coarse Sanding, and Polishing

If You’re Working with Large, Mostly Horizontal Surfaces:

When you need to do everything with one sander, you’ll need a high-performance dual mode tool that will offer good stock removal, and modes for both finishing and polishing. Look for a powerful 6-inch orbital sander with multiple modes. While there are tools out there that will allow you to use multiple sanding attachments, often, these tools are either very cheap, very expensive, or ergonomically impractical. Depending upon what you need and how often you need it, be considerate of how much, AND how little, you’re willing to spend.

If You’re Working with Small, Narrow, Often Vertical Surfaces:

Similarly, we you rely on one sander to perform multiple tasks, you need a high-performance, dual mode tool. Essentially, you need the same features as above, but should look for something with a smaller (probably 5-inch) diameter pad, or a multi-purpose sanding tool.


While there are many sanders to choose from, hopefully this guide will help you narrow down your options. Asking yourself the right questions will always lead to finding the right answers, AND the right sander. Be aware a what’s ahead of you, and you’ll be prepared for each of the projects you encounter. Go create something amazing! Good luck, and happy crafting.