A buyers guide to Orbital Sanders

Which is the best random orbital sander? How do I know which model is best for my needs? What different types of orbital sanders are there? 

These are often questions DIYers pose when first hearing about the versatility of a random orbital sander, and why it’s much better than a regular orbital sander.

We asked random shoppers from Bob Smith Tools to find out the main misconceptions and concerns that new buyers have when purchasing an orbital sander. Adding to that the information we have, this is all the information you will need. 

Random Orbital Vs Regular Orbital

While orbital sanders have been in use for years, they have lately been replaced by random orbital sanders that can do the same job, and then some. The principal difference between them is the way they operate. The orbital sander simply rotates in an orbit, spinning according to the speed set by the motor. The random orbital sander additionally oscillates back and forth, resulting in an ultra-smooth surface after the sanding process is complete. The abrasive pads on a random orbital sander leave less visible marks (swirling) when the machine is correctly operated. Also, it can operate at higher speeds and aggressively remove many layers of material faster than the regular orbital sander (but not as efficiently as a belt sander). An easy way to tell the difference visually is the shape of the sander: random orbitals have circular pads, whereas the orbital sander uses a square sheet of sandpaper. 

What Will I Need A Random Orbital Sander For?

You’ve probably already heard a million times that these tools have a variety of uses around any woodworking project. But no one ever bothers to give you examples, and you’re still confused. Random orbital sanders can be used for both fine and coarse sanding, and they do not leave prominent marks on the surface you are working on. You can use them for heavy jobs such as stripping old wood or paint. On the other hand, you could use them for fine finishing between paint layers. Yes, those seem like two extremes, but that’s the beauty of this power tool. 

Other than sanding large surfaces, it can be used to smooth joints and sand down edges. Any carpenter or woodworker will tell you that they reach for this tool every single day. So don’t hesitate to make this investment because it will be used more often than you’d think. 


There are just a few main types of random orbital sanders – notice that we are not focusing on detail sanders or orbital sanders (they have their purposes).

    • Compact Palm-Sized
      These are random orbital sanders that are small and handy to use for smaller projects. They are powerful enough to do big jobs, but there might be a loss of efficiency when compared to larger, more heavy-duty sanders. They don’t have a handle, so you can hold them by the neck, or place the top in the palm of your hands.
      Choose this type of random orbital sander for small projects or if you just need a sander for light work around the house now and then.
    • Right Angle
      These are larger than the previously mentioned type of sander. They have a handle that  runs at a right angle to the cylindrical motor. These are usually sold at a higher price point, and it’s sometimes considered worth it. A right-angle random orbital sander can safely work for longer periods of time without the risk of overheating.
  • In-Line Drive
    Somewhere in between the compact models and larger right-angled sanders, manufacturers came up with a different type altogether. These sanders have the motor positioned on top of the sanding disc, and handling them requires holding them from the front and back. This can be useful for people with smaller hands, or simply aren’t comfortable when using the other two types. 

Features To Look Out For

When shopping for a random orbital sander, you may notice some similarities and differences between the various models available to you. To narrow it down, you might choose the ones with the most important features to suit your needs. This is a comprehensive list of all the features you need to keep in mind, and what to look for. 

  • Motor Size
    Always make a habit of checking the motors of any power tools you intend to purchase. You should also keep in mind that motor size is not necessarily indicative of the efficiency of a sander. Additionally, many people find it difficult to operate large sanders for a long time due to vibrations they might feel from the sander’s motor. Some random orbital sanders have larger motors but have designed them so well that the vibration is kept to a minimum. Ask around about this particular problem, or better yet, try for yourself.
  • Speed
    Random orbital sanders can operate on a large range of speeds, which is useful depending on the intended use (light/aggressive). Many models over variable speeds so you can do both heavy and light work using the same machine. Always compare the minimum and maximum speeds that models can be adjusted to. If the model does not have variable speed, keep in mind that they are less versatile as they are limited to only jobs that require that particular speed. Sanders with a wider range of speeds will serve a wider variety of purposes.
  • Pad Size
    Because you can’t really speed up the process of sanding by moving faster, the only other solution is to get through more surface area faster. To achieve this, you will need a larger sandpaper pad diameter. Standard sandpaper pad sizes include 5 inches, 6 inches, 3 inches, and others. Keep in mind that a large pad size also means that the machine will be difficult to use for hard-to-reach areas.
  • Hook and Loop Sandpaper discs
    There are two ways to attach sandpaper discs to the sandpaper pad. Either by using an adhesive, or a hook and loop system (Velcro). The latter is more expensive, but much easier to change because there is no need to wait for an adhesive to dry. Also, keep in mind that although they cost more upfront, they are more economical because you don’t have to throw away sandpaper discs that aren’t fully used. It is easy to swap between grit sizes, simply by peeling away one disc for another; so it’s better to go for the hook and loop option. Also, when purchasing sandpaper discs, make sure to match the holes with your machine to ensure that it works at its maximum efficiency.
  • Dust Collection Systems
    Airborne sawdust is one of the major hazards of woodworking. Besides the health implications of sawdust, it is a nuisance to clean up. Random Orbital Sanders use several holes in their sanding pads to suck up dust and other debris resulting from the sanding process. Look for models that have a dust bag, or better yet, models that allow for the dust collection system to be connected to a vacuum for maximum efficiency and cleanliness. Pay close attention to how the sander is ventilating, because machines with poor ventilation are prone to getting clogged up and overheating.
  • Battery Power
    Corded and cordless models are available, each with its purpose. Corded models are useful for long periods of working, and they may offer a more powerful motor. However, the convenience of cordless models makes them increasingly popular. They are especially suited for outdoor work or hard-to-reach areas. Also, there is no risk of getting entangled with the cord or unplugging it when you’ve gone too far.

    Two things to keep in mind when comparing cordless models are the battery power, and the charging time. Needless to say, long battery life is always welcome with any power tool. Arguably, charging time is equally important. You wouldn’t want to wait for hours between charges, so a lower charging time is the better option.
  • Design
    Last but not least, you should pay close attention to design features and the general feel of the machine. Always make a habit of picking up tools you intend on purchasing because comparing weights is not enough. Two machines might have the same weight, yet one might feel more awkward when picking it up. Everyone’s hands are different, and they will surely handle the machine slightly differently. Even if a sander boasts of ergonomic design, it might not feel particularly comfortable in your hands, so decide for yourself.

Other design features are also important to take into consideration. These are a few extra design questions to ask about random orbital sander models when purchasing:

  • Is the power button easy to locate and operate?
  • How convenient is switching between speeds?
  • Is the ventilation system poorly designed?
  • How long is the cord (if applicable)?

With the right questions and the correct information, you can easily choose a random orbital sander that is best suited to your needs. Using our guide will help you weed through the large array of available models, and choose wisely.