Drum Sander vs Orbital Sander – Choosing the Right Sander

Drum sander vs orbital sander are heavyweights of the woodworking sanding ring. In one corner, you have the rugged, powerful drum sander that packs a punch when sanding large hardwood surfaces. In the opposing corner—the orbital floor sander. This agile woodworking tool is famed for its speed and finesse. So, which will win the battle of the “best sander for hardwood floors”?

Man using a drum sander

Woodworking requires precision and attention to detail, especially regarding finishing touches. As all woodworking enthusiasts know, choosing the right sander for different projects is crucial. Using the correct sander lets you achieve a smooth, flawless finish on the wood surface.

Both drum sanders and orbital sanders have their unique features and benefits. Regarding restoring and refinishing hardwood floors, both have their place. Therefore, understanding the differences can help you choose the sander that suits your needs.

This article is an in-depth guide to two types of sanders—drum and orbital sanders. You will learn the intricacies of each type of sander to help you make an informed choice.  

Understanding Drum Sanders

A drum sander is a powerful woodworking tool with a rotating abrasive sanding drum. This type of sander smooths and flattens wooden surfaces over large areas. A drum sander is the go-to choice for large projects and heavy-duty sanding tasks. It can be a bench-type drum sander or one you push like a lawnmower.

Drum sander components

Also called barrel sanders, the main component of a drum sander is the cylindrical spinning drum with sandpaper attached. The type of sandpaper used is a drum sander strip roll, which wraps around the drum to create a continuous sanding surface. 

Other components of most types of drum sanders include the following: 
  • Dust collection system: A dust collection port is essential to capture and remove sawdust and debris generated during sanding, keeping the work area clean.
  • Feed conveyor: This conveyor system is common on bench machines, and it moves the wood material through the drum at a consistent speed for even sanding.
  • Adjustable table: Bench-type drum sanders typically have supports for the work piece and can be adjusted to control the thickness of the sanded material.

Another type of drum sander is an upright sander. The large upright drum floor sander has a sandpaper belt around a cylindrical spinning drum. This works similarly to a belt sander but is more powerful. 

What are the benefits of using a drum sander?

The main advantage of drum sanding is speed, efficiency, and scope. The drum sanding technique is the fastest way to sand large pieces of wood compared to other types of sanders. 

Here are several additional benefits of using a drum sander on woodworking and finishing products:

Drum Sander Being Used to sand floor
  • Uniform sanding: They provide consistent results and a uniform thickness, even on large wood pieces. It’s easier to achieve a smooth and consistent finish.
  • Precision and accuracy: Drum sanders are capable of fine-tuning and precise sanding. Controls on the machine allow you to adjust thicknesses to achieve tight tolerances.
  • Time savings: Drum sanders are the most efficient way to sand large pieces compared to handheld sanders.
  • Dust collection: The best drum sanders come with effective dust collection systems. These are typically better than smaller sanders, often ineffective at controlling sawdust output.
  • Ideal for wide boards and areas: Drum sanders are the best option for sanding wide boards and hardwood floors. 

What are the drawbacks of using a drum sander?

While beneficial for many woodworking tasks, drum sanders also have some drawbacks and considerations. The main issue with drum sanding is its aggressiveness. The speed, capacity, and coarse grit sandpaper can grind away more wood than expected. 

Here are a few more considerations when thinking about drum floor sander rental or purchase:

  • Risk of over-sanding: Inexperienced users may accidentally remove too much material, leading to irreversible damage to the wooden surface.
  • Limited portability: Drum sanders are heavy and not easily portable, making them less suitable for on-site or mobile woodworking projects.
  • Noisy: Drum sanders can be quite noisy during operation. Therefore, hearing protection is essential. There is also the issue of disturbing others nearby.
  • Uneven sanding on curved surfaces: Drum sanders are only suitable for sanding flat surfaces. It is tricky to sand curved or contoured surfaces, as they may cause flat spots or uneven sanding.

Unveiling Orbital Sanders

An orbital sander is a handheld power tool featuring a circular sanding pad that moves in small, random orbital motions. The orbital motion helps to prevent unsightly swirl marks on the work surface. Orbital sanding is perfect for removing finish and dirt and smoothing work surfaces. 

orbital sander is a handheld power

Orbital sanders are gentler than drum sanders as they are slower and use finer grit sandpaper. However, they can create more dust because it takes longer than drum sanding.

This type of sander is suitable only for light sanding, as it cannot remove tough coats of finish and takes time to complete the job.

Another type of orbital sander is an orbital floor sander. This heavy-duty, motorized machine is designed primarily for sanding wooden floors.

It features a large, round sanding pad oscillating in an orbital motion to minimize swirl marks. These powerful machines strip old finishes, level uneven surfaces, and prepare floors for refinishing.

Orbital sander components

An orbital machine for sanding typically comprises the following components:

  • Circular sanding pad where the sandpaper is attached
  • Speed control for precision sanding
  • Ergonomic handle and trigger lock to ease hand fatigue
  • Dust collection system to prevent potentially harmful dust particles from getting into the air

What are the benefits of an orbital sander?

An orbital sander is a versatile tool with many benefits for woodworking projects. When used properly, it removes light layers of finish and creates smooth surfaces.  Additionally, the random orbital motion prevents swirling marks on the wood surface. 

Here are the primary benefits of using an orbital sander when working with wood:

  • Smooth finish: An orbital sander is the best tool for producing smooth, swirl-free finishes on various materials, including wood, metal, and plastic. This makes the tool perfect as a finishing sander.
  • Versatility: They are suitable for a wide range of sanding tasks. All you need to do is choose the correct grit sandpaper to achieve the desired finish.
  • Ease of use: Many handheld orbital sanders are lightweight and easy to maneuver and control. Even orbital floor sanders are easier to use than heavy-duty drum sanders.
  • Low risk of over-sanding: Their random orbital motion reduces the risk of creating gouges, deep scratches, or uneven surfaces.
  • Dust collection: The best orbital sanders have effective dust collection systems, keeping work areas cleaner and reducing airborne dust.
  • Less noise: Generally, orbital sanding creates less noise than drum sanding.
  • Quick sandpaper changes: Replacing sandpaper discs is easier than changing the drum sander strip. 
  • Ideal for curved surfaces: Suitable for sanding contoured or curved surfaces without causing flat spots. 

What are the drawbacks of an orbital sander?

Despite being one of the most common types of sanding tools, orbital sanders have some disadvantages. However, these are typically apparent when comparing the effectiveness of drum sanders to orbital sanders for heavy-duty tasks.

Here are a few downsides to using an orbital sander for large tasks:

  • Limited capacity: Orbital sanders are not suitable for large projects. They are not as aggressive as drum and belt sanders; therefore, they remove material more slowly.
  • Less suitable for large surfaces: Most orbital sanders are handheld, which can be tiring and less efficient for sanding large areas like floors. While upright orbital sanders are useful for hardwood floor sanding, they are less effective than drum sanders.
  • More dust: Because of their slower speed, orbital sanders may create more dust than drum sanders. Also, their dust collection systems are not highly effective. Therefore, it is imperative to wear masks and eye protection when sanding.
  • Less effective at removing paint or varnish: For paint or varnish removal, orbital sanders are less effective than belt sanders. Therefore, you need extra time, effort, and sandpaper to remove thick finishes from wood. 

Side-by-Side Comparison: Differences Between Drum Sander vs Orbital Sander

drum sander vs orbital sander
Should you use a drum sander vs orbital sander

Comparing the two types of sanders side-by-side is the best way to choose the best option

Sanding action

As the abrasive drum rotates, drum sanders have a continuous, rotary sanding motion. This feature makes it an aggressive sanding option for heavy-duty tasks and finishes.

On the other hand, orbital sanders have a random, circular motion to prevent noticeable swirl marks. This fact makes it an excellent finishing tool.

Speed and labor

A drum sander typically operates at a single, constant, high speed, making it perfect for fast material removal. In contrast, orbital sanders feature variable speed settings, allowing users to adjust sanding speed as needed. However, the sanding discs don’t rotate as fast as belt sanders, making it more labor-intensive for large jobs.

Ease of Use

While efficient for large tasks, a drum sander is more challenging to use. Its size and weight make it less user-friendly and difficult to maneuver.

Orbital sanders are generally easier to use, being lightweight and handheld. They require minimal setup and are more versatile, making them suited for beginners.

Dust collection capabilities

Drum sanders often have effective dust collection systems, capturing a substantial amount of sawdust and debris. Orbital sanders also offer dust collection, but their efficiency can vary.

Some cheaper models lack any useful dust collection systems. Therefore, drum sanders are usually superior, making them preferable for tasks where maintaining a clean work environment is crucial.

Choosing the Right Sander for Your Project

The type of woodworking project typically determines the type of sander to use. For example, a drum sander is ideal if you need to sand several coats of finish from a hardwood floor. However, you will still need small sanders, like edge floor sanders, to get into the nooks and crannies. 

Here are some types of sanders and the types of projects they are useful for: 

  • Upright drum floor sander: This type of drum sander is used for sanding large hardwood floors. It has a belt of sandpaper around a cylindrical spinning drum—like a belt sander but more powerful.
  • Belt sander: This sander is ideal for large woodworking projects to remove heavy finishes from wood. They effectively remove paint, varnish, or old finishes and can level uneven surfaces. Ideal for sanding floors, decks, or tabletops.
  • Orbital sander: Commonly referred to as quarter-sheet sanders, orbital sanders excel at delivering a smooth finish on flat surfaces. These versatile tools are ideal for various woodworking applications. These include refining rough wood, prepping surfaces for painting or staining, and rejuvenating furniture.
  • Random orbit sander: An orbital sander with random rotations is ideal for rough material removal and fine finishing. The sander provides a swirl-free sanding action and is a great all-rounder sanding tool.
  • Detail Sander: Detail sanders are ideal for woodworking projects involving tight spaces and corners requiring precision. They are great for refinishing furniture and intricate woodwork.
  • Disc Sander: This type of sander has an abrasive metal disc at right angles to the workbench. It’s useful for various woodworking tasks, like smoothing rough surfaces and shaping curved or angled edges.

Choosing between a drum sander and an orbital sander

When deciding between a drum sander and an orbital sander for your woodworking project, consider the following factors:

  • Sanding action: Determine the required sanding action—aggressive (drum) or fine (orbital).
  • Project type: Assess the specific woodworking project and its sanding needs. Choose a drum sander for larger projects like sanding a hardwood floor or multiple planks of wood.
  • Desired finish: Consider the type of finish you require. Choose a drum sander if you must remove several coats of finish, paint, or varnish. An orbital sander is best if you need to smooth surfaces between finishes.

Tips for Efficient Sanding

Do you want to get the best result for your woodworking project? Here are some top tips for sanding wood: 

Tips on using an orbital sander
  • Choose the right grit: Start with coarse-grit sandpaper for material removal and progressively use finer grits for smoother finishes.
  • Sand with the grain: Always sand in the direction of the wood grain to avoid scratches.
  • Keep it flat: Maintain an even and flat sanding surface for consistent results.
  • Change sandpaper regularly: The spaces between grit in sandpaper become clogged easily. Therefore, replace worn or clogged sandpaper to ensure efficient sanding.
  • Wear safety gear: Protect yourself with safety glasses and a dust mask to prevent eye injuries and inhaling dust.
  • Avoid using too much pressure: Apply light to moderate pressure—let the sandpaper do the work.

Tips on using a drum sander

Here are a few additional sanding tips when using a drum sander on large surfaces:

  • Know how to raise and lower the abrasive drum on an upright sander.
  • Keep the drum sander moving while it’s connected to the floor.
  • Sand in the direction of the wood grain.
  • Always overlap sanding passes by one-third to create an even finish.
  • Start with low-grit sandpaper, repeat with medium-grit, and finish with fine-grit sandpaper.
  • Always vacuum or sweep sawdust between passes.

Tips on using an orbital sander

Here are a few specific sanding tips when using an orbital sander to create the perfect finish:

  • Ensure the workpiece is firmly secured or clamped to prevent movement during sanding.
  • To avoid uneven sanding and swirl marks, keep the sander flat against the surface.
  • Keep the sander in motion to prevent sanding marks and divots.
  • Always use gentle, even pressure.
  • Sand with the grain of the wood for best results.
  • Slightly overlap each pass to ensure consistent coverage.
  • Be careful when sanding near edges to avoid over-sanding and damaging the workpiece.

Maintenance and Care

Regular maintenance is crucial to extend the lifespan of your sander—whether you use a drum sander or an orbital sander. Neglecting maintenance leads to decreased performance, wear and tear, and permanent damage.

Here are some top tips on looking after your sander to ensure trouble-free sanding: 

  • Safety first: Ensure the sander is turned off and unplugged before performing any maintenance or changing sandpaper. Always wear the appropriate safety gear. 
  • Clean after each job: After finishing a job, use a vacuum to remove excess dust in the tool. Additionally, you can use an air compressor to blow the debris out of the motor, fan system, and conveyor (on belt and drum sanders).
  • Lubrication: If your sander requires it, lubricate moving parts as specified in the manual to prevent wear and ensure smooth operation.
  • Check tightness: Periodically check and tighten screws, bolts, and fasteners to prevent parts from coming loose during operation.

If you have a drum sander, regularly inspect the drum and conveyor belt, and ensure the tensioning mechanism is properly adjusted. 

Conclusion — Drum Sander vs Orbital Sander

Should you use a drum sander vs orbital sander?

The answer is like using a chainsaw or a hedge trimmer—it depends on the task. If you need to chop down a tree, a chainsaw is the go-to tool. However, a hedge trimmer is the answer if you need to maintain a hedge or shrubs. 

Therefore, the choice between these sanding champions depends on the task. Need to level a rough surface or flatten wide boards quickly? The drum sander steps into the ring to tackle heavy-duty tasks. But are you looking for a smooth finish on a delicate project? In that case, the orbital sander gracefully takes its place.

So, whether crafting a masterpiece or tackling a home improvement project, ensure you’ve got the right sander in your corner, ready to deliver the knockout finish your project deserves.