From removing old peeling paint to putting a glass-smooth finish on a new cabinet, sanding is a part of life for any do-it-yourselfer. It can be a tedious and dusty proposition at times, but luckily over the years many manufacturers have introduced power sanders to make the task easier and less messy.

Here’s a look at the four main types of power sanders, along with some shopping tips for finding the one that works best for your specific applications.

Belt Sander: A belt sander is the largest and the most heavy-duty of the different power sanders. A belt sander utilizes a continuous sanding belt that is stretched over two drums, one of which is rotated by a powerful electric motor. The belt lays flat against the bottom of the sander as it rotates, creating a long, wide sanding surface that sands quickly and lessens the chance of gouging into the wood. Belt sanders are best suited for fast stock removal and also leveling out imperfections, and are used with the direction of the belt rotation parallel with the grain.

Belt sanders are specified by the size of the belt — which indicates the width and the overall length — as well as the amperage of the motor, and when shopping you’ll want to look for one that suits your job and your budget. Smaller sanders, such as Ryobi’s 3-inch-by-18-inch (Model BE318-2, $49.95), is comfortable, light and easy to control, with a 5-amp motor that is well suited for light- to medium-duty use. Larger models, such as the massive 4-by-24-inch workhorse from Porter-Cable (Model 362VSK, $249), has a 12-amp motor and is designed for frequent, heavy-duty use.

Pad Sander: Also called a finishing sander, pad sanders have a flat square or rectangular pad located underneath the motor. The pad moves back and forth in a straight line, again for sanding with the direction of the grain, and the smaller sanding surface and lighter weight make these a good choice for finish sanding and paint removal on a wide variety of projects.

Pad sanders utilize standard sheets of sandpaper, which you’ll need to cut to the proper size (precut sheets are also available for some sanders). The paper fits over a soft pad on the bottom of the sander that helps cushion the sanding motion, and is held in place by clips along two opposite sides of the pad.

Ridgid’s 1/4-sheet sander (Model R2500, $44) is a good example of a versatile, well-designed pad sander for frequent use. It uses one-fourth of a standard sheet of sandpaper, and has a cushioned top and a conveniently located switch that makes the sander very comfortable for one-handed use, with minimal noise and vibration. Paper changing is easy — something you definitely want to look for with a pad sander — and the dust collection bag can be removed and the sander used with a shop vacuum hose instead.

Detail Sander: A detail sander is a smaller, lighter version of the pad sander, and as the name implies it is intended for taking care of the final detail sanding in those hard-to-reach places. Detail sanders typically have a pointed pad that can sand into corners, and often feature different attachments in a variety of shapes that can sand into the cracks and crevices that other sanders can’t get into, such as moldings, spindles and inside drawers.

Black & Decker’s new Mouse Sander/Polisher (Model MS600B, $39.99) is a very handy little detail sander, and incorporates a “feedback” system of lights that tells you when you’re applying the proper amount of pressure for the surface you’re sanding — something that’s very useful when putting the finishing touches on your project. It has soft-grip sides for great comfort, and a selection of sanding attachments to suit different applications.

Random Orbit Sander: A random orbit sander is in a class of its own, and can be used for anything from fast stock removal to fine finishing. Random orbit sanders look somewhat like pad sanders, with the sandpaper placed flat below the motor. However, the sandpaper pad spins in a circle while moving around in an oval pattern at the same time. This results in a random pattern of sanding that allows the sander to move across the grain without scratching.

Due to the circular motion, random orbit sanders utilize precut round sandpaper that is either 5 or 6 inches in diameter. A hook and loop system holds the paper securely to the bottom of the sanding pad, and also allows for fast paper changes.

A random orbit sander could easily become your favorite all-around home improvement sander. When shopping for one, look for a model such as Ridgid’s 6-inch sander (Model R2611, $129.99) that offers additional versatility to make it that much more useful. The Ridgid sander has two unique orbit settings — 1/8 inch for fine sanding and 1/4 inch for fast stock removal — as well as a soft-grip rear handle and a removable front handle for comfort. It also has electronic variable speed to make it suitable for a variety of materials and uses, a comfortably low-vibration 4-amp motor, and a handy, on-board fitting that adapts the sander to either 1 1/4- or 2 1/2-inch shop vacuum hoses.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at

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