There are certain power tools that deserve a place in any do-it-yourselfer’s arsenal, and one of those certainly has to be the random orbit sander. For tasks ranging from the aggressive removal of old paint to the fine finishing of a new living room shelf, random orbit sanders offer a perfect blend of sanding speed, performance and ease of use.
A random orbit sander has a sanding disk to which replaceable sandpaper disks are attached. The tool is designed so that the sanding disk spins in a circle and also moves in an elliptical motion. Because of this random sanding motion, no part of the sandpaper ever follows exactly the same path.
The random sanding action produces a swirl-free finish regardless of which way the wood grain is facing, so you can easily sand both with and across the grain.
The replaceable sanding disks are available in several different grits, ranging from 60 to 240 grit. The disks are typically attached with a hook and loop material, but pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA) is also sometimes used.
Random orbit sanders are commonly classified by their disk size. The most common is a 5-inch diameter disk, but 6-inch models are also available. Both the sanding disk and the sandpaper disk have a matching pattern of holes — typically eight holes, but some have five or six.
The holes allow sanding dust to be drawn up through the sander and into a removable, on-board dust bag, or directly into a shop vacuum.
In recent years, several manufacturers have introduced variable speed control, allowing you to select speeds ranging from 7,000 to 12,000 orbits per minute (OPM). To be honest, you’ll almost always use the sander at its top speed rating, but the variable speed can come in handy for certain tasks.
Shopping for a sander
For most people, a 5-inch sander is a better choice than a 6-inch, since it’s easier to handle and your local home centers and hardware stores will stock a wider selection of sanding disks.
Beyond that, it’s the little things that count. First and foremost, the sander should feel comfortable in your hand. Random orbit sanders are gripped in the palm of one hand, so you should be able to hold the sander firmly without excessive pressure, and the sander’s grip material should offer a comfortable, non-slip grip.
You’ll also want to be sure that the on-off switch is in a location that’s easy to reach with the hand that’s holding the sander.
You’ll also want to look for a dust bag that has a good solid connection to the sander. These sanders pick up a lot of dust as they work, and nothing’s worse than being in the middle of a project and having a fully loaded dust bag come flying off. A shop vacuum adapter is another nice feature to have. Some models also include a carrying case, which may or may not be important to you.
Testing four different sanders
I recently tried out four different 5-inch variable speed sanders to get a firsthand feel for some of the differences. Each of the sanders was equipped with an eight-hole hook-and-loop sanding disk. Here, listed in order of their average street price, is my take on some of their pros and cons.
Craftsman Model 11218 ($50, including sander, dust bag, and one disk): The Craftsman has a slightly smaller motor than the other models (2.8 amps), and a slightly higher top speed (12,500 OPM). The grip was comfortable, and the grip’s surface material had a nice, non-slip feel to it. It has a slide switch that passes through the grip and requires two different fingers to operate.
The "on" position was very easy to reach, but "off" requires a bit of shifting of your grip. It has a cloth dust collection bag with a plastic inner liner, but it’s attached with a simple press fit that may be a problem after extended use. All in all it’s a nice, fairly aggressive sander with an attractive price. The Craftsman weighs 3 pounds 8 ounces.
Milwaukee Model 6021-21 ($61, including sander, dust bag, and hard-shell carrying case): The Milwaukee had a nice, slender top and a non-slip rubber coating that was very comfortable. It’s controlled by a single, sealed on-off rocker switch at the front of the grip, which was easy to reach and operate with one finger. It has a 3-amp motor with a nice soft-start feature that keeps the speed controlled during start up.
The spring-loaded cloth dust bag holds its shape, and a twist-lock feature keeps it securely in place; however, it extends off the sander at an odd angle, which sometimes gets in the way. The sander also has a built-in adapter that fits both 1 1/4- and 2 1/4-inch vacuum hoses. A smooth, powerful sander with a nice feel, it weighs in at 3 pounds 11 ounces.
DeWalt Model D26453K ($79, including sander, dust bag, and hard-shell carrying case): This was the heaviest of the bunch, at a hair over 4 pounds. It has a nice, slender feel to it that fits nicely in your hand, along with a rubber top pad that cushions your palm. The sealed on-off rocker switch is right at the front, and easy to operate with one finger. As with the Milwaukee, it has a 3-amp, soft-start motor.
The dust collection bag is spring-loaded with two positive twist locks for good security, and it extends directly off the rear of the sander. There’s also built-in adapters for two standard vacuum cleaner hoses. It’s another smooth, aggressive sander that’s very easy to use.
DeWalt Model D26456 ($99, including the sander and dust bag): While the other three sanders are similar in height and general design, the 26456 is a low-profile sander. It’s about 2 inches lower than the other sanders, and weighs just 3 pounds 6 ounces. The trade-off for the lower height is that the motor is wider, resulting in a wider grip.
It’s still comfortable, but possibly not for everyone. A very nice feature of the 26456 is a new motor design that utilizes less wear on components for longer life, plus electronic load control and motor brake. The control switch, dust collection bag, and vacuum adaptor system are the same as on its taller brother.