Random orbit sander vs sheet sander –which one to use and how they work

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Sanding makes sure your DIY projects get a professional looking finish- a piece that isn’t well sanded may mean that everyone sees scratches or other blemishes (on the surface) of your finished project.

But when it comes to sanding, should you use a random orbit sander vs sheet sander?

To help you choose the right tool for your projects, here is helpful information on the two tools including their differences and jobs each suit best.

Random orbit sander vs sheet sander –which one to use and how they work

If you have been ‘Googling’ a little, you may have noted that the debate about which of them is better is never-ending.

With that in mind, here is what you should understand before deciding on a random orbital sander or sheet sander.

What is a sheet sander?

The sheet sander is so-called because it typically uses sheets of sandpaper (the 1/4 sheet is quite popular) to sand.

For the most part, there is spring-loaded clamp device holding the sandpaper in place (on the pad).

It’s important to mention that the pad is square shaped as well (this is crucial because it helps it work best in tight spots).

How does a sheet sander work?

In terms of how it produces its sanding action, it is important to note that a sheet sander usually move back-and-forth (it makes tiny circular motion/orbits too) and will apply a smooth finish if operated properly.

There is a motor to move the sanding pad back-and-forth (in circular motion) at high speed.

And oh, you will find folks referring to the tool as a finish sander, palm sander, quarter-sheet pad sander, and more.

What is a Random orbit sander?

A random orbital sander is so-called because the sanding blade typically produces a random-orbit action (not just circular)!

A random orbital sander uses sandpaper disks, oftentimes in a 5” diameter.

The specially shaped disks are available in multiple grits and are attached using either a hook-and-loop system or pressure-sensitive adhesives.

One downside of the disks is their price- they can be quite pricey.

That said, the tool has no equal if you’re looking for versatility- from stripping paint or varnish off furniture, clean-up tasks between finish coats, to preparing new molding, there is no job that is beyond it.

Additionally, the tool can remove a lot more material faster than sheet sanders thanks to the more aggressive operation.

How does a Random orbit sander work?

As mentioned, random orbit sanders deliver a unique random-orbit motion when operating.

To make this type of sanding motion, the whole pad will be moving in some sort of an oval loop while the sandpaper disc will simultaneously be spinning in a circle.

Now, this mode of operation means the same sanding pattern cannot be repeated over a sanding area so the tool will never leave swirl marks.

As such, the tool can produce super fine finishes even when used on contoured surfaces.

To reiterate, random simply means you can move the tool in any direction –without worrying about causing damage to a surface.

And that is the most prominent advantage of random orbital sanders.

The other notable advantage of random orbital sanders is that they can work both along (with) and across the grain!

Random orbit sander vs sheet sander –summary of key pros and cons

Here’s now is a quick table showing the key upsides and downsides of the two tools:

  Random orbital sander Sheet sander
Key pros ·         Due to the unpredictable sanding pattern, a random-orbit sander creates less visible cross-grain scratching.

·         Removes a lot more material fast.

·         Better at dust collection.


·         Due to their square-shaped sanding pad, sheet sanders sand better in tight places and corners.

·         The sander is not extremely aggressive and can be the smarter option if you need to sand between coats.

·         More affordable (lower buying price)

Biggest drawbacks ·         Because of being extra aggressive, random orbital sanders may not be the best choice when sanding between coats.

·         Costlier than sheet sanders.

·         Sanding disks more expensive.

·         Not great for corner/tight spots


·         Not good at removing materials.

·         Tends to leave visible swirl marks.

Random orbit sander vs sheet sander – Useful tips

Sheet sander applications and available options

Manufacturers mainly offer 1/4 sheet sanders, 1/3 sheet sanders, and 1/2 sheet sanders.

To point you in the right direction, take into consideration the following:

  • The 1/4 sheet sander is great for one-handed use (fits in palms) and works amazingly in confined areas.
  • 1/3 sheet sanders are the jack-of-all-trades at home (you can practically use it for almost all sanding tasks around the home).
  • The 1/2 sheet sander is for bigger jobs where you want a larger pad size to help you complete the job in less time.

Random orbital sanders applications and available options

Random orbital sanders largely come in 2 different types: air powered and electric powered.

When deciding whether an air powered or electric random orbital sander is ideal for you, consider factors like  if you’ll be using it in a shop (air is likely to be available) or on the go (ease of transport is critical so you may want to go for an electric model).

Either way, we recommend that you buy a tool with vacuum attachment or some sort of dust collection for mess-free jobs.

Wrap up

To summarize our random orbit sander vs sheet sander analysis, the biggest takeaway is that while both can work for nearly all sanding tasks, there are design and functional differences that are worth considering.

To put it briefly, we recommend a sheet sander if your projects often involve sanding in tight spots/corners and you’re especially after a power sander for the occasional use.

Conversely, the random orbit sander is the equipment of choice for most projects and it’s the way to go if you must settle for one tool.

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