Orbital Sander vs Drum Sander — Which Floor Sander Should You Use?

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When I begin a wood floor sanding project, my first step is always to choose a top-notch finishing tool that can tackle deep scratches and access those tight spaces. If you’re new to this, like many I’ve met, the choice between orbital sanders and drum sanders can be quite daunting. Having spent countless hours with both, I’ve noted the key differences between these floor sanders to save you both time and money.

What is an Orbital Floor Sander?

If you’re thinking of doing some light sanding to make the wood flat and clear, then an orbital sander is most definitely the best option for the job. 

At first glance, even I knew that this tool would perform well with edge sanding as it generally comes with a rectangular surface. 

It has an oscillating plate with sandpaper attached to it. When you move the equipment with the disk spinning in an orbital motion, it’ll continue sanding the wood in a random scratch pattern. With this, you wouldn’t need to follow the direction of the little swirls or grains in the flooring. 

orbital floor sander

What is a Drum Floor Sander?

You may not know it, but a drum sander is affectionately called a “big machine” by many wood sanding experts. Why? Because that’s what it looks like, a large machine with bulky construction meant to sand rough hardwood floors.

Drum sander has large spinning drums often operated in a standing position. Its massive weight and spin speed give drum sanders an edge when dealing with deep sanding scratches and stripping all the old finish on the floor. 

drum floor sander

This machine requires a significant amount of space and demands careful attention to the grain pattern on the floors. As a result, it can be quite challenging for beginners to operate this sanding equipment effectively.

How Do They Differ?

Method of Sanding

Before diving into the drum sander versus orbital sander debate, I should mention, as someone who’s spent a fair amount of time with both, that they offer distinct sanding experiences. Drum sanding, for instance, employs a large spinning drum and paper to make its way through hardwood floors.

Meanwhile, orbital sanders mainly operate using a grinding method. Unlike drum sanding that opts for aggressive motions to get the whole floor sanded, orbital sanding uses a pad that moves in a circling motion.  

(But what if you orbital sander slows down? How do you fix it? Read next!)

Speed and Labor

Orbital sanding is generally more gentle than drum sanding, so it’s no surprise that drum sanders work faster. From my experience, if you’re looking to sand bedroom floors with finer grits, I’d personally recommend most random orbitals. They tend to leave a smoother, less scratchy finish.

orbital floor sander

Although faster, the sanding process could lead to unintended scratches when sanding the grain or reaching corners, given how much firepower drum sanders have over orbital floor sanders. 

Ease of Use

There’s no denying that operating an orbital sander is a ton easier than handling a drum sander. Given that using a good belt sander requires more user effort due to its weight, newbies may find a random orbital sander easier to control. 

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Which is the Best Floor Sander to Use?

Floor Type and Thickness

When deciding which between drum or orbital sander to use for wood, it’s crucial to determine what kind of floors you’re working on. As you know, there are different types of hardwood floorings [1]. I suggest using a drum sander if the floor spaces are wide and thick. But for household sanding, which deals with narrow edges, orbital sanding works best. 

Floor Condition

If you plan to refinish old hardwood flooring, I recommend choosing a drum sand machine over its alternative. It can sand the wood faster until it’s bare and easily remove paint and stains. But for a surface in good condition and minimal paint drips or stains, orbital sanders are cheaper options that can do the trick. 

FAQ

Is it hard to use a drum sander?

Yes, it’s hard to use a drum sander. If not used appropriately, drum sanders can chip the top layer of your flooring. In most cases, professionals favor these heavy-duty tools because they can handle any wood sanding job. However, its design isn’t meant to reach narrow edges due to its massive size. 

How long does it take to sand a floor with an orbital sander?

It will take two to four days per room to sand a floor with an orbital sander. This time calculation only applies if your floor is in good condition and has a flat surface. If you’re using a handheld sander orbital, you’ll need to double that estimation again. 

Conclusion

I’ve been there, weighing the pros and cons of drum sanders versus orbital sanders. It becomes clear that each tool has its unique purpose. Once you’ve decided based on your finishing requirements, I’d advise thinking about whether to invest in a brand-new machine, rent one, or find a practical option on second-hand sites.

Alternatively, you may also want to know to know the difference between orbital sander and belt sander before making deciding on the best tool to use. 

Related products to check: 

Best orbital sandpaper

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Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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