Planer vs. Sander: Which is the right tool for you?

Every summer the heat rises, and with it, the humidity. For those with breathing problems, humidity causes issues because it means there is too much water vapor in the air to comfortably breathe. The same cause of difficult breathing causes a common issue in the home: swelling wood. The cells of the wood swell from the water in the air, which causes the wood to grow larger. You may have noticed this when you try to open wooden doors and windows in the summer.

What does this have to do with planers and sanders? Well, planers are often our best friends to help with this expansion. Both planers and sanders remove the surface layers of wood. For this reason, they are often mistaken for each other and used interchangeably by the unseasoned woodworker. However, sanders and planers are two different tools and should only be used in the appropriate situations.

Planer vs. SanderPin

The beauty of planers and sanders is that both come in electric and manual versions. Both tools have handheld versions for home use and large industrial-sized machines that do the job very quickly for large loads. To know which is better for your project, we should break down the tools and look at another oft-confused tool, the jointer.

Sanders

I’m sure that during your lifetime, you’ve used sandpaper. This can be placed on a handheld grip that holds the sandpaper flat for proper usage against drywall or wood. Many people don’t bother with the handheld and instead bend sandpaper over on itself to make smaller squares that they can easily control.

Sandpaper comes in a wide range of grits, from 40 up to the thousands. The lower the number, the coarser the grit, meaning it will remove more material in one swipe of the paper. These are the manual versions of sanders.

Electric sanders for the home are typically smaller than their industrial counterparts. There are five primary types of home sanders for different projects: the belt sander, the drum sander, the spindle sander, the random orbital sander, and the rotary sander.

Belt Sander

The belt sander is commonly used in larger projects by professionals. This handheld tool has a flat, square base to hold against the wood you are sanding. The sandpaper is a continuous loop that goes around the sander to act like a fast-moving sanding belt. The belt can be difficult to keep on its track if you do not know how to properly change the sandpaper, and they are prone to tears. These are not great for fitting in tight areas, but they do an excellent job removing rough surfaces to a deeper degree than some other electric sanders.

Drum Sander

This very large sander is often used for commercial purposes. Drum sanders tend to be more expensive and heavier than handheld ones.

Drum SanderPin

These sanders have large, round bases that look like a snare drum. A long handle connects to the base to give the worker control. These can be difficult to work with if you are not familiar with them since the power behind these is intense and can damage a spot if left in one area for too long. These are typically used for refinishing floors and decks.

Spindle Sander

The true woodworker’s sander, the spindle (or disk) sander mounts to an electric table. Instead of controlling the sander, the user controls the piece of wood as it makes contact with the sanding head. This does not use sandpaper that can be replaced, but the entire sanding drum can be replaced rather inexpensively. This sander is great for reaching curves and intricate details in woodworking projects.

Random Orbital Sander

The random orbital sander is possibly the most common for home renovation projects. This sander is what you most likely have in your own home. It moves in a circular motion at random rhythms and directions for smooth sanding.

This tool can even be used against the grain of the wood, though it is never recommended. The sandpaper for these is replaceable and inexpensive, so this sander is great for DIYers. The issue with these is that it is not great for deep sanding because the vibrations can be tiring on your arms.

Rotary Sander

Rotary sanders are similar to random orbital sanders in that they are both circular. While the head rotates randomly on the random orbital sander, the rotary sander head moves in one direction very quickly.

This is a great tool for finishing off projects and giving the smoothest finish possible. These are also the type you may see used on metal or wet builds. They can be difficult to use without losing control of the directional pull, so be sure to practice before using this on a final project.

Planers

Just like sanders, there are many types of planers. Which one you’ll want to use will depends on the project you’re building. Traditional manual planers have been used for centuries. This typically has two handholds- one is often a knob- so that you can apply even pressure to the length of the planer as it runs over the wood.

PlanerPin

These come in various shapes and varieties, depending on how much control you want and what angle you are working. While sanders are used to remove a top layer of grit and roughness on materials, planers are typically only used on wood to remove layers of wood for thickness reasons.

 

Electric Planer

These are as diverse as the manual planers out there but with a lot more power behind them. Opposed to using manual power from the body, the motors on these can work at different speeds to provide more power within the machine and less work on your muscles. These come as both corded and cordless, depending on how much you’re willing to pay.

The issue with electric planers is that they create quite a bit of sawdust, so you’ll want to purchase one with a dust collector if you plan to use it often. Even using it once without a collector will have you finding dust in some strange places for months.

Most of these planers come with different size blades that can be changed out to change the thickness of the amount of wood removed on each pass of the planer. These work better than manual planers for larger projects because it doesn’t require as much measuring or patience as the manual ones do.

Benchtop Planer

The first of the stationary planers is the benchtop planer. This one can fit right onto a tabletop or your workbench. It is often called a thickness planer because the wood is fed through the planer to get it to an even thickness. This works very well for projects that require a lot of leveling. You may want to use this if you are making furniture, such as with a tabletop. It will also remove thicker layers of wood for each pass through than an electric handheld planer will.

Stationary Planer

This is truly stationary because it is much too heavy to move around from tabletop to workbench. Instead, this planer is an entire machine that stands on its own. These come in several sizes but are the most expensive of the planers. These are more often used by professional woodworkers who plane a lot of wood for projects. If you choose to purchase one for your use, be sure to have a good amount of space to store it and work with the wood.

The best part about working with stationary and benchtop planers is that you can take an old, twisted piece of wood and bring out its former beauty.

Jointer

We should note that jointers are often mistaken for planers. They do some of the same things, and some planers even come as 2-in-1 machines with jointers. While a planer will even out the wood and remove rough patches, a jointer is a tool that is used to remove warps and make the lumber flush.

Typically, a woodworker can take a bumpy, uneven piece of wood and run it through a jointer to get the smooth wood sheet that can then be used in a project. This works on one side and one edge at a time. Some DIYers will use a jointer if they have a rough piece of wood and want to make a shelf with the exposed bark on one edge. If you want it to be thinner, you’ll use the planer to achieve that goal.

Which Is Best?

It depends on what you’re doing with the tools. If you have a wonky piece of wood that needs to be evened out, a planer is your best bet. Planers work best if you need to remove a good chunk of wood rather than just a bit of dust.

In the above example, I’d use a planer on the edges of my wooden doors to remove a layer or two of wood. This will help lower the size of the door fractionally so that when it swells, it will not stick in the jamb. However, if you want to remove paint from wood, I’d move on to a sander.

Sanders will not work well on thickness projects because the sanders cause the wood to get hot very quickly. This is because the sanding causes friction from the repetition. Most sanders cannot remove a lot of wood because it is such a fine grit. These work very well on finishing projects to give a smooth finish or to roughen up a surface enough for painting, staining, and gluing. Sanders also work well to remove old paint and a layer of stain from wood without removing too much wood beneath.

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