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The Difference Between Orbital and Palm Sanders

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My table…oh my table.  It looks beautiful now, but just listen to the story.

refinished tabletop

So remember my post a little while ago about how I decided to refinish my dining room table again?  Well I stained it.  And it didn’t work.  I cannot even express to you how annoying this was.  I felt like my table was cursed!!  I didn’t know what to do.  How can a table not take stain??

I decided to build a new tabletop to go over it.  So I headed to Home Depot and I talked with one of their very helpful workers for awhile.  He helped me form a plan to build my new tabletop and the more we chatted, the more I realized that this was going to be a lot more work than I thought and a lot more expensive.  Sigh.  Finally I asked him, “Do you think I should just try to refinish my tabletop that I have?”

I told him the story. He said the reason it didn’t accept the stain was because it wasn’t sanded down to the bare wood.  What?!  I had sanded for HOURS and HOURS with my Mouse palm sander and yes, it wasn’t a pretty even bare wood, but it seemed pretty stainable.  But he explained that a lot of commercially manufactured tables, such as mine, have such a strong laquer on top that no stripper sold in stores will remove it.  Fun, huh? Then he recommended that I try an orbital sander.

Now let me back up:  I have looked at orbital sanders practically every time I go to Home Depot or Lowes and never got one.  I didn’t know the difference between palm and orbital sanders…it seemed to me like they were basically the same thing.  And I already had the Black and Decker Mouse palm sander which has served me well for many years. Well this guy said that YES there was a major difference in the ease of removing finish.  So I ended up buying one and took it home.  And in ONE HOUR, I had completely stripped my table down to the bare wood and gotten a nice, even bare surface to stain.  It also removed all the squiggly lines that were left behind by the Mouse sander.  Seriously—life changing.  I feel dumb that it took me so long to learn this, but I think my orbital sander is one of my new favorite tools.

The difference between orbital and palm sanders

The Breakdown:

Palm Sander (like the Mouse):   Good for distressing, lightly sanding in between coats.  Best sandpaper grits are 160 and 220.  These are pretty cheap, this one costs about $30, the one I have.  It has served me well, but I’m never going to use it for varnish/paint removal again.  It doesn’t work well for that and it leaves little squiggles behind when you try.

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 8.26.40 PM


Random-Orbital:   Good for removing paint, stain, and poly (provided you have already used stripper because it will gum up the sanding pads.)  Easily strips down to bare wood.  Best sanding grits are 80 and 160.  The one pictured below is the one I bought–it’s about $70 and has worked great.  It has a little catch bag to catch sawdust but make sure to empty it because it’s easy to forget.  There are also Orbital Finishing Sanders but they are more docile and don’t really remove, they are better suited for smoothing.

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 8.26.05 PM


So there you have it.  If you are in the business of refinishing furniture, knowing the difference between orbital and palm sanders is something that is essential to know and so helpful.  If you didn’t know already.  But I didn’t and now that I know…my life is changed.

refinished table

After I sanded it down to the bare wood, I was able to stain the table top again and it went on beautifully.  I ended up using Minwax Early America–a great color.  It’s a perfect warm wood color without any orangey tints.  I love this tabletop now.  I also sanded it with a 220 grit and then sealed it with Minwax semi-gloss Polyurethane.  I did 3 coats.  And it has held up great so far, everything my kids do to it, it just wipes right off with nothing left behind, unlike my white tabletop.

So are you going to rush off and buy yourself a Random-Orbital Sander?


  1. Ooh, I LOVE it! It looks fabulous! And that is awesome to know the difference between the two sanders. If I ever decide to redo our table, I will definitely keep this post in mind because it will take a lot of work to get it to look good again. 🙂

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      Yes, I wholeheartedly recommend buying an orbital sander before trying to refinish a table. Good luck!

  2. That’s so nice looking! I love a nice warm finish on wood. It looks so shiny and smooth! I would’ve been right there with you, by the way. I had no idea about the difference between the sanders. I’m definitely pinning this for future reference! Thanks for the info!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      Thanks! I really love this color and while I’m not normally a huge fan of shiny, it is really helpful with all the table messes my kids make!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      Thanks, Mandy!

  3. It looks wonderful Heidi. I’ve had similar problems with the hand sander, now I know why I thought it was the user.

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      Oh yes, an orbital will make all the difference!

  4. now I need one. 🙂 i’ve really struggled with the squiggly lines and was so frustrated with my corner cat!! your table looks great!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      Yes, after the damage I did with my Mouse on the table, there are still a few squiggles that showed up only after I stained it. But they aren’t that noticeable and it’s WAY better than it was.

  5. What stain and white paint color did you use for the table? I have the same table and I can’t wait to get it refinished! I love your color choice and I want mine to look just like it!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      I used Old American by Minwax–I really love that color! The white I can’t remember–that was done last year.

  6. Hey Heidi – LOVE your table! In the post you said you used Early American by miniwax, but in the comments you said Old American… just wanted to nail down which stain you actually used, because it’s the perfect color for one of my upcoming projects! Thanks!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      I think it’s Early American…sorry!

  7. Love how this turned out! Do you happen to know the paint colors for your chairs? I’m doing something very similar in my dining room and love these colors!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      It was a really long time ago so I don’t remember…sorry! 🙁

  8. Natalie wright says:

    Looks amazing!!! Wow could you tell me or recommend to me the first step before you sand I’m so new to this I need help!!!! I did my sons book case but I hand sanded this is a wooden pub table and i don’t want to screw anything up! Lol!!! So do I strip the paint first then sand ? Help!!! Thank you so much thank you!!!

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      I’m assuming you want to refinish the bare wood? I would use the Orange paint stripper on it as many times as I can and then sand with an orbital sander.

  9. Thanks, this was a a really helpful post! It would have been great to see some comparison shots of the palm sander results vs. the orbital sander results, but this was the first post I found that took the time to explain the difference between the two for this kind of work.

  10. I started refinishing my table by hand that lasted about an hour. made progress but this is turning into more of an ordeal than I thought. so I headed out to get a sanded and wanted to get a palm sander but being late Sunday night all I could find was an orbital . OMG like you said luckily split the table and all 4 chairs sanded. now I’m thankful all I could find was the orbital.

  11. Thank you, I just started refinishing a large solid coffee table today, just finished the stripping process and realised I will need a sander, I thought one of those little palm sanders would be perfect, so glad I found you on google, can’t wait to go get myself an orbital sander tomorrow

    1. Heidi @ Honeybear Lane says:

      So glad I saved you some time!

  12. Monica P. says:

    Hi there I am just stumbling on this blog while researching orbital sanders. I am having the exact same problem you had. I sanded for what seemed like hours, stained and it was full of uneven blotchiness and squiggly marks. I stripped again and now the leftover stain will not budge !! I am in tears and ready to dump the entire thing in the trash! Was this your situation? I am going to home depot tomorrow, I stripped what I could of the nasty stain job, what grit should I use tomorrow to even this thing out and get to bare wood??? Im really to try anything, this table was the first thing we bought in this new house, 10 years and 2 kids has ruined it, I thought it was sanded well until I stained it.

  13. Heather Erin Shonk says:

    Hi, So I have a question. For the polyurethane…what type works best with kids? My dad refinished my table a few years back after one of my daughters spilled nail polish remover all over it and he used a type that left a terrible cloudy finish, and with condensation from glasses there are the worst white rings that eventually go away when dry. Is this because he used a water based PU?

  14. You were reading my mind! I’m going fist thing in the morning to get one! No more squiggles! I thought I was doing something wrong. (Apparently I was … not using the right sander.) Thank you for your great advice!

  15. The Mouse is an orbital detail palm sander. The Ridgid is a random orbit palm sander, although often called just an orbital. The rectangular ones, often called quarter-sheet sanders, are also orbitals. An orbital sander moves the paper in small circles. A random orbit does this too, but also turns the entire sanding pad at the same time. The ‘squiggle’ marks you got are from high spots in the sand paper, or more likely, loose grit left over from coarser grades in earlier steps. The random orbit can also get these deep scratches, but they will be spread out in larger, ‘random’ patterns that are much less noticeable. To help control these scratches, brush down or vacuum the piece and the tool well between grits.

    The random orbit can do everything the orbital sander does except reach into tight spaces, and it works quicker and usually gives a better result. It also costs more.

    With either sander, remember to use a grit progression. If it’s taking an entire day to sand one flat surface, you probably didn’t start coarse enough. If you can’t seem to remove the scratches from your last grit, don’t skip so many grits.

    Wear a dust mask, especially when removing finish or paint. Home Depot just started carrying a P100 paper mask – it traps much finer particles than the standard P95. Also good for house cleaning and yard work.

    Judging by the article and many of the comments, I think some diy furniture restorers could stand to spend some time on more ‘traditional’ woodworking sites, even if the testosterone-infused atmosphere is uncomfortable. Maybe get your inspiration here and your technique there?

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