Random Orbital Sander vs. Palm Sander: What’s the Difference?

Updated: Mar. 13, 2024

In the ongoing orbital sander vs. palm sander debate, the right answer for you depends on what projects you'll use it for.

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If you plan on doing any kind of carpentry or woodworking, you’ll need a power sander. These small and relatively low-cost machines let you sand down wood pieces quickly. They’re exponentially more efficient than a manual sanding block.

My career as a residential and commercial carpenter has given me hands-on experience with a wide range of random orbital and palm sanders — two tools that are more different than you might think.

What is a Random Orbital Sander?

A random orbital sander is a handheld power sander that rapidly rotates in elliptical circles, as well as back and forth. This “random” motion results in a smoother finish, without the swirl pattern that can come from standard orbital sanders that only move in a circular motion.

Random orbital sanders are extremely efficient for large projects. Their round sandpaper pads create a uniform finish without any noticeable edges, although they can’t get into closed corners. These pads are also more expensive than the standard sheets palm sanders use.

I used random orbital sanders almost daily while refinishing desks and tabletops, and consider them one of the most important power tools for a woodworker. Some offer a variable speed setting, too, so you can customize the amount of sanding power.

Random orbital sander uses

  • Smooth unfinished wall panels for painting.
  • Sanding large, flat pieces of wood.
  • Strip varnish or paint from furniture.
  • Smoothing drywall mud.

What is a Palm Sander?

A palm sanders — AKA a 1/4-sheet sander because of the size of sandpaper it uses — is the smallest type of power sander. Their compact size makes them perfect for light-duty finish work, and their square pads fit into tight spots and corners that random orbital sanders cannot.

Palm sanders are also cheaper than random orbital sanders, and their sandpaper sheets much less expensive than the special hook-and-loop pads needed for random orbital sanders. Their smaller motors make them impractical for stripping thick layers of material, though, so they’re best for light-duty sanding projects.

Palm sander uses

  • Finishing small woodworking pieces.
  • Accessing inside corners.
  • Sanding down small imperfections on wood.

How To Choose Between a Random Orbital Sander and a Palm Sander

First, think about the size of the projects. Larger pieces and panels that need to be sanded and stripped before they’re painted or stained are much better suited to the power and efficiency of a random orbital sander. Their stronger motors will finish the sanding quicker, making them much more efficient than palm sanders, which are better for precision tasks on smaller pieces.

Second, think about what you want to ultimately accomplish. If it’s an extremely smooth finish free of swirls or blemishes that would show through on your paint or stain, go with a random orbital sander. Just want to eliminate small imperfections on wood, especially on inside corners? Go with a palm sander.

If you’re unsure about the extent of the projects, we recommend a random orbital sander.

What Do Random Orbital Sanders and Palm Sanders Cost?

A high-quality random orbital sander costs about $75, while a palm sander runs about $60. Both can also be found for much less (around $30) if you lack the budget for a higher-quality option. In our experience, if you feel like splurging, Festool products are almost always worth the high price tag.

  • Value random orbital sander: This compact Black+Decker Five-Inch Random Orbital Sander ($29) provides a comfortable grip for maximum control and a built-in dust collection bag for easy cleanup.
  • Average priced random orbital sander: I’ve used the DeWalt Five-Inch Random Orbital Sander ($74) for years. Its powerful 3.0-amp motor and rubber grip makes it easy to breeze through projects quickly and comfortably.
  • Splurge random orbital sander: Yes, it’s expensive. But I can tell you from hands-on experience this Festool Random Orbital Sander ($215) is worth every penny if you plan on doing a lot of sanding and need an extremely smooth finish.
  • Value palm sander: The color-coded pressure indicator of this Skil Palm Sander ($28) lets you maintain precise control while you work, and its small size is convenient for storage and transport.
  • Average priced palm sander: This DeWalt Palm Sander ($59) features heavy-duty clamps to keep your sandpaper in place. The locking dust port can be used with the included bag or a separate shop vacuum.
  • Splurge palm sander: The extremely light weight, large dust extraction receptacle and specialized paper sheets make this Festool Palm Sander ($289) a great option for those with deep pockets.