Can you sand and refinish your floor with an orbital sander?

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This is a question that is asked by people that are too scared to use a floor sander! Let me cut to the chase, the answer is NO. Unfortunately you cannot sand floors with just an orbital sander.

refinish hardwood floors with an orbital sander

And to clarify, by orbital sanders, I refer to all finishing sanders; Laegler Trio, Bona FlexiSand, Numatic Woodworker, Usand or any other sander that has a huge surface area and oscillates or rotates. (different from handheld ‘random orbital’ sanders)

Right there, I have just mentioned the unifying factor of these machines and also why it just doesn’t work to use these machines exclusively to sand your floors. What was it?

Huge surface area. A couple of years ago my boss (before I set up on my own) sent me on a course with Laegler. In that course I learned how the Hummel was designed, in terms of the shape of the drum, the surface area, the Revolutions Per Minute, the weight applied to the drum and thus the pounds per square inch of pressure that the machine applies to the floor when it is in action.

It was fascinating to see just how finely tuned these machines are. The Hummel was designed in the late 1960’s and to this day is still arguably the best sanding machine on the market.

The size of the surface area, the speed of the belt and the pressure applied to the floor, works perfectly to remove the top layer of wood from the floor as quickly and smoothly as possible. It could be described as being quite aggressive. There are other continuous belt sanding machines that are slightly less aggressive, but they are all designed to actually remove some wood.

Finishing sanders are not designed to do this. They are designed to do very fine sanding.

To put this into perspective, I and all professional floor sanders (that know what they are doing), would not use a finishing sander exclusively on a freshly laid unfinished floor (in case you don’t know, many wood floors are fitted without a finish on them, they then have to be sanded and finished). Just think about that for a second.

You have a floor that is brand new, laid flat and does not have any dents, damage or lacquer/varnish on it. Yet we don’t view it as fit to be sanded with just and orbital sander? It’s because if there is a board that is just slightly higher than the next one or the floor is just slightly uneven, the orbital sander won’t be able to rectify that.

Believe me, if I could throw away my other sanders, save myself a bunch of time and just use an orbital/finishing sander I would. It just doesn’t work like that.

I could post links to at least 5 blogs where people have sanded their floor themselves with these machines…. And it looks terrible. But they tell themselves they have done a good job (and ironically, these blog posts are called “how to refinish your wood floors” and such).

These machines do have a purpose, you can learn about that purpose right here.

Please don’t be suckered into hiring just one of these machines alone, it will take you longer, you won’t remove all the finish and dents and scratches. You might even end up calling in the professionals. I hope this has convinced you.

Let me know what you think in the comments below! Thanks for reading 🙂


Comments

  1. I just did 806 square ft of hardwood with my palm sander. Worked out beautifully, I but it’s not an easy job. I totally disagree with your “no you can’t do this with a hand sander”. I’m a 47 year old female and I’ve never done this before, although I have sanded many decks, and I believe if you have the strength and dedication, anyone can do this with a little sander.
    Your article was interesting but not totally accurate.

    1. how long did that take you? I have seen many pictures of people doing it DIY and they think they have sanded their floors properly when there is still a ton of dented, scratched, uv damaged wood or a ton of old finish still on the surface. I cant imagine doing 806 feet in less than a week days with a palm sander, even if I worked my but off immensely. What it comes down to is what you are prepared to accept.

      Other factors also, type of wood, what kind of finish is on the floor and how badly damaged it is. I appreciate your input mellanie, but 11 years full time experience kind of trumps doing it once or twice.

  2. Hi Ben. I do agree totally with what you have mentioned above. An easy way to a beautiful and professional finish would be a floor sanding machine. My granddad has 35+ years of experience in this field and I done a lot of work with him. I personally would never recommend an orbital sander(“buffer” is what we call it in South Africa).

  3. Hey guys, i am about to get myself a brand new sander, but before i do i would like to know the difference between sheet and random orbital sander, please?!

  4. What type of sander do you use if the hardwood grain runs in varying directions due to design without going against grain and scratching it?

  5. Bullshit. I resurfaced my floors with a 6″ orbital sander and very course sandpaper. It didn’t take long and came out GORGEOUS. Ignore this tripe! Not only is getting a big drum sander a waste of money, in the time you spend getting it, moving it, setting it up, and bringing it back, you could have already been done. Mind you, if your house is enormous, it might be worth it, but to say “no”? Abject nonsense! Very do-able!

    1. its your opinion so I am going to approve it, despite the rudeness. If your floor was actually badly dented and scratched and bigger than 100sf you would think differently

  6. Hi Ben,

    First, thanks for posting all the great info. It is much appreciated by this broke daddy fixer-upper.

    I purchased a Bosch 1250DEVS 6″ orbital with “turbo mode” because … I wanted one … and because I thought it would work on my 50-year-old-hidden-under-carpet-for-years oak floors. I did a 100’^2 room over an extended period of time only to discover it didn’t remove ALL of the original finish. It got 98% of it but, not ALL of it. In the end I rented a drum sander from HD. Wish I’d read your blog before hand. Would’ve saved me some time.

    Anyway, I’m now considering the purchase of a belt sander as an alternative to renting a drum sander. I should explain: My wife, 1yo daughter and I are on a tight budget. I need tools for a fledgling furniture business I’m building on the side. It’s easier for me to justify the purchase when comparing the marginal expense over a tool rental. For example, let’s say it’s $60 more to purchase a beltsander vs renting a drum sander for a day (keen accounting kills, no?).

    So my question is this; Am I stark raving mad? Or … is this marginally reasonable … given that I have about 1,000’^2 yet to do?

    Also, what’s your feeling about lighter vs darker finish for oak flooring? I’m looking to add value vs exercising my personal preferences.

    Thanks again for your time. Love your work.

    john

    1. Hi John, tbh even sanding floors with the Home Depot drum sanders fills me with dread. if you were gong to get those floors professionally refinished, you would pay minimum $3 per ft, I know guys that chart up to $7 a foot for high end lacquer, staining, dustless, the whole shebang. I really think you should buy my book and get to grips with it. It really is an investment! But long story short, rent the sander.

  7. Hello again, Ben.

    Just read your bit on belt sanders. Feeling a bit stupefied. Oh well. Sounds like the Bosch 1250DEVS may be a cheap version of the Festool as it has a spinning orbital mode as well as just orbital (it’s got a nice side handle to help control it as well, fortunately.). This said, would there still be any reason to add a beltsander?

    john

  8. looking to sand 1247 sq, ft of red oak hardwood 2,5 x 3/4. 417 of it is new unfinished and the remaining has the natural look with polyacrlic on it,
    Looking to stain it another color, all of it. what do you think the best way to sand it would be?

  9. We use Bona power drive(220) only to sand some floors…mainly old pre finished or floors that have been sanded and have worn down alot…..works just fine.

    1. Yes occasionally it can work, provided you know what you’re doing and you can see the finish is all off the floor, which a lot of people can’t see!

  10. What about yellow pine.
    I rented drum sander before for this type wood and I had a difficult time controlling the aggression of the sander.
    Have 400sf more to do and one room had glued carpet. Adhesive is 25 years old and dry. What do you think ?

    1. not in a million years would I think of sanding off carpet glue with an orbital sander. Deffo a no go. Question is, can you sand it off with 24 on the drum, or do you have to drop to 16.

  11. I’m looking at sanding and refinishing the wood floors in my house. These floors are solid hardwood and were likely placed in the late 50’s, early 60’s. There are scuffs, scratches, and worn spots throughout, so it definitely requires sanding. My questions is with regards to the hallway. It’s long and rather narrow, so an orbital sounds like the better option. But it also has an area where the floor is raised and needs sanded down (by at least 1/8-1/4″) so a drum would work better there. Any suggestions?

    1. you’re right but why is it raised? you don’t want to sand it too thin there, maybe replacing the boards or atleast lifting and resecuring might be a better option before sanding

  12. Any special considerations for sanding, staining, and refinishing a horizontal bamboo floor? Ours are a clear finish now and we want to add a little color. the main walk areas are pretty scratched (previous owner had 2 small yipper dogs).

    Thanks.

  13. What do you think of the U Sand sanders? They are advertised as easier to use, but really have 4 orbital pads.

  14. Hi Ben,

    I had over 1000sf in my house professionally done a few months ago.
    I had just bought the house and found oak floors under the carpet. It was stained dark walnut and two coats of poly. Came out nice.
    I recently discovered more oak under some plywood in my foyer. It’s a little under
    100sf. Looking to sand and stain it then poly.
    I have orbital palms, belts and polishers. Should I rent a sander and what kind.

  15. We bought a professional sander at an auction. were sanding red oak hardwood, Was wondering if we could use the orbital sander around edges of room and staircases?

  16. What a load of crap. I did an 10×4 ft hall, 12 stairs and a walk in closet with a hand held orbital. yes it took some time but no need of renting a big sander. all the flooring still looks great 4 years later. don’t let this article intimidate you if you have a small job to do.

    1. i was talking about large stand up orbital sanders. you had a tiny floor and perhaps others floors aren’t in as good a condition as yours was. Your experience isn’t the same as everyone elses.

  17. I just recently moved into an older home that has some beat up wood floors. I have been thinking about sanding them down and refinish the wood. So, I liked that one of the first things you said is to not use an orbital sander. Using an actual floor sander does seem like it would make the process go a lot faster. Perhaps I should get a professional to sand my floors for me.

  18. I just finished laying oak flooring in a small office that’s 7.5′ x 11.5′ and an accompanying closet that’s 3.5′ x 5.5′. In such small areas, would an orbital floor sander be best?

    Thank you. Bob

    1. yeah might as well, just start with like a 40 (sounds aggressive but on a finishing sander (orital, buffer, planetary) you would be surprised how unaggressive 40g is!. You will need atleast a palm sander or something for round the edges

  19. Hi Ben
    Thank you for taking the time to post your youtube video’s and replying to questions. I am always amazed how rude people can be when they have a different experience or viewpoint.

    I am a cabinetmaker and used to working with wood and recently found how difficult it is to achieve a quality finish. I have a narrow hallway that I can only drum sand across the grain and I guess I will have to finish it with an edging sander and or a flat a sander to get a good finish. Any thoughts.

    Kind regards

    1. you have the right idea, maybe skip going across with the drum and just edge it then a finishing sander (large surface area, flat thing)

  20. The idea of using a handheld orbital sander to sand a floor is so laughable that I am a little confused by the persons who are dissing this post. I have talked with a few people who have recommended only using a orbital floor sander, and they genuinely do like the finish. I am guessing in those cases it is simply a preference thing. If you think of the waves and height differences between boards as “character” or a “rustic” look. Sure. Ok. Technically you can “finish” your floor. However, IF you (and I think mostly people do) actually want your floor to be completely smooth you should use a drum sander, an edger for the areas the drum cant reach, and then an orbital sander to take out all the scratch marks.

  21. Smart content

    An orbital sander can do the job if the wood surface is new, without any finish. Removing water based or oil based varnishes with an orbital sander is a nightmare!

    -tones of dust
    -slow progress
    -very hard work

    Floor sanding is a job that has to be done by experts. A good part of my business comes from repairs after the customer has messed up the job. Looks easy but is not easy at all.

    Using a belt sander is risky business if you don`t have experience. One wrong move and you will end up with a hole in your floor.

    1. again, thanks for a decent reply Alex. I have actually tested the whole in the floor theory. Turns out its very difficult to do. The deeper in it digs the larger the surface area of paper is touching the floor = less pressure, plus it begins to almost burnish meaning it just starts sliding in its trough. It takes skill to hold it there for that long lol.

  22. Hi. I have a 5″ random orbital sander. Can i use it to smoothen and refinish an old parquet floor that’s about only about 10-12sq.ft.?

  23. I broke all of the rules. And I’m doing so, wrote the only rules that actually matter when refinishing floors.
    Rule 1: define your desired outcome
    Rule 2: Determine how much time you have to complete your job.
    Rule 3: be honest about your level of knowledge in refinishing wood. If you have no experience…stop reading and call a professional OR practice on cheap old furniture for a few years
    Desired outcome: if you want a show piece, hire a professional. If you know how to refinish wood and have lots of experience…and you plan to use your floors the way I do (2cats, a dog, a chikd, and a husband who does not remove his shoes at the door)…give it a try. You can even use a Palm sander if you’d like…assuming you have LOTS of time.
    Time: refinishing your floors takes more than skill with wood. It takes lots of time. If you’re in a time crunch, rent the giant sander or hire someone. But if time is not an issue, it’ll take a long time, but go ahead and use your electric Palm sander. I successfully refinished the hardwood floors in my home with a Palm sander. It took a full 2 weeks. But the floors are beautiful and I don’t freak out when my pets romp across them.
    Do you know how to refinish wood in the first place? This is the most important question and it’s why I broke all of the rules and did my floors myself. I’ve been working with wood since I was 13…that’s nearly 40 years. What rules did I break? 1) used nothing but a Palm sander and hand sanding 2) removed pet stains with 10% hydrogen peroxide instead of replacing the boards…that careful process took a full month. 3) i stained the bleached spots to match the remainder of my floor boards. That took a week of experimentation, but it came out perfect. The most important part of the rules breaking is this: I like my floors, they’re far from perfect, and I saved $15,000.

  24. Am I to use the drum sander and edge sander with three levels of grit: 30-40 grit both diagonally and with the grain, 50-60 with the grain, then 80-100 with the grain, AND ALSO use a square orbital for more sanding? Or is the orbital an optional step to finish with a polishing pad?

    I tried 36 grit with the square orbital and WHOA what a job! I worked and worked and still have old stain and poly where the boards tip into each other a bit. It took a ton off, but its not done correctly. What a complete waste of time and energy. It might work well on newer floors, but not on my 1950s floor boards.

    I do admit I am afraid of the drum sander, especially going diagonally. I had never heard of doing it that way.

    1. The square buff (or shake and bake, as I have heard my US friends calling it) is only optional if you are looking for a quick fix and aren’t too concerned with quality. If you got the square buff from home depot, try one of their “multi head” sanders, they are also much flatter and smoother and won’t damage the floor, but they are more aggressive and may get what you want a lot faster

  25. Hi Ben,
    I had my floors sanded and finished by a professional this week. I am not happy with the colour of the finish. Would I be able to remove the new finish with a Random Orbital floor sander so I can put a new stain down?
    I have about 500 sq ft to do.

  26. Ben, you’ve been invaluable in the past. I was once the fool who tried renting equipment at Home Depot in the belief that their equipment would properly sand about 200+ sq. feet of a new oak floor I had installed, closet included.

    I would tell people if it’s not plugging in to a 220, don’t waste your time. By the time you rent and return (a hassle), buy their pads and the extras, chances pretty good you could practically use a professional. Their 110 orbital sanders don’t hardly scratch the surface.

    The problem I am having is finding anybody professional that wants to just sand the floor and let me do the finishing. I have not been in anyway pleased with the quality of finish some of these expensive “professional finishes” have completed, including adherence.

    The fact of the matter is, this rank amateur did it better…

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