April 18, 2017 by Scott - Saws on Skates
A palm sander is one of those tools I bought thinking I would use all the time, but the fact is, I NEVER use it. It vibrates like a jack hammer, it’s difficult to change the sandpaper and it actually scratches the surface of the wood of my DIY furniture projects. What a dreadful little tool! Today I’m sharing why I NEVER use a palm sander, what I use instead to sand my DIY furniture and three of my favorite sanding tips.
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NEVER Use a Palm Sander
Recently I posted my Rookies Guide to Building DIY Furniture where I shared everything you need to know about building DIY furniture: common mistakes to avoid, must have tools, how to setup a workshop, proper DIY techniques, DIY terminology, finishing ideas, resources, what to do with the leftover scrap wood and more.
When I was putting the guide together I touched on the importance of properly sanding your DIY furniture. Sanding your project is the first and most critical step to creating a flawless finish. This reminded me how much I despise a palm sander. Today I’m sharing why I NEVER use my palm sander – it just sits at the back of the workshop cabinet gathering dust! I’ll also share what I use instead for sanding my DIY furniture.
1. The Jack Hammer Effect
A palm sander works like this: a plate is mounted to a motor that spins in one, circular direction. Wanna try an experiment? Hold your palm sander in mid-air and turn it on. The rotation of the sander motor makes the sander twist and it virtually becomes a mini helicopter in your hand. Imagine trying to steady this mini helicopter while attempting to sand your furniture project – NOT FUN!
Trying to keep the mini helicopter from spinning while trying to sand creates a jack hammer-like effect on your hand. The longer you sand, the more you tighten your grip. This wreaks havoc on the tendonitis in my wrist. Just a few extended sanding sessions with a palm sander leaves my hand feeling more like a numb, tingling baseball mitt instead of, well, a hand! A palm sander might be the reason I visit the acupuncturist and massage therapist regularly LOL
2. Sandpaper SNAFU
Palm sanders are sometimes referred to as 1/4 sheet palm sanders. They use sheets of sandpaper that have been cut into quarters. To cut my sandpaper I usually fold the sandpaper in one direction and then in other. The feel and sound of sandpaper against sandpaper makes me want to heave! That feeling and sound for me is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard for some people – GROSS!
Not only is it a pain in the palm sander to first have to cut the sandpaper before you use it, but getting it in the sander is a challenge. To attach the sandpaper to the sander, you have to slide a thick piece of sandpaper in between the base plate and a bar or “teeth” that hold the sandpaper in place. Trying to attach sandpaper to a palm sander is like threading a needle with a piece of sandpaper. Then when you finally get the sandpaper threading and begin to sand the paper will catch on the edge of your project and tear the sandpaper – ARRRGGGHHH!
3. Figure 8’s
I saved the best, or should I say the worst, for last. Earlier I mentioned how a palm sander works. The sandpaper is attached to a plate which is mounted to a motor that rotates in one direction. That single, circular rotation sands “figure 8’s” into the surface of your furniture project. And these figure 8’s are difficult to sand away. The tool that is supposed to be giving you a smooth finish is actually scratching figure 8’s into the surface of your project – WHHHYYYY?!!
What I Use Instead
So far we’ve learned a palm sander vibrates like a jack hammer, we have to cut the sandpaper ourselves, thread the sandpaper like a needle and after all of that the palm sander actually scratches the surface of our project. There has to be a better way and a better tool and better way to sand, right?
1. Random Orbit Sander
Yes, there is. Enter the random orbit sander. Instead of rotating in a singular, circular direction, a random orbit sander rotates in a random pattern. I know, I thought it was crazy too that a random orbit sander would rotate randomly! This random orbit pattern gives the sander less of a jack hammer feel. Sure, it still vibrates, but to me it doesn’t vibrate any where near a palm sander.
2. Sandpaper Shangri-La
Remember with a palm sander how we had to pull a piece of sandpaper out of the package, cut it into quarters and thread it into the palm sander like a needle? Well, not with a random orbit sander. Pull the precut round sandpaper out of the package and slap it on the sander. Yup, that’s it! The sandpaper attaches to the sander with “hook and loop” technology. No cutting and no threading. I LOVE IT!
3. Goodbye Figure 8’s
As I mentioned the random orbit sander rotates in random pattern instead of a repetitive circular pattern like a palm sander. That means figure 8’s are a thing of the past. The tool that is supposed to be giving you a smooth finish is ACTUALLY GIVING YOU A SMOOTH FINISH! I love it when a tool does what it’s supposed to do.
My Favorite Sanding Tips
I’ve mentioned a few of these tips in How to Sand Your DIY Project for a Flawless Finish, but I think they’re worth repeating. I use these tips for every furniture project I build, so they’re just too good not to mention again.
Avoid the Chase Game
We have all done this. We place our furniture project parts on our workbench, set the random orbit sander on the wood and start chasing the wood around our workbench. The motion of the sander causes the parts to move around the workbench. There has to be something that can keep the parts in place and there is.
When I sand the parts for my projects I do it on a non-slip router pad. The rubber grips to the parts and minimizes the “chase game” around the workbench. Sure, the parts still move a bit, but nothing like they do without the pad. For people like me who don’t like sanding, the non-slip router pad makes the task a little more tolerable. Plus the pad is a multitasker. You can use it with your router and sanding block too. If you’re serious about sanding, you need a non-slip router pad.
Light it Up
Have you ever sanded your furniture project and thought the surface looked perfectly smooth? But then applied some stain and polyurethane only to discover you missed sanding out some scratches – so frustrating! By the way, I’m not a fan of poly, here’s three reasons why I don’t use polyurethane.
So how do you avoid missing those scratches before you get to the finish stage? With a utility light or clamp light. I use both depending on the project. Set the light so it shoots across the surface of the wood. The light will highlight or “catch” any of the imperfections in the surface, so you can fix them before you paint or stain. If you’re not using a light when you’re sanding, you’re not seeing the whole picture.
Ditch the Sharp Edge
After you sand to perfection with your random orbit sander, the edges of your furniture project become “sharp”. When you see a store bought piece of furniture the edges are just ever so slightly eased or “knocked down”. This helps the piece to look finished and also helps the edges to resist denting and chipping. Raw edges make furniture piece look unfinished and are prone to denting and chipping.
Now your piece looks finished and you’ll reduce the chances of denting or chipping the edges. If you want a more rustic or “country” look continue sanding to give the edges a rounded look. Don’t skip this step. Easing the edges takes your furniture piece from looking amateur to looking professional.
Sand a Bevel
I saved my best tip for last! Sharp edges on the bottom of table legs, chair legs, etc. can get caught when sliding your furniture piece across the floor. When the leg gets caught the end grain has a nasty habit of chipping and tearing. You know the furniture piece you just stained a dark color? Well now the white pine is showing through, because the legs are are all chipped. Sanding a bevel on the ends of furniture legs helps to reduce chipping and tearing.
I know what you’re asking yourself, why would you buy a palm sander? I have no idea! OK, I have a few ideas… if you building rustic furniture or creating an aged, chippy paint finish and you’re not overly concerned about a smooth finish, then I guess a palm sander would be an adequate choice. I typically don’t build rustic furniture, so for me, I’m going with the random orbit sander. Because of the square shape a palm sander works for getting into corners. I rarely have inside corners on my DIY furniture, so again, I would opt for the random orbit sander.
What do you think about palm sanders? Do you use one? How do you think it works? If you don’t use a palm sander, what’s your go-to sander? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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