October 4, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Between Sanders and Polishers

Surface finish can affect wear and fatigue resistance, aid lubrication, improve or reduce friction, and resist corrosion. It must work well for your application. Make sure your materials are repeatable, consistent and high quality. Surface finishes affect the performance and durability of your products. We have put together this article to help you use grinders and polishers for surface polishing.

Coming Up On This Page

Differentiating Sanders and Polishers

A. Exploring Their Functions

Sanders: Stripping and Smoothing Surfaces

Sanding involves removing old finishes, smoothing surfaces, and preparing them for refinishing. Preparing a surface for finishing is part of the sanding process. It is also for smoothing the edges of planks and removing excess material from a surface.

Polishers: Enhancing Shine and Gloss

Polishers create a smooth and shiny surface by rubbing it or applying a chemical treatment, leaving a clean surface. It focuses on creating a high-gloss finish by removing imperfections and achieving a smooth surface.

B. Types of Sanders and Polishers

Orbital Sanders vs. Rotary Sanders

Both sanders work on surfaces, but the rotary sander is on top for larger surfaces. That is how the orbital sander has been replaced in most workshops.

Dual Action Polishers vs. Rotary Polishers

A rotary polisher uses a spinning motion for heat and friction, which helps to remove scratches and blemishes from the surface. It is an aggressive tool often preferred by professional detailers as it completes the job more quickly. On the other hand, Dual-action polishers are smaller, lighter, and easier to manoeuvre. Instead, the head oscillates back and forth rather than rotating, mimicking the motion of hand polishing at a much faster rate.

When to Use a Sander

Opt for a sander when your project involves material removal, surface preparation, or smoothing rather than surface enhancement or finishing. Here are specific scenarios where a sander is the better choice:

  1. Surface Preparation: When priming surfaces for painting, staining, or varnishing, a sander efficiently removes old finishes, rough spots, and imperfections, creating a smooth base for the final coat.
  2. Woodworking: Sanding is essential to shape and refine wooden surfaces, whether for furniture, cabinetry, or trim, achieving a polished texture.
  3. Paint Removal: For stripping old paint or varnish from surfaces like furniture, doors, or walls, a sander swiftly removes layers, facilitating a fresh start.
  4. Metal Deburring and Smoothing: In metalworking, sanders effectively deburr and smooth rough metal edges, welds, or surfaces, ensuring safety and functionality.
  5. Imperfection Correction: Sanding is adept at rectifying dents, scratches, or unevenness on materials like wood, metal, and plastic.
  6. Floor Refinishing: Reviving wooden floors involves using a sander to eliminate old finishes and imperfections before applying a fresh coat.
  7. Drywall Finishing: Achieving a seamless, even finish on drywall entails sanding to level seams, joints, and blemishes.
  8. Renovation Projects: In renovations, sanders revitalize surfaces, from walls to furniture, breathing new life into them.
  9. Restoration of Vintage Items: Sanders are indispensable for restoring vintage or antique pieces, removing years of wear and restoring their original allure.
  10. Material Evenness: For projects necessitating uniform material thickness or leveling irregular surfaces, sanders are the tool of choice.

Sanders, with their higher RPM and abrasive capabilities, excel at efficient material removal, surface smoothing, and preparation for subsequent treatments or finishes. Choosing the appropriate tool for your specific task ensures effective and efficient results.

A. Projects Requiring Sanding

Woodworking and Furniture Refinishing

Sanding creates an even surface and enhances your wood. Be patient since it can take time to complete. Sanding removes small amounts of material from the surface of wood with an abrasive.

Removing Paint and Varnish from Surfaces

Sanding is a natural and chemical-free way to remove varnish. You can start with 150-grit sandpaper, sand the entire surface, then move on to 220-grit sandpaper and repeat.

B. Types of Sanding Techniques

Rough Sanding for Material Removal

Sandpaper grit numbers from 36 to 100 remove material and work well with power sanders. 40 to 80 grit is for heavy or rough sanding. It helps remove scratches or imperfections. Take your time when using low-grit sandpaper because it may show scratches or swirls in the wood.

Fine Sanding for Surface Preparation

For fine sanding, start sanding with medium-grade paper. Sand the surface again with fine-grit sandpaper for an even, smoother finish. Clean the surface with a tack cloth or a cloth dampened with mineral spirits to pick up all the sanding dust. For efficiency, a vacuum is ideal. 


When to Use a Polisher

Consider using a polisher over a sander for surface enhancement and finishing projects rather than material removal or preparation. Here are specific situations where a polisher is suitable:

  • Paint Finishing: Achieve a high-gloss, swirl-free finish on vehicles or painted surfaces by using a polisher to buff out imperfections.
  • Surface Polishing: Restore and maintain the shine of materials like granite countertops, marble, or hardwood floors.
  • Jewelry and Metalwork: Attain a mirror-like finish on metals, gemstones, and precious metals in jewelry and metalwork.
  • Wood Furniture: Bring out the natural beauty of wood furniture or achieve a polished, glossy look on wooden surfaces using a polisher with the right pad and compound.
  • Auto Detailing: Restore and maintain a vehicle’s paintwork, removing minor swirl marks, scratches, and oxidation.
  • Countertop Restoration: Restore stone countertops like granite or marble by eliminating scratches and restoring their original shine.
  • Floor Maintenance: In commercial settings, polishers can maintain polished concrete or terrazzo floors, removing scuffs, stains, and blemishes.
  • General Surface Enhancement: Enhance the appearance of any surface, eliminate fine imperfections, and achieve a polished, smooth finish.

In these situations, a polisher’s slower rotational speed and appropriate pads and compounds ensure precise control and surface enhancement without risking damage or material removal. Choose the right tool for your specific task to achieve efficient and effective results.

A. Achieving a High-Gloss Finish

Car Detailing and Paint Correction

Start by cleaning the spot you want to work on and remove all contaminants on the surface of the affected area before the paint correction begins. Analyse the scratched surface, level and polish the surface. Recoat the car.

Marble and Stone Polishing

Marble polishing combines the use of chemical products and abrasive equipment. Clean marble surfaces using the stone cleaner and wipe them down with a soft cloth. Sponge the marble surface with water and drops of mild dishwashing liquid, then rinse the sponge and surface. Polish the marble counter and scrub the area in circular motions to buff it.

B. Different Polishing Pads and Compounds

Foam Pads for Light Polishing

Foam pads come in different degrees of aggressiveness, including 3M’s white foam pads for compounding, black pads for polishing, and light blue pads for ultra-fine polishing or applying wax.

Wool Pads for Heavy Compounding

Wool pads deliver an aggressive cut for a smooth finish. They are used for compounding on paints, clears, and composite surfaces. Double-sided screw-on pads feature untwisted wool yarn on a stiff central hub for a full cut and broader surface contact.

Features and Specifications

A. Sanders: Key Features

Variable Speed Control

Speed variance makes your sander remove material quickly. However, it will not be so aggressive that it chews through thin coats. Variable-speed control helps you choose the tool with the widest range of speeds.

Dust Collection Systems

Since sanders generate large dust clouds, you need an effective dust collection system. Keep your workspace clean with a dust collection system for sanders. This system should include a hose and cloth bag for easy cleanup.

A correct dust extraction system allows you to use it for multiple applications. Use the correct sander, the correct sanding pad, and the correct abrasive. 

B. Polishers: Key Features

Speed Adjustments for Precision

Work at a slow speed and increase, gradually when polishing. Try to work between 1000-1200 RPM, without exceeding 1800 RPM. Keep the polisher moving at all times so you do not burn the paint. Avoid corners and the edges of panels where the paint is thinner.

Ergonomic Handles for Comfort

Ergonomic design helps you with superior counterbalance. With comfortable handles, you can use the polishing machine more conveniently.

Pros and Cons of Sanders

A. Advantages of Sanders

Efficient Material Removal

Different sanders are for heavy material removal, as they sand down rough surfaces or remove old paint or varnish.

Versatility Across Surfaces

Sanders are versatile and can sand and smooth items due to their unique shape. As the disc spins in a circle, the pad moves in an oval loop, resulting in a swirl-free finish.

B. Limitations of Sanders

Risk of Over-removal

Sanders can be tricky as they can remove more than planned. That is why you need to work with speed variance to control material removal.

Potential Surface Scratches

Sanding can cause swirls, cut-throughs, uneven sanding, excess heat, and loading. Too much pressure makes the sander do more work to perform its rotations. There will be more work for the motor and more friction on the surface of the workpiece.

Pros and Cons of Polishers

A. Advantages of Polishers

Superior Surface Shine

Polishers give a smooth surface finish by removing polished convexities. The materials used in polishing include sandpaper, flat wheels, and abrasive sticks. They produce improved surface finish, reduced product adhesion, better surface cleanability, and higher aesthetic appeal.

Effective Swirl and Scratch Removal

Polishers are for removing deep scratches, heavy swirl marks, oxidation, water spots, and heavy stains. Apply it to any paint finish using your hands, a polisher, or a buffer.

B. Limitations of Polishers

Learning Curve for Beginners

Polishing requires a high level of skill and experience for better results. If not careful, polishing can cause swirl marks and holograms in the paint, affecting the overall appearance.

Potential for Heat Generation

High speed of polishing leads to heat generation. Heat helps remove lines and get you started on your polishing process but too much heat makes the polish dry too quickly.

Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

A. Evaluating Project Requirements

Identifying Surface Type and Condition

Match the surface type and condition with your sander or polisher. The rougher the surface condition, the more grinding you apply with a coarser abrasive. However, start reducing grit size in passes. 

Desired Final Finish and Shine

When choosing the right tool, consider the type of finish you wish for. Your finishing tool determines the finish. 

B. Assessing User Skill Level

Beginners vs. Experienced Users

As a beginner, you may opt for an entry-level polisher, and many entry-level polishers are both effective and affordable. However, they are for beginners who are learning to use a machine. The motor will stall if you accidentally push down this polishing machine too hard.

Availability of Training Resources

Resource availability includes information about what resources you can use on your project. What matters now is the availability. 

Safety Precautions and Usage Tips

A. General Safety Measures

Eye and Respiratory Protection

To protect your eyes from dust while sanding, wear goggles. The goggles should be vented to prevent fogging. Dust masks also prevent you from breathing in any dust particles. Consider a good quality mask. 

Proper Ventilation in Workspaces

Open windows and doors, for proper ventilation during the sanding and polishing process. Since sanding produces dust, ventilation gets rid of it. 

B. Tips for Effective Tool Usage

Applying Even Pressure During Sanding

Hold the sander with both hands and apply even pressure, moving it back and forth. Avoid pressing down too hard or tilting the sander, to avoid uneven surfaces or gouges in the wood. Keep the sander moving at all times while in contact with the floor so you will not over-sand in one spot.

Overlapping Passes for Polishing Uniformity

This is utilized while applying a polish where each pass overlaps the previous pass by 50% for thorough application. Aim the spray gun so that the tip points at the edge of the previous spray pass.

Maintenance and Care

A. Cleaning and Storage

Removing Dust and Debris

Take an air hose or a can of compressed air to the more intricate parts of the tool for effective results. Use this method to clean between the belt and the wheels, the drum, the fan, the motor, and any other areas where dust may collect.

Storing Tools in a Dry Environment

Inspect the sander screws for looseness and tighten them immediately so the machine does not damage easily. Keep your tools in a dry, clean place.

B. Regular Maintenance Tasks

Lubricating Moving Parts

Make sure to oil your hand sanders daily since that keeps the housing and bearings lubricated and moving freely. This practice will keep your sander lubricated and prevent it from locking up.

Inspecting Cords and Cables

Inspecting cords before and after use helps prevent damage and maximize the lifetime of your equipment. Inspect cords for defects, and check the power cord for cracking and fraying.

Case Studies: Real-Life Applications

A. Case 1: Refinishing Wooden Furniture

Sanding Steps for Surface Preparation

  1. Start sanding with medium-grade paper, along the wood grain, in long strokes. 
  2. Sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper for an even, smoother finish.
  3. Clean the surface with a tack cloth or a cloth dampened with mineral spirits to remove all the sanding dust. 

Polishing Techniques for a Gleaming Finish

  • Keep both the scratched surface and your sandpaper wet during the process. 
  • Use a sanding block to keep the pressure even. 
  • Start with light pressure and move with the grain until you see your reflection on the surface. 
  • Finish by polishing with stainless steel polish or olive oil.

B. Case 2: Automotive Paint Restoration

Paint Correction with Polisher and Compounds

Polishing and paint correction means removing paint. Polishing works by abrasion. You can choose different strengths of abrasion, which leads to different results.

Achieving a Showroom-Quality Shine

Set a clean foundation by giving your car a thorough wash. Pay attention to the details, and bring on the polish and wax for protection and shine.

Comparing Cost and Investment

A. Price Range of Sanders

Entry-level Sanders for DIY Enthusiasts

Belt Sanders for beginners range from 69 to 189. They come at different prices depending on their activities.

Professional-Grade Sanders for Experts

Professional-grade models include sanders from Makita, DeWalt, Bosch, and Metabo-HPT. They vibrate less and are more durable. They range from 3 300.

B. Investment in Polishers

Affordable Polishers for Home Use

  • Meguiar’s MT320OUK Dual Action Polisher
  • Rupes LHR21ES Deluxe Bigfoot Polisher
  • VonHaus Dual Action Polisher 
  • Katsu 850W Dual Action Polisher

High-End Polishers for Auto Detailing Businesses

  • DeWalt Buffer/Polisher Model #DWP849X
  • Black & Decker WP900
  • Milwaukee 2738-20 M18
  • Astro 3055 3-Inch Mini Air Polishing Kit
  • Chemical Guys BUF_503X TORQX Random Polisher Kit
  • WEN 948 10 Amp Variable Speed Polisher

Making the Right Choice

Sanding and polishing tools are optimized for distinct tasks based on their rotational speed. Sanders excel at material removal with their high RPM, ideal for tasks like wood smoothing, paint removal, and surface preparation. In contrast, polishers operate at lower RPM, delivering glossy, swirl-free finishes.

To achieve optimal results, match your tool with the task at hand. Using a polisher for sanding can be inefficient due to its slower RPM, potentially causing damage or paint burning. Thus, always select the right tool based on your project’s specific needs to ensure efficiency and quality.


What’s the Main Difference Between a Sander and a Polisher?

The main difference between a sander and a polisher is their rotational speed:

Rotational Speed:

  • Sander: Operates at high speeds, necessary for efficient material removal, such as sanding wood, smoothing surfaces, or stripping paint. Higher speeds enable rapid surface leveling.
  • Polisher: Rotates at significantly slower speeds than sanders. Slower rotation is essential for achieving a smooth, damage-free finish when polishing compounds or waxes.

Practical Implications:

  • Material Removal vs. Surface Enhancement: Sanders excel at material removal, ideal for surface preparation and woodworking. High speeds efficiently smooth or level surfaces.
  • Surface Finishing: Polishers enhance surfaces, producing glossy, swirl-free finishes on materials like car paint, granite, or hardwood floors. Slower rotation and specialized pads are key.
  • Risk of Damage: with their high-speed rotation, Sanders carry a greater risk of surface damage if mishandled. Polishers, due to their slower speed, are safer for delicate surfaces.
  • Versatility: Some tools, like random orbit sanders, offer versatility, allowing users to switch between sanding and polishing modes. Nonetheless, the fundamental difference in rotational speed remains crucial for selecting the right mode for specific tasks.

Can I Use a Polisher as a Sander and Vice Versa?

Using a Polisher as a Sander and Vice Versa:

Polishers and sanders have distinct purposes in surface finishing. Polishers apply polishing compounds for a smooth finish, while sanders remove material through abrasion.

Using a Polisher as a Sander:

  • While possible by attaching sanding pads, it may be less effective than using a dedicated sander due to speed and motion differences.
  • Suitable for light sanding or finishing but not for heavy-duty tasks.
  • Risk of surface damage or swirl marks, especially for inexperienced users.

Using a Sander as a Polisher:

  • Like random orbit sanders, Sanders can handle light polishing with foam or microfiber pads and the right compound.
  • Sanders lack specialized features found in polishers for achieving the best finish.
  • Caution required to prevent overheating or excessive material removal when using a sander for polishing.

How Do I Prevent Swirl Marks While Polishing?

Preventing Swirl Marks While Polishing:

  1. Choose the Right Pad: Select the appropriate pad for your specific polishing needs.
  2. Inspect Your Pad: Check the pad for contaminants or debris. Clean or replace it if necessary.
  3. Adjust Pressure: Apply even, moderate pressure during polishing. Avoid excessive force.
  4. Use the Right Speed: Set the polishing machine to an appropriate speed, starting with lower settings if necessary.
  5. Keep the Surface Clean: Ensure the surface is free from dust or debris before polishing.
  6. Work in Sections: Divide the surface into manageable sections and polish one at a time.
  7. Use Quality Polishing Compounds: Invest in high-quality compounds suitable for your task.
  8. Follow a Cross-Hatch Pattern: Use a cross-hatch pattern for even polishing.
  9. Regularly Clean the Pad: Clean or replace the pad as needed during polishing.
  10. Practice and Patience: Master the technique with practice and avoid rushing.

Following these tips and using the right equipment can reduce swirl marks while polishing, leaving surfaces smooth and blemish-free.

Are Safety Precautions Different for Sanders and Polishers?

Safety Precautions for Sanders:

  • Eye Protection: Wear safety glasses or goggles to shield your eyes from flying debris.
  • Respiratory Protection: Use a dust mask or respirator when sanding may produce harmful dust.
  • Hearing Protection: Employ earmuffs or earplugs to guard against loud noise.
  • Clothing and Hair: Secure loose clothing, jewelry, and long hair.
  • Workspace Ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation to disperse sanding dust and fumes.
  • Read the Manual: Follow the manufacturer’s safety guidelines in the user manual.

Safety Precautions for Polishers:

  • Eye Protection: Protect your eyes from debris when using polishers.
  • Respiratory Protection: Use respiratory protection if needed due to dust or fumes from polishing compounds.
  • Hearing Protection: Use hearing protection in high-noise situations.
  • Clothing and Hair: Secure loose clothing, jewelry, and hair using polishers.
  • Workspace Ventilation: Maintain adequate ventilation to disperse fumes or dust.
  • Read the Manual: Adhere to the manufacturer’s safety instructions in the user manual for your specific polisher.
David D. Hughes

Leave a Reply