Which Floor Sander is Best and How to Use a Floor Sander

Getting your old floor looking pristine can be a tough job. But with the right tools and equipment, it becomes much easier. One of the tools you are all but guaranteed to need, is the right type of floor sander.

This post will explain the different types of sanders to use and the different surfaces they can be used on.

We’ll also touch on the best methods to getting your floor looking pristine and ready for varnishing.

Before we start talking about machines, we want to share a real life case study.

My Floor Sanding Experience, the best and the worst!

After living in our home for over 12 months, we knew we needed to do something about our master bedroom. The walls were yellow, the carpet was old (orange) and the lamp shades were a different story.

It was Monday evening and we spontaneously decided to take the carpet up. That left us with some old dusty floor boards – but the worst thing was – family were due to arrive in just a couple of weeks so we needed to act fast.

We already decided (albeit through some tough negotiations) that we wanted floorboards and a rug, so we needed to sand down the floor. Here’s the steps we took.

  1. Search for the best price (quite time consuming but worth it)
  2. Decide on dates and order the sander from a local tool hire shop
  3. Pick the sander up on Saturday morning
  4. Get going on making our floor look pristine

Once we got the sander, that’s where things got interesting.

But the biggest mistake was…

I decided to let my partner have the face mask – because I’m a nice guy.

But after about 30 minutes of dust flying around without any dust suppression I had to run to the toilet.

Unfortunately, I learnt the hard way how important wearing a mask is.

But at least now you won’t make the same mistake!

So now that you know a couple of do’s and don’ts, here’s a few questions that will get you closer to having the most pristine floor you’ve ever had.

Let’s start by introducing the basics…

What is a floor sander?

The best way to describe a floor sander is to simply describe the process. It’s the process of removing the top layer on a piece of material. The only difference is that it allows you to do it on a large surface area – the floor.

Most often, that surface is a piece of wood, but that’s not to say it can’t be used on other materials such as metal.

The machine itself is quite heavy. This is to ensure that there is constant contact and enough friction created between the sandpaper and the surface. Essentially mimicking the ‘elbow grease’ you would need to put in if you were doing it by hand.

The belt that holds the sand paper also moves extremely fast. So, this speed along with the weight means you get maximum impact in the minimum time. So, you can have your wooden floor boards looking pristine in a really short space of time.

 

And if you’re wondering how long it will take to do your room with a floor sander, here’s an idea…

When we experimented with a room that was 3 x 4m (approximately 12 square meters) it took approximately 6 hours. We also used about 5 pieces of sand paper.

One thing that can prolong the time is how bowed each board is. That means if your floorboards dip in the middle (long ways) you may not get full impact and that can increase the time it takes for you to get the finish you want.

If you’re new to DIY or not sure what you need, it’s first important to understand the types of machines you can get that will help you do your job better.

So, here’s a look at the types of floor sanders.

 

Which floor sander is best and how to choose yours

  1. Standard Floor Sander

A standard floor sander, sometimes known as a Drum Floor Sander, uses a sleeve of sanding paper which slides onto a square drum. The paper slides along the floor as the drum spins but only a small portion of the paper and drum is in contact with the floor at any one time. This results in an aggressive action which quickly cuts through finish and wood.

How do I know this is what I need?

The Drum Floor Sander is a heavy duty item that’s great for any tough sanding job. It’s the best choice for uneven or damaged floorboards that you want to smooth or a heavy varnish finish you want to remove.

For a professional finish, it’s recommended to go over the boards again with an Orbital Sander, explained below.

  1. An orbital floor sander

An Orbital Sander uses a sanding pad which oscillates back and forth in an orbital motion to create a grinding action. The result is a finer sand which will give your floorboards an excellent, polished finish which will prepare them for a new layer of varnish.

A worry with this type of sander is that they can leave swirls on the boards afterwards. But many of them these days have the ability to smooth them out.

An orbital mechanism can help get into tight edges to some extent but to complete the job properly, you’ll also need an edging sander (see below).

Find out more about hiring an orbital floor sander here.

How do I know this is what I need?

If you’re looking for a super fine finish, then an orbital sander could be the best product for you. They are best used on smooth, undamaged floorboards or boards which have already been sanded by a standard sander.

  1. An edging sander

An edging sander is often known as ‘the finisher’. It’s a lot smaller and can be held in your hands.

Black and Decker invented an edging product and called it ‘the Mouse’, so that gives you an idea just how small some of them are. However, generally the ones available to higher are larger versions which need to be held with two hands.

How do I know this is what I need?

If you want a beautiful finish right up to the walls, it’s a good idea to use a finisher to help you achieve a more consistent look throughout. The smaller, handheld design gives you more control in those tough to reach spots.

How to use a floor sander

As you can see, there are many different types of sander available to hire and there will be slight differences between each model too. If you would like any information about your floor sander in particular, the hire shop you choose will be able to provide you with specific guidance.

Here I will outline how to use a standard floor sander and edging sander together to get a pristine finish.

The Drum Sander

The Drum Sander is the most common type available to hire. It is what you will use on the majority of the floor.

Before you start:

Identify whether or not your floorboards are dipped or bowed.

If they are, the sander will not be able to sand them evenly. To avoid this, it’s best to work diagonally across the floorboards.

If they aren’t, the sander will be able to treat the whole floor evenly, so you can work in the direction of the grain (parallel to the floorboards).

Never sand at a right angle to the grain as this will tear the wood fibres.

A step by step guide to using a Drum Floor Sander:

 

  1. Install a sleeve of sand paper of the sanding drum – the type of sandpaper you need will depend on the condition of your current floor and the result you want to achieve. When you hire your sander, it will come with a selection of sandpapers and the hire shop will be able to offer specific advice.
    • If you need a certain sandpaper or you want to ask which sandpapers the sander comes with, you can write it in the ‘Add Question’ section of the product page.
  2. Plug the machine into the wall
  3. Roll the machine to your starting position – make sure that the drum control lever is in the ‘up’ position so that the sanding drum is not in contact with the floor.
    • You should have identified your starting position when deciding the direction you want to sand in (see above)
  4. Lower the sanding drum down whilst simultaneously moving forward. This is called ‘feather cutting in’ and it will prevent a harsh line appearing.
  5. When the drum is fully engaged, release the control leaver and walk at a steady pace
  6. When you reach the end of the room, lift the drum slowly off the floor before coming to a stop. This is called ‘feather cutting out’ and will prevent stop marks which can occur after just a moment of sanding stationary.
  7. Use the feather cutting in technique as you set off walking backwards across the exact path you just sanded back to the starting point.
    • By walking backwards, you are keeping the number of turns to a minimum
  8. When you reach the starting point again, use the feather cutting out technique to bring the sander to a stop
  9. Reposition the sander approximately 4 inches over. The drum should overlap the first path by at least half a width.
  10. Once in your new position, use the feather cutting in technique to begin sanding again
  11. Repeat these steps as you work across the room
  12. For a more seamless finish, try and vary the stop and start points slightly

The Ending Sander

The standard floor sander cannot get right up to the edges or into the corners. To finish the job, you need an edging sander.

Although the two vary considerably in size, they will remove the same depth of wood when using the same sandpaper, so you shouldn’t be able to see a difference.

Like with the heavy duty machine, it’s important to keep a constant movement. The easiest way to do this is to sand 1 to 2 feet at a time, moving back and forth in a Z-pattern that follows the grain of the wood.

A Step by Step Guide to using an Edging Sander

  1. Install a sleeve of sandpaper the same grit as the one used for the drum sander
  2. Find your starting position – it is best to start where the drum sander left off and work outwards towards the wall. This will help you to blend the two sanding processes seamlessly together.
  3. Start the sander
  4. Keep moving as you lower the sanding drum onto the floor. This is the same feather cutting in technique as used with the larger machines.
  5. When the sander is engaged, keep the same steady pace and follow the Z-pattern back and forth along the grain of the wood
  6. Complete 1 – 2 feet of floor before slowly lifting the sander off as you carry on moving (this is called feather cutting out)
    • As with the larger machines, stop marks will be created if the machine is stationary at any point
  7. Stop the sander
  8. Move onto the next patch of floor and repeat
  9. Repeat these steps until the perimeter of the floor is sanded and evenly blended

 

Floor Sander FAQs

Can Floor Sanders be used on concrete?

Yes, they can be used on concrete.

Floor sanders work on concrete the same way they work on wood so a Heavy Duty Sander will be suitable for more uneven surfaces whilst Orbital Sanders will finely sand already smooth concrete.

It is important to clean concrete thoroughly beforehand as any particles or residue will interfere and may scratch the floor.

 

Can Floor Sanders be used on subfloor?

Yes, a Heavy Duty Sander can be used on subfloor. Because you don’t need to worry about scratches, you can use a coarse sand paper to get the job done quickly.

 

Can Floor Sanders be used on decking?

No, we do not advise they are used on decking.

Floor sanders are designed to be used on flat surfaces that you wish to be smooth. Decking boards are slightly curved which means that you would take off too much in some sections and not enough in others.

The way to sand decking is by hand with a belt sander, a palm sander and a sanding sponge.

 

Can floor sanders be used to remove paint?

If the wood is thick, the Heavy Duty Sander can be used to remove the paint and the very top layer of wood.

This method will generate a lot of dust, so another option is to chemically strip the wood and sand it afterwards.

 

Can floor sanders be used to remove glue and adhesive?

Yes, they can be used to remove glue and adhesive. Try scraping some of the glue off first before using a Heavy Duty Sander to remove the remaining glue and the very top layer of wood.

For a professional finish, sand the wood again using an Orbital Sander.

 

Can floor sanders be used to remove thinset?

Yes, they can be used to remove thinset in the same way they can remove glue. A Heavy Duty Floor Sander will remove the thinset and the very top layer of the wood or concrete beneath.

If you’re trying to remove thinset from a concrete subfloor, a Heavy Duty Sander with a coarse sandpaper will do the job quickly.

If you’re trying to remove thinset from a plywood subfloor, the wood will be more delicate than concrete. Try using a less coarse sandpaper and testing it on a small area first.

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