Planers and drum sanders work in pretty similar ways. Both involve feeding a piece of wood through the tool and when it comes out on the other end it’s a little thinner. Questions about just what is different between these two tools are understandable.
For years, a planer was a standard tool for every woodworker’s shop, with a drum sander a nice but pricey luxury. So, what’s the difference? The difference is no more complicated than the purpose of each tool’s hand tool cousin.
Hand planers, the kind that every old-fashioned woodworking shop had, is used to shave pieces off wood to get it to the desired thickness. You can adjust the blade to take off big chucks for coarse work and then shimmy it down to get more detailed. Accounting for all variables, they can remove .020″-.0625″ of wood per pass.
Electric planers operate very much the same way, but instead of a static-mounted blade that you push the length of your wood, they have a series of blades mounted to a drum that spins at speeds of up to 20,000 rpm to do the same thing.
You can technically achieve the same results with a drum sander, which requires that you wrap a length of sandpaper around a drum and close it off. At .008″-.015″, depending on the kind of wood and grit of the sandpaper, that’s a bit less than a planer. You can technically use this to get the right thickness of wood, but it will take quite a lot of time.
Because that means running the sander over the same piece of wood over and over and over, you also risk building up heat that will damage the tool, or even ruining sandpaper strips used on the drum. Those can be pretty pricey, so using a drum sander as a planer is not just a time-consuming process, it’s one that can damage that will hit you in the wallet.
What sanders are designed to do is the same thing that sanding by hand is intended to do, remove little imperfections and finish the wood ready for some other use. Working from coarse to fine, you can slowly but surely even out the wood and finish it up.
Just as you can technically use the drum sander to do the job of a planer, you can technically use a planer to do this job. In fact, until the price of drum sanders started to come down, a lot of DIYers did just this in their home workshop.
It’s not recommended because drum sanders are specifically designed to finish wood, while a planer is specifically designed to get the thickness right.
To get an idea of the comparative benefits of the two different kinds of tools, you have to go old school to before when everyone’s workshop was filled with power tools. Planers and sandpaper had what at the surface appears to be a similar job, which is to remove wood. The difference became apparent when you figured out how much wood. Planers remove in strips to adjust a piece of wood’s size, sanders dust it down to smooth it out and prep it for finishing. That translates quite nicely to the modern workshop, where planers are still used to adjust the size of wood, whereas a drum sander — a tool with sandpaper wound around a central drum — is used to sand out uneven spots and remove things that would make staining or painting a bigger nuisance.
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Hi there! My name is Adam and I write for HealthyHandyman. I have a great passion for writing about everything related to tools, home improvement, and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either fishing, playing the guitar, or spending quality time with my beloved wife. You'll also often find me in my workshop working on some new project!
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