This is 17 Important Tips on How to Sand Wood, the only guide you will ever need for the majority of your sanding as a beginner. Sanding wood is frustrating sometimes, but it does not have to be. Follow these tips and you will have a much more enjoyable time in the shop.
Sanding is a necessary task in most woodworking projects. Even with the best of care, wood tends to accumulate dings and scratches that need to be removed before finishing.
Most woodworkers in this situation reach for the sandpaper, and remove the scratches and marks. The problem with sanding is that it can take a long time, especially if you don’t follow the best practices.
Sanding, when done well, is actually a fairly quick activity, and will make your projects look better before finishing.
These tips on how to sand wood are designed to help you make the sanding process enjoyable, and get you better results. Incorporate some of these into the way you sand, and you will begin to really enjoy the process of sanding.
How Sandpaper Works
In order to sand well, you must first understand how sandpaper works. On the micro scale, sanding is really just a grinding process. If you were to scale it up to where the grit was easier to see, it would be just like rubbing a large piece of wood with a handful of rocks.
Scale it back down, and millions of tiny particles grind the wood surface together, removing fibers and dust in the process. Over time, the surface lowers from the removal of fibers, and this becomes the sanded surface.
This is a sharp contrast to an edged tool like a scraper or a hand plane. These tools remove wood by slicing it off the surface. A slice is a cutting action rather than a grinding action, and it works differently than sandpaper.
Whether you are using powered sanders, like a random orbit sander, or belt sander, or you are sanding by hand, it all works the same way.
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Evaluate the Surface First
Before any sanding can begin, you need to take a minute and evaluate the surface. This initial evaluation will help you decide where to start, and what needs to be done. The evaluation process is quick, and worth it every time.
First, pick up the piece and blow off any dust. Dust can cloud the look of small scratches and make then hard to see. Next, inspect the piece in a light, and identify the defects. These can be anything from large dents and tool marks, to really thin scratches.
Next, look at the defects and decide what grit to begin with. If the marks are deep, start with a more coarse grit. If the marks are fine, start with a finer grit. The best choice is to start with something as coarse as possible that will still make the wood look smoother.
If the surface looks like it has 80 grit scratches, then start with 100-120 grit paper. This is an improvement on the surface, but still coarse enough to power through the 80 grit scratches. If the surface is finer than that, again start a little finer on your paper, but still coarse enough to make the scratches go away fast.
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Know When to Change Grit
It’s important in the sanding process to know when to change paper. When you sand with a certain grit for a while, eventually the grit level does nothing for the wood anymore. No matter what you do, the same level of scratches remain.
At this point, you need to change grits. Once you remove the scratches and you get to the point where you are no longer improving the surface with the grit you are using, make switch to a finer grit.
Most of you will have a little difficulty with this in the beginning, but over time it will improve. Just pay attention to the surface and when you see that you are not making it any better, switch to a finer grit. This switch will allow you to continue the process and make the surface even smoother.
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Know When to Change Sandpaper
Another thing that you might not notice over time is that sandpaper wears out. Some types wear out faster than others, and some wear out really quickly. It goes back to the type of sandpaper that you buy, and generally cheaper papers wear out faster.
When you sand with worn out paper, you are wasting your time. A worn out piece of sandpaper does less than half of what a new piece does, sometimes far less. It can take several strokes to do the same as a new piece, and you are wasting energy.
Instead, once a piece of sandpaper loses it’s edge, look at the paper and see if you can help it. You might be able to wipe away the dust and expose fresh grit. You might also be able to fold it and use a fresher area of the paper.
When the paper is dead though, toss it. All the money you will save is going to be wasted as you spend needless time sanding and getting nowhere. Once the paper is done, so are you. Get another piece.
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Sand With the Grain in the End
Sanding with the grain is one of my favorite sanding myths. The idea that you need to always sand with the grain does not hold up when you look at how we sand. When you finally see it, you will be surprised that you missed it this entire time.
Palm sander power tools are the sander type that most woodworkers use, and even when you slide it along he grain, you are not going fast enough to overcome the thousands of small circles that the sanding pad is making.
You might think you are sanding with the grain, but you are really making circles. These circles go in every direction, and are definitely not all with the grain. However, there is a time when sanding with the grain is important.
On your final passes, by hand, sanding with the grain makes a difference. On the last few strokes, switch to a finer paper and sand with the grain. This will align the sanding scratches with the grain, and make them less visible.
Before that, sand in any way that makes you happy, and that moves the project towards the direction of completion. That can be across the grain, with it, in circles, or on an angle.
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Don’t Start Too Fine
One mistake that new woodworkers make sometimes is starting too fine with their sandpaper. This can cause problems down the road, because it is a psychological burden to sand something and see no progress. This is where a lot of sanding stops, and poor looking projects are released into the world.
If you have deep scratches, and you start with a fine grit, it is going to take a very long time to get rid of them. This is just the nature of how sandpaper works. Fine paper grinds the surface in a fine manner, coarse in a coarse manner.
When you start out too fine, you will notice that the progress really doesn’t move. In a case like that, see if changing to a more coarse grit makes a difference. If it does, continue with that paper until you cannot improve the surface anymore, and then switch next finest grit.
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Don’t Start Too Coarse
Another mistake is starting out too coarse. This one is easier to see than starting out too fine, and will not take nearly as long to figure out. When you start with too coarse of a sandpaper, you will see that you immediately make the surface look worse than before you started.
When this happens, switch to a finer paper, and start again. If you are still not improving the surface, go finer again. Repeat this until you start to see the piece look better, and then you can resume your normal process of going through progressively finer grits until you are done.
This is not as common of a mistake as starting out too fine, but it can happen. There is no reason to start out more coarse than you need to. Sanding is about improving the surface, so the grit needs to always be a little finer than the surface you are trying to correct.
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Practice With Grits to See What They Do
The best way to figure out what sanding grits look like on different woods is to try them out. Pick out a few different types of wood that you normally work with, and arrange a test board where you can try your different sandpaper grits.
Mark off areas on the boards where you will use the different papers. Label them, and then you can begin the process. Different woods will handle the grits differently, and you will see right away how the paper works.
This will also teach you how to evaluate a surface better. The reason for this is because you will know what the different grit level of scratches looks like. If you can tell that the scratches on your project look like they are about 80 grit, then you will know where to start in your sandpaper grits.
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Sanding Longer With the Same Grit is Useless
If you sand a surface with 220 grit sandpaper, and you see that the surface is not improving, sanding for any longer will not make it better. At some point, once the surface reaches 220 grit, it can’t be made any better with 220 grit paper.
You could sand the same surface for 12 hours using the 220 grit paper, and in the end it will still be 220 grit. When you sand, as soon as you notice that you are done, and you have the entire surface to the grit you are using, you can switch to the next finest paper.
This is one of the pits that you can fall into when you are sanding. As a beginner it can take you a little time to learn when to stop and switch. Until then, you may end up burning a little time sanding with the same grit too long. It’s ok, just pay attention and learn as you go through the process.
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Save on Sandpaper Buying Job Packs
Sandpaper is expensive, and the super cheap sandpaper is usually not very good. When you do a lot of sanding, you need a lot of paper, and if you don’t do something to help keep the cost down, you can end up spending a lot on sandpaper.
One of the best ways is to buy in bulk, and to buy online. There are larger packs of sandpaper available that have 20-25 sheets or more, and these are typically a good value. Make sure that the brand is one that you trust, and buy in bulk.
Sometimes the savings is more than half the price of buying the smaller packs. Sometimes, it can be five times or more. In the case of replacing those small 1/4 sheets for palm sanders, the markup is huge when you buy pre-cut pieces instead of folding and tearing your own full sheets into 1/4 sheets.
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Break All Corners Carefully
People love to touch woodworking projects. It’s human nature to touch things that look good, and when you make a great project, people will touch it. One thing that you can do with your sanding that will make the project feel good is break all the corners.
All the corners and edges of your project are sharp. It’s easy to slide a finger along the edge or the corner and get small cut, of feel a little discomfort. That’s not a good experience, and will make people think you didn’t make your project well.
Instead, use the sandpaper and run it perpendicular to the edges, with light pressure. Feel the difference you made, and then do it again if necessary. The corners and edges are really fine and delicate places on your project. It only takes a little sanding with light pressure to round them over.
You can also sand the corners with the paper in your hand to round them more. The more you sand, the more rounded the corners and edges will get. The final look is up to you, but as long as you at least remove the sharpness from the corners you are doing the right thing.
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End Grain Takes Longer to Sand
The end grain on a board is where all the fibers of the wood are arranged so the ends are pointing up. These faces of your board are harder to sand than others, and they resist being sanded more than others.
The good news is that they still sand, and they can still be made to look just as good. The only difference is that it will take longer to make it happen. With that in mind, be persistent, and keep on sanding. It will get better.
Be careful on the edges of the end grain part of the board though. Some boards are more flaky than others, and you can chip off fibers close to the edges if you sand too aggressively. A good idea is to round the endless slightly and then work on flattening the face.
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Look for Defects in a Glancing Light
Sanding scratches are tough to find sometimes. It’s a funny thing, but one day you will have looked over your piece really well for scratches, and then more will pop up. It can be a little frustrating, but you just need to keep on going.
A great way to help you find all the scratches on round one is to use a glancing light. This is a light that bounces off the surface and reveals scratches. Place a light on your bench, about the same height as your chest, pointed at you.
Next, hold the piece in between you and the light, so that the light is still a few feet away, but the light hits the surface from just a little bit above. This will create a glare on any flat surface, and when that happens you are doing it right.
In this glare, you can move around your piece and the light will reveal even the smallest of scratches. At this point, tape them with low tack tape, and keep rotating the piece until you have them all identified. After that, you can start taking them out one by one.
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Always Address Your Defects
This should seem obvious, but you should always address your defects. There are so many projects out there that could look so much better if the woodworker just took care of what they knew was wrong with the piece.
One of the worst things you can do is leave a piece looking bad for the rest of its life just because you don’t like sanding. It can be a pain in the butt to sand, but leaving behind defects is dooming your piece to a lifetime of mediocrity.
If you tape all of your defects, and work on them one at a time, that is the best way to ensure that you get them all. If you spread yourself out by trying to work them all at once, you will not make progress as fast, and it will feel like you are going nowhere.
Instead, knock out the defects one at a time, or a couple at a time of they are right next to each other. When you are done with those, your mind gets a signal that you are done, and you are moving forward. This is a powerful signal, and it makes you feel motivated to keep on going.
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A Little More Sanding Makes a Big Difference
If you can’t bring yourself to sand anymore, but you know you have a problem with the piece still, just stop. Stop what you are doing and go in the house to relax. Come back later, and start again, this time more refreshed and less tired.
In most cases, a little more sanding is all it takes. The difference between fully completed and 95% is typically only a little more time. If you are willing to invest that time and finish strong, you will have a much better looking project in the end.
When in doubt, relax, step away, and come back later. Most of the time, if you do this, you will end up doing that extra little bit of sanding you need. Remember, it’s only an hour or less in most cases, and when you compare that to the life of the project, it’s very small.
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It Will Work Just Have Patience
Sometimes, sanding can look like it’s not going anywhere. No matter how much you sand, no matter how long you work…the surface does not change. In reality, it actually does change, but it may not change as fast as you want.
In cases like this, have some patience. Relax, and keep on sanding. As long as you are using the right grit, and you are sanding effectively by using all the goodies from the previous tips, then you will eventually see progress.
It can take a while on some kinds of woods, but it will work. Have patience, and see the project through to the end. If you are thinking about quitting too soon, it’s time for a break. Just keep on going, and you will eventually see the end coming.
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Know When You are Done
This is a rarer problem among new woodworkers, because typically it’s more about quitting too soon than sticking around too long. However, sometimes you can fall into the trap of not knowing when you are done.
When this happens, you can end up sanding a piece too long, or for no reason. This is because you think you need to keep going, and in reality the surface is as good as it’s going to be. It’s also common when sanding before finishing.
In most cases, a finish is going to make the surface feel worse than 320 grit paper, sometimes 220, and other times 400. This means if you sand down to 2000 grit, and then apply a finish, the surface will actually get worse.
For the majority of projects where you are planning on applying a finish, sanding down to 220-400 grit is about where you should stop. Anything more than that, is going to be ruined by the application of the finish. Smoothing the finish fixes that problem, but that’s a story for another post.
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Your homework is to put some of these sanding tips to good use in your shop. If you are struggling with sanding, these are a huge help, and they can make you better. As you learn more about sanding, you will end up making better projects too.
Even if you just absorb the time saving tricks of switching out dead paper and not sanding longer than necessary with a single grit, you will speed up your process. Add to that having the patience to stop when you need to, and you will be a sanding super star.
In the beginning, sanding is going to be a pain. Just stick with it. You will improve as you go, and you will learn some tricks of your own. Over time, you will just know when to change grits, and how to remove every last defect.
17 Important Tips on How to Sand Wood Wrap-up
Of all the activities in woodworking, sanding tends to be the one that people like the least. There are a lot of good reasons for lot liking the process, but most of the time it’s because you are not doing it right.
A few little tricks are all it takes to have a much better sanding experience. One of the best is to throw away dead sandpaper and get new paper when it looses it’s bite. This simple change keeps you removing as much wood as possible, making the process go faster.
Finally, if you have made it this far, and you are still with me, please please take what you have read and apply it in the shop. Don’t read over three thousand words and take no action. Go out there and be a better sander than you are right now.
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