Woodworking for Beginners Part 35

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This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.

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Sanding With The Grain

how-to-become-a-woodworker-for-beginners-full-book-35Sanding with the grain is something that just about every woodworker will hear, and it is a good practice, but not all the time. In fact, there are instances where sanding perpendicular to the grain, or at a 45 degree angle to the grain is actually better.

There are also little machines that defy this rule by spinning and orbiting, which is not in the direction of the grain at all.

Sanding with the grain is important when it counts, and that’s not until the end of the process. The only reason that you sand with the grain in the end is to line up your sanding scratches, because there are still scratches on the surface even if you can’t see them with your eye.

When you sand with the grain, you line up the scratches parallel to the grain lines, making them far less visible. If you were to use the same grit and go perpendicular to the grain lines, you would see the scratches very easily. However, going with the grain makes them disappear.

There are some instances where sanding perpendicular or at an angle is more beneficial, and this is mainly for material removal. If you are trying to level a surface, sanding at an angle can help power through material much more rapidly.

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It also helps even out the surface better because you are exposing your pad to a larger area and only hitting the high spots. Once you have the surface level, you can switch back to sanding with the grain to hide the scratches left by the leveling process.

This method of sanding is very helpful when you are using a powered belt sander that you control by hand.

When you have to level out a larger surface like an old bench, using the sander at a 45 degree angle to the direction of the boards and grain helps find the higher spots and level the surface better. It also helps reduce the chance of creating ruts and valleys from the sander sinking into the surface.

Finally, orbital sanders defy this commonly held rule of sanding that you always need to sand with the grain in order to be doing it right. Orbital sanders, power sanders, and disc sanders all do something resembling circles, which is definitely not following the grain.

Even when you move the tool along the surface following the grain, you are not going nearly fast enough to overcome the machine making thousands of tiny swirls for every foot of movement that you do with the machine.

In cases where you are using a power sander to remove the bulk of the material, or do the majority of the sanding process, you need to do one last thing before you can call the surface complete.

Right at the end, using the last piece of sandpaper from the sanding pad, sand with the grain to line up the scratches and remove any swirl marks. These are much easier to see when you apply a finish, and even if you can’t see them, it’s still a good idea to do this final hand sanding step.

Sanding with the grain is a good practice, but you only need to do it when needed. Unless it’s a special circumstance, you really only need it at the very end.

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Use Clean Sandpaper

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Something that slows down sanding progress very quickly is using dirty or spent sandpaper. When you sand, the tiny particles fall off the paper, and other become clogged with debris.

You need to watch your paper, because once it loses it’s edge, it will take a lot longer to cut through the same amount of material.

If you know how to buy your sandpaper, which is covered a little later, you will be able to afford tossing wasted sheets a little earlier than the people who pay full price. Not only are these not effective, they are adding loads of time to your sanding process. This is where you can become frustrated, and abandon the task before you get the results that you are looking for.

As soon as a piece of sandpaper loses it’s effectiveness, throw it away and start again with a fresh piece. You can sand for hours and hours with a wasted sheet of coarse sandpaper and it will not seem like you are making even a dent in the surface.

That’s because with a dead sheet of sandpaper, you are not making a dent at all. The buzz of the sander is just background noise, and you are not making any progress.

Changing papers is also a good idea when the paper gums up. This looks like little, or sometimes big blobs that are flat and stuck to the paper. These are not helping you remove material anymore, and the paper should be changed once these appear on enough of the surface.

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If you are sanding by hand, you can extend the life of the sandpaper that you have by cutting off the sections that are still in good shape.

Another thing you can do is rotate the paper so that a fresh section of grit is exposed, and you can use that area until the whole paper is spent. Then, you can change it for a fresh sheet and continue the process.

For power sanders, the whole sheet will typically die about the same time, simply because the entire sheet is pressed against the wood surface while in use.

Once this happens, change the sheet, and you will typically not be able to get any small sections that you can cut out and save for a smaller project.

Another thing that you can do to extend the life of your sandpaper between changes is to clean it with a special rubber block made for the purpose. There are a number of sandpaper cleaning bars that you can buy, and they help remove the residue.

These cleaning bars are really meant for belt/disc sanding machine that have cloth backed belts, but they do work on sandpaper too. Working with a clean piece of paper is much better than working with a clogged sheet, and the bar can help your paper last longer.

Either way you go, make sure that you are getting the most from your sanding process by changing your paper often, using clean paper, and not wasting time or energy sanding with spent paper.

All of these things speed up the sanding process, and help you keep going until every last scratch has been removed.

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Use a Sanding Block

Of all the sanding advice that can be given to you, using a sanding block is right up there at the top. A sanding block is a small piece of rubber, or cork faced wood that you use as a backer for your sandpaper.

They range in size from half a sheet to an eighth sheet, and you can even find them smaller than that. The sanding block helps you while you sand, and it is far more than just a firm surface.

A sanding block helps you level the surface of your project by finding the high spots for you. When you sand by hand, your fingers and the paper conform to the curves and high/low spots on the surface.

While this is good in some cases, like when following curves, it’s not good on a surface that you want to make flat.

The face of the sanding block is flat, and the sandpaper that is wrapped around it becomes flat too. When you slide this along the surface, the rigid block does not make contact with the low points.

Due to this, the sanding block only removes material from the high areas, reducing them to the same level as everything else.

Sanding like this takes a lot of the guess work out of making a very flat surface. The block knows what to do, and as long as you use the right technique, you can ensure a nice flat surface.

The way to use the sanding block is to wrap the paper around the surface that you will rub against the piece, and then lay the block flat. You want to make sure that the flat section of the block is making full contact with the area to be sanded.

Hold the block so that you can keep the sandpaper from sliding out. Most woodworkers just grip the block by the ends, holding the paper in the process, which keeps everything in place.

With the block held against the surface, begin sliding the block back and forth. Work to ensure that the block does not tip up, and remains flat the entire time. If you tip the block as you sand, you will create little divots and depressions that make the surface uneven.

The whole point of the process is to remove things like this, not add them.

Work in sections, sanding each area and then blending them together. You might struggle a little in the beginning to get the hang of using the block, but over time you will end up loving it. The block takes all of the guess work out of the process, and helps you level the surface.

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If you are working with curved areas, or oddly shaped areas, you can always make your own custom sanding block to help. For example, using larger dowels, you can wrap them with thin cork and make cylinder shaped sanding blocks.

These are great for curves, and can even get into smaller areas to sand them.

The sanding process with a block is far easier, because the block helps you target the areas that need the most help, and ignores the areas that do not. Start with a store bought block if you like, and get a size based on how big of a project you are making. For most projects, a 1/8 sheet block is a good place to start.

Don’t Stand On Your Sander

A huge mistake that many woodworkers do, and I am guilty of from time to time as well, is to apply a ton of force to the power sander or while hand sanding.

If you are using an orbital sander, use some pressure from your hand and arm, but you should not feel fatigued by holding it against the surface. This is for a few reasons, and they will all make the sanding process easier for you.

First, the machine already has some weight, and you need to allow the pad to orbit or spin as the manufacturer of the tool intended. Overly pressing on a power sander can slow down the pad or belt speeds, and actually cause less wood removal to happen.

This is of course the opposite of what you are going for, and reducing the pressure on the tool will actually be more productive.

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Another reason not to hold down your sander with too much force is that the sandpaper can leave really deep marks if you press too hard. The whole point of a fast moving pad is to cut the surface evenly and almost sand out its own marks in the process.

By reducing pressure, you can actually see the surface improve, and less deep scratches are formed.

As you sand, use some arm and hand pressure to keep the sander flat to the surface. Anything more than that is going to reduce the effectiveness of the sander, and cause problems that have to be addressed before you can move on to the next step.

Clamp Your Project When Sanding

Especially when sanding a large piece, clamp the wood to a bench or table when sanding. Not only does this free up both hands, it also reduces wood movement and wasted sanding energy.

When sanding by hand, you want to have as close to one hundred percent of your efforts transfer to the piece of wood. The more you stabilize the board you are working with, the less energy is lost in the transfer.

For example, if you were to sand by hand and the board were to move several inches in each direction, you would be losing nearly all of that effort as movement. With sanding, you need friction and abrasion, not movement.

Clamping the board or the project to the bench allows you to stop the movement, and more of your sanding effort is transferred to the surface.

Since you can now use both hands, you also have more control. You can sand with either hand, both hands, or use the other hand to help you keep the area clear of dust.

Depending on your project, you might need a few different ways of holding down the work, but anything you can do to stabilize the piece is a good move. Lots of woodworkers skip this process and hand hold everything as they sand.

Not only do you lose an arm with this method, but you also give up a lot of your effort. As the piece moves around, the sanding action that makes it to the surface is reduced as some is lost to movement.

Make an effort to clamp the piece down as much as you can. If you are completely new to this method, give it a try. You will be surprised at how much effort you have been giving up from holding the piece by hand.

You can even look into a new vise or two if your projects are usually around the same size and shape. This will make it very easy to take the extra few seconds to clamp the piece.

A Sneaky Sandpaper Deal

The sanding sheets that are sold near the sanders are typically over priced. If you have not bought a palm sander yet, you have a huge opportunity to save some money over time by picking the right unit.

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Sanders that take a 1/4 sheet of paper give you the option of finding those 1/4 sheets yourself rather than buying them pre-cut. This is a huge win for several reasons.

For the manufacturer of the palm sander, especially the really high end sanders, selling you special paper that is cut to a certain size is a recurring revenue generator that keeps you paying them for the privilege of using their sander.

The same goes for sanders that require sticky discs, or any other type of special paper.

While some of these sanders are really nice to use, and you can feel free to use them if the recurring expense is not an issue for you, there is an opportunity to save some money over time by picking out a different unit.

Since you will most likely have your sander for a decade or more, those dollars will add up over time, and make for a lifetime savings that is far more than the price of the tool.

When you are searching for your sander, look for a unit that takes a 1/4 sheet. It also needs to be secured to the pad by mechanical means, which are connected to the sander itself. Skip anything that requires adhesive backed paper, or hook and loop paper.

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Sanders like this are still available, and they allow you to use any piece of sandpaper that you have. This means you no longer have to buy any special paper to get the job done.

Now that you have a sander that is compatible with this method, you can actually learn the sneaky trick that I promised from the beginning. Since sanding sheets for palm sanders are so expensive, instead look at the larger packs of sandpaper that are sold in full sheets.

These large sheets can be trimmed down with an old scissors, or folded and torn to any size you like.

To save even more, pick up one of the larger packs of sandpaper labeled as a bulk pack or job pack. You save even more by getting the paper in bulk, and it never goes bad so you don’t have to worry if it takes a long time to go through it all.

When you need a 1/4 sheet for your sander, simply fold the sheet in half both ways, and tear apart your sheets. Then, use the small clamps on the sander to stick it to the pad. Buying sheets and tearing them apart can save you a lot of money, and you will get far more paper for your dollar.

Remove the Dust as You Sand

As you sand, there will be a buildup of sanding dust that accumulates on the surface. There are ways that your tools can help you minimize this, but in general you or your sanding system will need to remove this dust in order to be the most effective with the sandpaper.

There are a few reasons this works better, but if you don’t care about the price of special sandpaper you can also solve it with a single purchase.

As dust builds up on the surface, it places a tiny barrier between your sandpaper and the surface. This reduces the effectiveness of the paper, because not all of it is touching the surface being sanded.

The longer you sand like this, the worse it gets, and the less and less effective your sanding becomes.

Just like switching out the sandpaper from time to time helps prevent wasting effort, stopping to blow off the surface does the same. The more contact that you have with the surface, the better and more efficient your sanding process will be.

There are a number of easy ways that you can ensure a clean surface. Some of them are really simple, and others a little more involved. However, find one that helps your process along, and that you can use to keep a nice and clean surface for sanding.

The easiest way of all is to just blow off the surface from time to time using your mouth. For smaller projects, a quick blow will rid the piece from dust, and you can keep on sanding.

A word of caution though, make sure that you are wearing eye protection and a dust mask, because it will make a small dust cloud right by your face.

Also, sometimes blowing dust can be rocketed into your eyes, so be careful when blowing into smaller spaces or cavities like inside a box.

In cases where you can’t blow away the dust without being hit in the face with it, using an air line and blow gun is a good alternative. Nothing removes dust like an air line and a blow gun.

It not only removes the dust from the top of the wood, but it also clears dust from inside the grain, and anything stuck in joints.

The down side to using an air line is that you will need a compressor, air hose, and an air nozzle in order to do it.

If you are already using some pneumatic tools, or you already have a compressor, I highly recommend using this method to clear your shop dust, just make sure you are wearing safety glasses and respiratory protection, because it will make a big cloud of dust.

Finally, if you are not concerned about buying special sandpaper, there are a number of sanders that come with vacuums attached, and they suck out the dust just as fast as you create it.

They are not inexpensive and it almost feels like you are not sanding at all because you don’t ever see dust. With a setup like this, you not only keep your surface clear of sanding dust, it also helps keep the sandpaper clear as well.

Part 35 – Wrap Up

a beginners guide to woodworking book to help new woodworkers make betterwoodworking projects
Available Now on Amazon!

I hope you liked Part 35 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects.

As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place. 

Happy building.

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
  • 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
  • Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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