Woodworking for Beginners Part 36

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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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End Grain Sanding Takes Longer

how-to-become-a-woodworker-for-beginners-full-book-36As you sand, you are going to notice that the different surfaces of the wood sand differently. The faces of a board and the edges are going to be the easiest, and the end grain is going to be the most difficult.

This has to do with the orientation of the fibers, but even though it takes a long time, the end grain can be sanded.

There are times when you will have to sand the end grain of a board, and it can seem like the process will never end. It’s a good practice to start out with an aggressive grit, and power through the scratches that you are trying to remove.

Then, move into finer grits to make the surface even better. Each one will improve the look of the wood, and make it smoother.

Also, using a sanding block on the end grain can have some benefits too. The added pressure from the harder backing will help focus the sanding force, and this will help remove material quicker.

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The goal of end grain sanding is to remove the material as efficiently as possible, just like sanding any other surface. The block can help, and you just need to be patient.

End grain sanding takes longer, which is why most people stop too soon. Sometimes it even seems like the process is not advancing at all, but that is not the case.

If you keep on sanding, and you use the right grits for the scratches that you need to remove, you will make progress, even if it’s slow progress.

Different Woods Sand Differently

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Just as end grain sands differently, each species of wood is going to react a little differently.

This is mainly depending on the hardness, though some woods are more flaky and brittle in general, so sanding them does feel a little different.

It can also take longer, so that is something to be prepared for.

It’s a funny irony that some of the most beautiful pieces of wood in the world are also some of the most dense.

They are a little more difficult to work because of that density, but the only real difference is the time that you are going to take preparing the surface.

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Some of the more oily woods are actually a little easier to work with sometimes than softer woods, even though they are still harder. East Indian Rosewood for example is a pleasure to work with, and it shapes really well.

Pine is going to be one of the easiest to sand and shape, which is why many woodworkers recommend using it as a test species for making mock-ups or models. It’s also good for testing out things on the lathe, because it cuts really easily.

As you plan out your projects, know that the harder woods are going to require a little more effort than softer woods. Also, brittle woods like Purple Heart can create their own sanding challenges as they can flake apart on corners and thinner sections.

Be ready for a little more sanding in cases like this and you will be fine.

Sanding the Corners and Edges

The corners and the edges of your project require a little bit of special attention when sanding. Since the surface is not flat, you can’t sand it the same way that you sand flat surfaces.

Also, the shape of corners and edges makes them inherently more brittle, meaning that you can damage them if you are too aggressive.

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It’s a good practice to break all the corners and sharp edges as you sand. This is mainly for those handling the piece, and because sharp sections of a project just do not feel like they have been fully prepared.

As you break the corners and edges with sandpaper, be very careful not to go too far.

Depending on how you want your edges to look, you will need to either sand them to a flat 45 degree facet, or round them. If you hold your sanding block at a 45 degree angle to either face of the corner (essentially balancing it on to of the corner or edge) and start sanding, you will create a flat area where the corner used to be.

Alternatively, you can use the sandpaper by hand and the softness behind the paper will help you create a rounded profile instead. You have to adjust your angle of attack to profile the edges or corners to be more rounded, but all you do is vary your angle a little to round it over.

When you come to the corners and edges, a little pressure goes a long way. Start off light, and work these areas until they blend into the rest of the project nicely.

Dampen Wood to Raise the Grain

Once you have reached around 220 grit in most cases, you can do something to help prevent the finish from making the surface rougher after being applied. Some finishes raise the grain of the wood, and all this means is that the fibers get wet and burst out of the surface of the wood.

This has a hairy feeling, almost like beard stubble.

Not all finishes will do this, and some are labeled right on the bottle that they don’t. However, you can achieve an even smoother surface if you take the one step and raise the grain before you continue sanding.

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First, get your piece close to final smoothness, where this is 220 grit or finer. Then, using a damp cloth, wipe the surface, intentionally getting it wet. The wood will absorb the water, and this will cause some of the fibers to swell up and burst out of the surface.

Allow the piece to dry completely, and then feel the surface. It should feel like beard stubble, or slightly rough.

Now, using a partially spent piece of the last grit of sandpaper that you were using, gently knock off the stubbly feeling nibs on the surface. It’s important to only knock down the little bumps, and not actually dig any farther into the surface.

You don’t want to accidentally expose any fresh wood that can cause more grain raising once a finish is applied. After you are done, wipe down the wood with water one more time, and repeat the process before going on to final inspection.

Use a Glancing Light

A really good way to find scratches on your piece is to use a glancing light. Many times, looking directly at a surface, it will look just fine. However, once you apply a stain or a finish, the scratches come out. If you use a glancing light, it will reveal many of these scratches that you are unable to see at first.

One of the best ways you do this is by using the lights that you already have in the shop. Simply lift the project, and move it around so that the light comes almost from just behind the piece.

Adjust it so the light is slightly above, and it will create a shine on a flat surface of your project. Any scratches will be easier to see, and you can make a plan for removing them.

If your project is too heavy, you can adjust your stance and bend down so that you can use the light in the same manner. However, if that is not an option either, you can also use a handheld light, and move it around while you look for scratches.

The goal is to make the light shine on the piece in a way that highlights the flaws and exposes them. The very low angle light that bounces at a very shallow angle is the best way to make this happen.

As you find small defects that need to be removed, mark them with a light pencil mark, or tape them with low tack masking tape. This way, you will be able to find them again later when you are doing more sanding.

Finishes Magnify Scratches

One of the classic blunders in woodworking is when people think that a finish will hide visible flaws on a project. While some clear finishes can be used to fill in small scratches and defects, the overwhelming majority of finishes will magnify them.

Stains, with emphasis on pigment based stains, will expose scratches faster than any other method. If you are worried about scratches, this stain will bring out every last one of them.

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The tiny particles that reside in the liquid flow into these surface defects, and they add a bold shot of color to the area. Once this happens, you will instantly regret your sanding job.

To fix it, you can sand through the finish in most cases, and do a better job on the scratches before finishing again. This is a long process sometimes, and is not something that you will enjoy.

However, most people do not go through that process, and they settle for a poor looking project, or at best something that is less than they are capable of producing.

To prevent having to settle, know that finishes do not make your project look any better than it currently looks. In fact, it generally makes the project look worse.

Make sure that you do everything you can to ensure that your project is ready for a finish. This will give you more confidence when you show off your project, and less stress when you apply the finish.

Do a Final Scratch Check

One last thing you can do to ensure that you have sanded your project as best as possible is to do final scratch check. This is done after you finish all the other steps, and you are confident that you do not have anything else to fix on the piece.

This is the one last chance that you have to catch and correct anything that will show up in the finish and make your project look any less than it should. Take your time, and you will be successful.

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When you think about it, ten minutes looking for sanding scratches can feel like an eternity, even on a medium sized piece. However, when you stack that ten minutes up against the years and years that you or someone else will be enjoying your project, they pale in comparison.

Looking at the ten minutes as an investment that will give you back years or decades, it makes sense not to rush the process. Slow down, and spend some quality time with your project before you apply that finish.

As you look at your handy work, and marvel at the beauty that you have created, use some tape and mark your defects that still need to be removed.

Now, go back and remove the scratches that came up in the final check, and do the check one more time just to be on the same side. When it passes without finding anything, you are ready to apply a finish that will make your project look great for years to come.

Sanding a Flat Surface

There are a lot of times in woodworking when you need to sand a surface flat. When you are working with smaller surfaces, you can do use a simple trick that will make the surface flat.

This does not work for larger surfaces, but on smaller projects and when you need to make a small piece very flat to join to another piece, this works very well.

The trick is to find something that is already flat and use it to transfer that same flatness to the project that you are working with. All you need to do is find something that is already really flat.

When you are looking for a surface to work with, make sure to bring along a straight edge in order to test the piece for flatness. Not everything that you think would be flat is actually flat.

For example, most plywood, table tops, bench tops, and concrete floors tend to have some variation to them that makes this trick not work. If you can find a section that passes the straight edge test, then you are fine to use one of those materials.

Interestingly enough, a piece of MDF, or Melamine faced particle board does tend to be very close to flat. Some are even really flat. If you have one of these you can cut a small piece and double check it with the straight edge before starting the sanding process.

Finally, if you are going to be putting a flat surface on a lot of smaller pieces, and you know that you will need to do that quite a bit on your projects, then consider investing in a granite plate.

These are pieces of granite that are precision ground to be as close to perfectly flat as can be done by a machine. If you use one of these, you can be assured that your project will come out almost perfectly flat.

Once you have your surface, the trick is to lay out a full sheet of sandpaper, with the grit facing up. Hold it carefully against your flat surface with one hand, or tape it in place.

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You can even clamp the edges of the paper and then you will have both hands free and you will also sand more effectively than holding the paper by hand. Now, lay the project on the paper and begin sliding it back and forth.

Be careful as you are sanding the surface, and make sure to keep the piece very flat on the paper. The slower you do this process the easier it is in the beginning to keep the piece flat.

Once you are close to flat, you can use a pencil to lightly draw marks on the entire surface. After that, sand it again and when all the marks are gone you can check the flatness.

Since you have been sanding against a very flat surface the entire time, you will essentially have transferred the flat surface of your sanding area to the project. If you are making a joint, or just making a very flat surface, you can be assured that you will be very close to totally flat.

Lastly, start with the sandpaper grit that you need to shape the surface. If you are already close to flat, start with 220. If you really need to remove some material, start with 80 and work through the grits to 220.

Brad Nails Are Not Nails

From the outside looking in, it can be deceiving what is actually going on when you see someone assembling a project with brad nails. These are the nails that are commonly fed through a pneumatic nail gun.

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At first glance, it seems like the woodworker is using the nails to hold all the pieces together. It also seems like a really easy way to build things, since all you are doing is firing nails into the project.

In reality, while making things with a nail gun is pretty easy, and honestly it’s a little fun too shooting all the nails, the project is actually held together by something else.

If you only use brad nails on your project, it will fail over time,because brad nails are different than actual nails in a couple key ways.

First, brad nails do not have the same kind of head that other nails do. This is what allows them to pass through the surface really easily, making it a quicker project to patch and fill all the holes.

Putting weight against the top of the nail, it’s easy to pull the top board through the “head” of the nail.

Another reason that brad nails are different is that they do not grip the same as normal nails. The grip is the source of the strength. It’s about the pressure between the fibers of the wood that were bent downwards in the nailing process holding onto the nail.

Brad nails penetrate better, are thinner, and do not hold onto the wood the same way. In fact, it’s actually really easy to pull out brad nails with a pair of pliers. Doing that with a regular nail is much more difficult. Again, this is more about how the brad nails don’t hold as well as regular nails.

The real reason that nail gun projects hold together is because the joints are glued. Before the pieces are nailed together, you need to put a thin layer of glue between the boards, and use the brad nails to hold them together. In this way, brad nails act more like clamps than nails.

The point of brad nails is to hold the pieces of wood together while the glue dries, nothing more. Yes, there are some nicer nails, and some guns that shoot bigger nails that are meant more for building things, but your normal woodworker brad nail guns are not like that.

The entire purpose of the brad nail is simply to hold that joint together just long enough for the glue to do the work and hold the project together.

Since all you need the nails for is a few hours, the fact that brad nails are easy to pull out and don’t have real heads doesn’t matter. You need to assemble your project and then allow it to sit for a few hours while the glue does the job of holding it together.

Once the glue has dried, you are free to handle the project as normal. Thinking that brad nails are the same as regular nails is a common mistake in woodworking, but knowing about it before you start can help you avoid the same pitfall.

Now, you won’t have to worry about your projects falling apart in the future.

Part 36 – Wrap Up

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

I hope you liked Part 36 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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