Sanding 101

Sanding 101 - hand sanding a deck railing with a folded sheet of sandpaper

Whether you are a professional woodworker or just working on a weekend project, sanding is a necessary step in your process to get the perfect finish on your workpiece. While many times this task is met with dread, sanding does not have to be such a chore; in fact, by using the proper technique and a few tips and tricks, you can conquer your project in no time flat.

Choosing the Proper Grit Size

Perhaps the most confusing - and frustrating - part of sanding is choosing the correct grit size for your paper. Sandpaper comes in various grits, based on the number of sand particles per square inch. Take the guesswork out of choosing grit size by following this general rule of thumb: a low number = coarse paper and a high number = fine paper. Always start with the smallest number and work your way up for the best results.

  • The lowest grit sizes range from 40 to 60. This ultra-coarse paper is ideal for big, deep sanding projects with a lot of surface roughness.
  • Medium grit sandpaper ranges from 80 to 120 abrasives per square inch. This workhorse paper is perfect for shaping or removing a lot of material at a quick pace.
  • Fine paper begins at 150 grit and ends at 180 grit. This paper begins the finishing process by beginning to buff out the deep swirls and sanding marks left by the coarser papers.
  •  Very fine, 220 to 240 grit, and extra fine, 280 to 320 grit, are the finishing pros. With these papers in hand, it is easy to get the smooth, silky finish you desire.
Sanding 101 - samples of garnet sandpaper sheets showing grit size



Honing Your Sanding Technique

Now that you have chosen the proper grit size for your project, perfect your technique for the best results. Move your paper in the direction of the wood grain; going against the grain takes off a lot more debris at a time, yet you risk marring the appearance of your piece.

Do not be afraid to move back and forth between papers, when the need dictates. As mentioned before, begin your sanding process with a coarse grit and work your way up to the finest paper. If you switch too soon you won’t be able to  sand nicks or blemishes out and you will use more paper than necessary. Rather than working yourself to exhaustion, move back down to a coarser piece of sandpaper and let the grit do the work, then work your way back up to finer paper.

Another aspect of the skill-honing equation is checking and rechecking your work. Use your hands - feel your work. Run your fingertips and palm along the surface of the wood. Your fingers may pick up on roughness, pulls or other imperfections that are invisible to the naked eye.

Consider Other Sanding Tools

When applying pressure to a piece of sandpaper manually, that paper conforms to the shape of your hand. The paper gets the most pressure down by your fingers and least pressure up in your palm. This can lead to uneven sanding and missed spots. Fortunately, using one of the tools of the trade makes for quick work of smoothing and polishing wood:

Sanding 101 - Power tool options are available for sanding projects
  • Sanding Sponge - Just as the sandpaper moves with the shape of your hand, the flexible nature of a sanding sponge moves with the curves of a piece of wood. Perfect for projects with lots of tight spaces or rounded edges, sanding sponges feature abrasive surfaces on all four sides. The sandpaper is pre-applied for convenience, and sometimes, you can even find sponges with different grits on different sides, which makes tackling a project from start to finish a breeze. Sanding sponges are available in both foam and cork and fit in the palm of your hand for a comfortable sanding experience. Once all of the grit is worn off, simply throw the sponge away - no reloading necessary.
  • Sanding Block - While a sanding sponge is a disposable product, sanding blocks are reusable. Simply fasten your sandpaper into place and begin sanding. Sanding blocks are best used on large, flat surfaces and corners, as there is no give to the solid construction of the blocks. A great feature to minimize your discomfort, many sanding blocks are equipped with ergonomically designed handles.
  • Power Sanders - Available in several styles, power sanders take on all the work while you simply move them along the surface of the wood.
    • Orbital Sander: Orbital sanders offer interchangeable pads - hard and soft - and the ability to work on broad surfaces, sides and even angles. Using an orbital sander is as simple as guiding it along the surface of a project; pressing down or holding in place can cause unsightly circular designs in the wood.
    • Belt Sander: A belt sander grinds quickly and takes off a lot of material in a short amount of time. These machines rotate a long, circular piece of sandpaper in one direction as you move it along the surface of your project. Belt sanders are not meant to turn and maneuver, and as such, are best used on flat, open pieces of wood that do not have a lot of nooks and crannies, like flooring. If you choose to use a belt sander for your project, keep it moving at all times and only work in the direction of the wood grain for the best results.
    • Palm Power Sanders: As the smallest of the power sanding options, these are best used in those hard-to-reach places that orbital and belt sanders just cannot reach. [2] Some palm sanders use regular pieces of sandpaper, and others rely on pre-fabricated abrasive papers that either stick or fasten on. Look for these in round, square and mouse-shaped designs, depending on your needs.

Whether you choose to tackle the job by hand or enlist the help of sanding equipment, there is no better way to give your piece a professional and long-lasting finish than with proper preparation and sanding. Are you still not sure what grit size or tool is best for your job? Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of experts, like your abrasives manufacturer or local hardware store team. It is always easier to do it right than to do it twice!

Sanding 101 - Use the right products to do the job right