Sanding #1: Sanding

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Blog entry by schwingding posted 12-11-2007 07:33 PM 4432 reads 5 times favorited 13 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Sanding series Part 2: Sanding round (lathe) work »

The first few times I picked up or looked at something a real professional, award winning woodworker made I marveled at one thing in particular – the finish. The most notable feature to me was an almost universal lack of sanding scratches, even in the fine detail.

There is an old adage that says “the finish goes on before the finish goes on”. This refers to surface preparation, sanding included. This series will hopefully shed some light on the techniques I’ve painstakingly tried to learn from some of the masters who were kind enough to help me.

Some woods can be polished to a high luster, almost glossy finish with no finish at all. Hard maple is one such example, bubinga is another. Others get wonderful sheens to them, hand planed pine is a soft wood that lends itself well to such surface finishing – with the right kind of plane.

Most woods can be finished more pleasingly with planes and scrapers than they can be with sandpaper. The reason for this is that sandpaper is an abrasive, whereas a plane is a bladed cutting tool. The sandpaper will actually abrade the grain, leaving a microscopically “fuzzy” surface that is smooth to the touch, but not the microscope. A hand plane shears the grain cleanly, leaving a sharply defined, very flat surface that reflects light. Probably the greatest reason that more woodworkers don’t use handplanes to finish surface their projects is that it is a difficult skill to learn, and a random orbit sander is so easy. One has to learn how to read the wood with handplanes, as all woods react differently to an iron. Some surfaces, like curly maple, are incredibly hard to hand plane, requiring smoothing planes with very high angled blades and cross grain cutting techniques. Other woods, like cherry, plane wonderfully with a simple old Stanley #5. This past weekend I showed my home builder brother just how fantastic a surface can be put on a piece of pine with a low angled plane – he was floored.

The results are well worth the trouble.

Another reason to avoid a hand plane for a finished surface is the choice of finish. Planed surfaces aren’t great for receiving stains and dyes. When I am to apply a dye to a surface I’ll plane it finish ready then go over it with 220 sandpaper prior to being dyed.

Sanding flat surfaces is no big deal, and a skill most woodworkers have mastered. A few hints might help a little here and there though, so here goes;

Use fresh sandpaper! I’ll repeat that it because it is the most important thing we need to know. Use fresh sandpaper! Use sandpaper like someone else is paying for it. Start with a grit lower than your first choice. If you wind up with sanding swirls after using your ROS (random orbit sander), go over the surface again, this time by hand, WITH the grain orientation. You’ll see those swirls disappear.

Wipe the surface off before starting on the next higher grit. The reason for this is that sanding grit comes loose from the backer during sanding, and coarse grit on the surface will scratch the surface as you go over it with the higher grit. Do this every time! Work your way up to the desired grit in this fashion and you will have a scratch, swirl free surface. When you’re done, consider going over the surface with a freshly tuned cabinet scraper, or some Liberon 0000 wool, depending on the look you’re after. You’ll likely be pleased. The steel wool will give it finish similar to that of a satin piano finish. The scraper will get it closer to that of a hand planed finish.

Liberon steel wool is the finest I’ve ever used. Some of the non metallic woven pads are also good for polishing the surface, WEB abrasives makes a synthetic steel wool that is pretty good, neat stuff. I like it because it won’t leave metal in the surface that might react with finishes or moisture over time.

Abranet is a product I’ve been using lately for sanding. It is a metallic screen with grit particles somehow attached to it. Truly marvelous stuff! It has replaced all of my standard ROS discs.

The next entry will deal with sanding round objects and discuss the use of Micro Mesh products. The entry after that will deal with sanding small, complex surfaces. I hope these blog entries turn out to be of some value.

-- Just another woodworker

13 comments so far

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 4672 days

#1 posted 12-11-2007 08:09 PM

thank you for this info.
this will be a great series.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View gbvinc's profile


629 posts in 4458 days

#2 posted 12-11-2007 08:12 PM

Great info. Keep going…

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 4399 days

#3 posted 12-11-2007 08:21 PM


The info is greatly appreciated. Please keep writing this blog.


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 4386 days

#4 posted 12-11-2007 08:28 PM

Very valuable. Thanks.

-- Happy woodworking!

View SPalm's profile


5334 posts in 4393 days

#5 posted 12-11-2007 08:36 PM

Sweet. Thank you. Keep it comming.

-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View rjack's profile


110 posts in 4366 days

#6 posted 12-11-2007 09:04 PM

I look forward to the rest of the series!

-- Roger - Havertown, Pennsylvania

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 4450 days

#7 posted 12-11-2007 09:40 PM

I hate sanding. But like you I realized that the finish is often what makes the difference between good and great. So, I sand. And I really appreciate you taking the time to write this … please continue.

-- Working at Woodworking

View TonyWard's profile


748 posts in 4839 days

#8 posted 12-11-2007 09:42 PM

Well done. I too look forward to the next article!

Can you provide more information on WEB abrasives maker of a synthetic steel wool”.

Thank you

View schwingding's profile


133 posts in 4337 days

#9 posted 12-11-2007 09:53 PM

Re: WEBB abrasives

If you go to the following location (Woodcentral) and scroll down the screen you’ll see a link to WEBB abrasives (2 Bs). Look to the left and you’ll see a promotion where they’ll send you a 23 piece sanding kit, for free. I believe they also sell in local Glidden stores, but don’t quote me on that.

-- Just another woodworker

View Andy's profile


1713 posts in 4420 days

#10 posted 12-11-2007 10:03 PM

Good info! Our cabinet/counter shop switched over to Abralon and Abranet years ago and the improvement was measurable.No grit to fall off and rescratch the surface,though we do tack thoroughly between grits anyway.The “papers” last longer also,a lot longer.These are great for wet sanding too.The Abralon is the way to go for contours.Great products.

-- If I can do it, so can you.

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 4758 days

#11 posted 12-11-2007 11:18 PM

If it will make our projects look a little like yours keep these types of handy tidbits coming. They are very welcome and we know they work. mike

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4474 days

#12 posted 12-12-2007 02:15 PM

Good information. Thanks for sharing it with us all. I agree about finish and color. The best wood and joinery is just wasted if there is not a great finish. I also use the hand plane then sand with 220. I thought I was the only one nuts enough to do that but find I’m not. Like you I found it made the wood take stain and finish better. I think that if one was going to use just an oil finish, the plane would produce a better finish.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View HokieMojo's profile


2104 posts in 4240 days

#13 posted 11-05-2008 12:17 AM

could you expand on your thoughts about the wire disks? Are they cost effective over time? I’m thinking about getting some sandpaper disks for a 5” ROS and if these are a better replacement over the long haul, maybe I should just go this route from the get go. Just wondering about your thoughts on this. Thanks!

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