Polyurethane On Stain - What's Your Preference - Steel Wool or Sandpaper?

  • Advertise with us

« back to Woodworking Skill Share forum

Forum topic by Bingo969 posted 11-28-2012 05:41 PM 14448 views 0 times favorited 9 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Bingo969's profile


7 posts in 2449 days

11-28-2012 05:41 PM

Howdy -

I’m curious to hear what people’s thoughts on this are. I know only a few other local woodworkers and it seems everyone has a different answer but not many can really explain why they feel that way.

I make large-ish wooden box drums (Called a ‘Cajon’ if you are familiar with them or want to see). Here is a picture of my first one that I thought came out so-so. A little warp on the front soundboard down near the bottom. The top corners are supposed to have a gap there for the traditional wood-on-wood “crack” sound when struck.

I’ve been staining them (Oil based stain made by Zar. I really like how it comes out) and then polyurethane that with a water-based poly. Seems to work really well. I’ve played around with matte, satin and gloss poly and I’ve more or less settled on the satin for a nice halfway between dull and really shiny.

I’ve been using 1200-1500 grit sanding inbetween each coat of poly. I usually end up around 4-6 coats total before I’m calling them done.

However, some have sworn by using 4-0 steel wool between coats of poly. I’m not sure I’m happy with the results. I seem to find more “swirls” using the steel wool. However, maybe I’m doing it wrong too.

So what are you thoughts on Steel Wool vs Sanding and why? What are your experiences? I’d love to hear them and help educate myself more on different techniques.

As always, thanks for being such a great resource for us new woodworkers!


9 replies so far

View Cosmicsniper's profile


2202 posts in 3456 days

#1 posted 11-28-2012 05:51 PM

Try 3M sanding pads.

You don’t need anything too severe. Just enough to remove dust nits and to give a little mechanical advantage for the poly to grab onto.

-- jay,

View Earlextech's profile


1162 posts in 2988 days

#2 posted 11-28-2012 06:31 PM

Use steel wool on solvent based poly only, use 3M pads on water based poly.

-- Sam Hamory - The project is never finished until its "Finished"!

View Fred Hargis's profile

Fred Hargis

5372 posts in 2791 days

#3 posted 11-28-2012 06:36 PM

If you’re happy with what your results with the current, no reason to change. But if you do change for some reason, do not go to steel wool…..especially with waterborne finishes.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16282 posts in 4516 days

#4 posted 11-28-2012 06:37 PM

I just find steel wool easier than sandpaper, but it’s really as simple as trying both and sticking with the one you like best. I have heard, though, that steel wool should NOT be used with water-based poly because of the possibility of steel remnants rusting in the finish.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Clint Searl's profile

Clint Searl

1533 posts in 2659 days

#5 posted 11-28-2012 06:49 PM

After getting rid of the nubs left by the first coat, sanding between successive coats is a waste of effort. Follow-on coats should level out by themselves. When you get the desired build, wait a couple days, and rub out with 0000 steel wool and cheap paste wax.

Also, what’s the point of laying waterborne on top of oil poly? Drop the oil poly and put the waterborne directly on the cured ZAR. It works perfectly; that’s exactly what I do.

-- Clint Searl....Ya can no more do what ya don't know how than ya can git back from where ya ain't been

View ETwoodworks's profile


92 posts in 2991 days

#6 posted 11-28-2012 06:51 PM

I like #00 steel wool but i only use solvent based poly.

-- Building quality in a throw away world.

View Charles Maxwell's profile

Charles Maxwell

1099 posts in 4105 days

#7 posted 11-28-2012 07:19 PM

No question about it – - – Quad Naut (0000) Steel wool! I swear by it.

-- Max the "night janitor" at

View Grandpa's profile


3261 posts in 2973 days

#8 posted 11-28-2012 10:31 PM

I always leave little pieces of steel wool on the project…...someplace. They only show up after the next coat is applied. I never use it because of this. After the last coat if I need some smoothing I might go to steel wool but not between coats. Just my way of doing it. I sand between coats if there is much lapse time between them.

View Bingo969's profile


7 posts in 2449 days

#9 posted 11-29-2012 12:33 AM

Interesting. So it looks like the consensus here is about as split as with the few people I’ve spoken with around here as well. Ha. Goes to show everyone has a different approach I guess.

It does sound like I had the right idea though, to go with sandpaper since I’m using a water-based poly.

I definitely appreciate all the feedback.

Have your say...

You must be signed in to reply.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics