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Back To Basics Hand Sanding

By: Dennis Perkins
When it comes to sanding intricate details, nothing beats a sanding block and a little old-fashioned elbow grease.

Before you add the first coat of finish to a project, it’s important to make sure all the surfaces are level and smooth. This often means breaking out the random-orbit sander and getting to work. But there are times when a power sander just isn’t the best tool for the job.

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Most projects include sanding challenges that go beyond flat surfaces. Getting into tight corners and sanding edge profiles are the obvious places where some hand sanding is necessary. And that’s where a few proven techniques and sanding aids can make the difference between a flawless surface and one that’s marked by dips, ridges, and swirl marks.

PICK YOUR PAPER. Before jumping right in on a project, it’s worth taking a minute to lay out the supplies you’ll need. For starters, I stock up on self-adhesive sandpaper. A 4 1 ⁄ 2 "-wide roll of each of the most commonly used grits (100, 120, 150, 180, and 220) will keep you going for quite a while. The adhesive makes this paper easy to use with just about any sanding block. At about $20 for a 30-foot roll, it’s a bargain, too.

Regular sheets of sandpaper are still the staple of most shops. They have the advantage of being less expensive. And many commercial sanding blocks are sized specifically for 1 ⁄ 3 or 1 ⁄ 4 sheets.


The main photo at left shows how using your fingers to hold the sandpaper can be all you need for some jobs. But the friction quickly heats up your fingertips. And using your fingers can create dips. So for most tasks, you’ll want to back up the paper with something flat to help create a level surface. That’s why I usually turn to sanding blocks.

COMMERCIAL. My first choice for sanding blocks is the cork block shown in the left photo on the opposite page. It provides a flat face for the paper, but it’s soft enough to avoid gouging the surface.

Another sanding aid I use frequently is the MicroMesh sanding pad shown in the middle photo below. Instead of a rigid block, the pad is made of dense, but flexible foam rubber. It’s great for working curved surfaces. You can find out where to buy these sanding aids in Sources on page 51.

SHOP-MADE. It’s also easy to make your own sanding block. Hardwood scraps are readily available and can be quickly shaped to the task at hand. They can be just the ticket for large, flat surfaces.

Another easy-to-make solution is a thin strip of wood (about 1 ⁄ 16 " thick) with small blocks glued to the ends. This is a great tool for sanding curved edges, like the tabletop shown in the right photo below.

PROFILE SANDING. I always sand moldings and other profiled surfaces by hand. The hard part here is making a block that matches the profile. I often use dowels, or rout a conforming shape in a piece of scrap to use as a sanding block. The box below shows an inexpensive product that can really help.

TECHNIQUES. No matter whether you sand with a block or your fingers, basic sanding techniques are the same. Of course, you’ll need to keep your strokes moving with the grain. But beyond that basic principle, you’ll also want to pay attention to how the particular wood you’re working with reacts.

For example, sanding white oak is very different than sanding cedar. For a hard, dense wood, you’ll probably need more time with each successive grit, while softer woods take just a few minutes. A good test is to take a piece of scrap and see how long it takes to round over a corner. That will tell you a lot about how the wood behaves.

After each grit, you can wipe the surface with a tack cloth to remove the dust. It’s much easier to keep an eye on your progress if you keep the surface clean. I also like to vacuum the workpiece between each grit to prevent stray particles from scratching the surface. This is particularly helpful when working with open-pored woods, like oak.

If it’s been a while since you sanded a project by hand, you’ll be surprised how quickly it goes. And you probably won’t miss the noise of a power sander much either. But best of all, the results are sure to persuade you that hand sanding is worth the extra effort.

Worth a Look: Soft-Sanders

Sanding moldings and profiled edges can be difficult. If the block or pad is too rigid or doesn’t conform to the edge, you run the risk of ruining the profile. That’s why I like the Soft-Sanders They offer not only a great selection of profiles, but of varying foam densities as well. You can find the right pad for just about any task online. And with these colors, you won’t misplace them in your shop.

Published: June 13, 2019
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