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DIY 101: building your toolbox — sanding

by Kate Pruitt

Every woodworker or hobbyist will inevitably need to sand something — it’s just a fact! Sanding is one of the essential steps of finishing furniture, and it’s also a great way to make a piece new again. There are many different types of sanding materials to cover a range of needs, and luckily, most sanding tools and accessories are pretty affordable. With very few removable parts, sanders are also pretty intuitive, and one of the easiest tools to pick up and start using. They do have their safety concerns and varied features, but we’ll cover all of those below, so you can pick the perfect tool and get sanding! — Kate

CLICK HERE to learn all about sanders after the jump!

Sandpaper is a coated paper that comes in many forms and can provide varying levels of abrasion — from rubbing a small square of sandpaper to smooth down a surface to a powerful belt sander that can easily remove large amounts of material and shape a piece of wood within seconds. It’s always a good idea to have several grits of sandpaper available and to go over most surfaces with first coarse and then fine sandpaper to ensure a clean, smooth finish. Above is an image of some of the kinds of sandpaper you can get, and each has its own benefits and purposes:

  • Sheets: Sheets of sandpaper are cheap, lightweight and easy to use for small projects. They come in varying grits (extra coarse to extra smooth) and also in packs of multiple grits. You can simply hold sandpaper sheets or purchase a rubber sandpaper holder for easier use. Sheets aren’t very useful for tight curves or small spots, but can be perfect for simple jobs like shelves and corners.
  • Disc: Sanding discs are for use with random orbital sanders and other types of handheld power sanders. They usually adhere to the sander with a Velcro backing, and can come in several different shapes. Random orbit sanders are great for sanding boards, cabinets, floors, or any large surfaces.
  • Belt: Sanding belts come in different sizes and are made to fit on belt sanders. Sanding belts spin around in a loop at high speeds creating a rapidly moving abrasive surface. Belt sanders can be both handheld and stationary, and are great for shaping and stripping material.
  • Sponge: Because of its soft malleability, a sanding sponge is useful for small spaces and curves. They come in different grits and are great for putting the finishing sanding touches on projects like refinishing chairs and other furniture.

Handheld power sanders come in several different styles, as mentioned above. They are great tools to have around for basic woodworking and can really add finish to inexpensive rough wood. When looking at handheld belt and disc sanders, pay attention to features such as size and weight (both should be manageable), the power of the motor and the ease of belt and disc changing. Also be sure to get a sander with an attached dust collector, since sanding creates an incredible amount of fine sawdust. There are different sizes of sanders as well, so if you have lots of small corners and spaces to sand, don’t get a sander that’s too big. Handheld sanders also come in an iron shape with a pointed tip, which is helpful for sanding tight spots.

Helpful Tips for Using Power Sanders:

1. Always wear safety glasses or a face shield to prevent eye injury from flying debris and also a dust mask or respirator to prevent breathing in harmful dust particles.

2. Always turn the power off and unplug the sander before adjusting the belt or disc, and make sure to replace discs and belt when they become worn or frayed to prevent damaging the machine.

3. Sanders create a lot of turbulent motion, so always make sure to hold the sander firmly with two hands and secure your material before sanding.

4. Keep the cords away from the sanding area during use, and be sure to clean the dust off the motor and the parts regularly.

5. Keep vents clear while sanding to prevent overheating.

Lastly, a word about grits. They are delicious, especially with cheese. Seriously though, it’s good to acquaint yourself with the varying sandpaper grits and how they’re numbered. The diagram above shows the range of grits within each level of abrasion: very coarse – super fine. Depending on the type of project you are doing, you will rarely need to go through all these levels, but it is wise to do at least 3-4 steps (coarse, medium, fine, very fine) if you are working on a rough material. For most projects you can stop at 180 grit, although if you plan to use stain you may want to go up to a 200 grit because stains (especially dark, water-based stains) will show scratches more easily.

Now that you know the different types of sanders and sanding materials, there should be no sanding project too big or small for you to tackle. For sanding very intricate projects (like dollhouse furniture or similarly small scale pieces), you may want to invest in a Dremel tool, but I will be going into Dremel tools next time so stay tuned! In the meantime, here are some of the DIY projects for testing out your new sanding skills:

Also, for more information on sanding furniture and see them in action, check out Barb’s Before & After Basics post on sanding.

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  • I’ve always wondered how much pressure to apply when sanding with a handheld. Also, is it best to sand with the grain or in a circular motion?

  • Thanks for this guide! On your recommendation last year, I bought an orbital sander that I have since used to refinish a dresser. It has definitely expanded my options when thrifting for furniture. 6 layers of paint on that $10 table? No problem!

  • Lovely that this came up just as I was gearing up for my first hard surface restoration project! Now I don’t need to google “sandpaper grit for removing wood stain”.

  • wow, I am only a reader, never worked anything, but I realised I would buy a sander in a minute! The best toy ever:)

  • Grace- It did say course throughout when I first saw the post, but looks like it has been corrected in most places, except the bullet list. Still a great post though.

  • my secret weapon in sanding is brown kraft paper. once you think you’re done with all of your sanding and finishing, take some kraft paper and rub in the direction of the grain. this will smooth out the finish and any tackiness. it is also really effective after spray finishes that weren’t applied perfectly even.

  • I know this is totally off the subject… But does anyone know the script font in the graphic “building your toolbox” used at the top of the page?

  • Just a thought or two from a hobby woodworker – sanding is the worst part of working with wood, I really despise it and the dust is pretty dangerous for your lungs, so always wear a dust mask when generating sawdust.

    Also, if you’re going to buy a powered sander like the ones shown above, get a unit that has holes in the sandpaper – those will create a LOT less dust than the sheet sanders (the one shown in the picture is a sheet sander). Better yet, hook up the powered sander to a shop vac and you’ll hardly have any dust – you don’t even need a mask at that point!

    The grit selection above shows 20 – 36 grit; that’s usually never used. For rough sanding (to remove an existing finish or with rough wood) start with 60 or 80 grit. You don’t really have to start going “with the grain” until your final sanding step.

    Finally, also keep in mind that one way to remove paint or an existing finish is to use a scraper card. The technique to ‘sharpen’ these is a bit tricky, but the tool itself is only a few dollars. It doesn’t provide a final finish, but for removing existing finishes it’s so much better than sandpaper and doesn’t generate lung clogging dust.

  • A couple things to be careful of.
    1. when sanding don’t spend to much time in one spot. This will cause divots on your work surface. instead to remove a ding or chip make sure for every three passes you do to that area you do two passes to the adjacent area and one pass to the area adjacent to that. Its called feathering in in.

    2. With random orbitals always start and stop the sander on the work surface this will eliminate some possibilities of putting sanding dips on your piece.

    3. As someone else mentioned, you rarely if ever need to go below 100 grit.

    4. Sanding in a tight corner? never cheat by going against the grain. Take the time and do it right even though it may look ok as soon as you finish it you will see the scratches.

  • Hi! I have a dresser and chester drawer set that I want to repaint and distress. How much do you have to sand the old paint and how do you know when it is even? I have never attempted a project that requires sanding before! Great post and very informative!

  • Hi we have a welsh dresser which we want to paint to match a blind we bought for our bedroom. the dresser is oiled pine do you think we should sand down the surface and apply some sort of sealer before painting or can we just rub down a little and paint away. The colour of the blind we bought from http://www.bobtheblindman.co.uk is a light cream and the dresser is quite dark with age. Any help would be welcome

  • You can also get interface pads which are foam pads you place between the sander bed and the abrasive which stop you from accidentally applying too much pressure!