Finishing Touch: Hand Sanding
In this article we’ll look at various accessories that can make the task of hand sanding more efficient, and we’ll provide you with some tips that can help make the process of sanding less onerous and more effective.
Patience and a critical eye
Regardless of which method you use to prepare a wood surface, the overall goal is to make the surface smooth and blemish free so it will accept a finish evenly. This is important because the finish will not only bring out the natural grain and beauty of the wood but also magnify any surface defects. In particular, torn grain, surface dents, an inconsistent scratch pattern from sanding, or errant bits of dried glue – all of which may be barely visible prior to finishing – will be glaringly apparent after the finish is applied.
For large surfaces you’ll inevitably use a power sander. However, for smaller and narrower surfaces, edges, and contoured shapes, hand sanding is the way to go. It’s quick and effective. As well, after power sanding any surface, you’ll want to end things off by hand sanding in the direction of the grain. Use a grit higher than the one you last used when power sanding. For example, if you finished power sanding with 180-grit, then use 220-grit sandpaper. On end grain, sand one grade finer so that it doesn’t absorb more deeply any stain or clear finish that you might apply.
As for much of woodworking, patience is a prime key to success. It’s not good enough to know what to do; you also need to consistently implement the right techniques. Slow and steady really does win the race when it comes to sanding. It’s also good practice to assess your progress at regular intervals. You’ll want to devote more time to visible areas and those likely to be touched. Start sanding with the finest grit that will remove mill marks or scratches – in most cases you can begin with 100-grit or 120-grit. Shining a light across the work surface at about a 30° angle will serve to highlight imperfections that need attention. Wiping the wood with mineral spirits will also make it easier to see scratches and rough areas. You can also use a pencil to draw faint lines across the work surface and sand until the lines disappear. Repeat this for each grit you use.
Sanding blocks – for all things flat
Commercial sanding blocks generally hold the paper more tightly in place than shop made blocks, and they tend to be a lot more comfortable to use, particularly when there’s a lot of sanding to do. Some use clips, pins, or clamps to hold the paper in place. I much prefer those that use hook and loop paper, as it makes paper changeover quick and easy. Here are a few of my favourites.
Festool HSK Sanding Blocks
These premium contoured polyurethane blocks, available in three formats, are the most comfortable I’ve used. The rectangular block (#495967) has a hard pad, and uses 80mm × 133mm hook and loop sheets. Rounded blocks, which use standard 6″ hook and loop discs, come with either a soft pad (#495965) or a hard pad (#495966). This makes it super quick to switch out grits, and it means you don’t have to bother cutting up full sheets. The downside is that, unlike the rectangular block, the sanding disc extends over the side of the block, making it less convenient to use when sanding tightly in corners, as you’re apt to scratch adjoining surfaces. Available in a kit (#MO595, $106) with all three blocks and a mini Systainer for storage.
These blocks consist of a steel substrate covered with a layer of tungsten carbide granules, and measure 2″ × 1-3/4″ × 5-1/2″. They’re available in 60, 80, 120 and 150-grits. Carbide grit lasts a long time, and because it isn’t friable like sandpaper, you effectively use the same grit level every time you sand. Sloped ends make it easy to sand tightly into corners, while grooves on the top and sides make the blocks easy to hold. The plate is perfectly square to the side of the block, enabling you to sand the edges of stock square. The holes in the plate and the channel underneath keep dust from building up on stock as you sand.
This is an oversized sanding block that uses 3″ × 21″ sanding belts. A lever releases and engages belt tension. It has five usable surfaces – the bottom, two flat surfaces on top, a narrow rounded surface on the front, and a larger rounded surface on the end. Useful for sanding wide surfaces, into obstructed areas, and tight up against inside edges. Made of a hard ABS plastic, so it’s less comfortable to use for extended periods of time.
Veritas Shooting Sander
$36.50 (8″); $54.50 (16″)
It works like a shooting plane, except it uses sandpaper rather than a plane blade. Made of anodized aluminum. A moveable knob can be adjusted to any position along the body of the sander. Takes 1-1/4″ adhesive-backed (PSA) sandpaper strips that can be purchased pre-cut or you can cut them from PSA rolls. You’ll need to make a simple sanding board to use with the sander. Remove the worn PSA paper with acetone or a glue remover. The 16″ model does an excellent job on veneer. When edge or face-sanding thick stock , especially with rougher grit paper, it leaves conspicuous grooves on the wood surface because the sander is running in a linear rather than random direction.
If you’re looking for as close to dust-free hand sanding as possible, then this is it. Consists of a 3″ × 9″ soft grip D-handle sanding block with 55 holes in the base pad, a 20mm × 4m (.78″ × 13′) vacuum hose and three Abranet hook and loop sanding sheets. The hose is designed to work with the Mirka dust extractor but may fit other dust extractors. Abranet sanding sheets are made of a strong, flexible polyamide nylon fabric with aluminium oxide particles bonded to the fabric. Cuts quickly at every grit level, and is very long lasting. The fabric design efficiently channels dust up through the holes on the Handy sanding bloc, resulting in almost 100 percent dust extraction. The D-handle is very comfortable to use for extended periods of time.
Curved, rounded and moulded sanding
Stock that isn’t flat, and surfaces that are especially narrow or beveled, require a different set of tools. Here again you can attach PSA-backed sanding paper to blocks of wood or pieces of dense rigid foam insulation shaped on the router table or with rasps and spokeshaves, to narrow and tapered sticks, as well as to dowels and other curved stock. Here are some commercial options.
A unique sander ideal for convex or concave profiles. Measures 2″ × 2-3/4″ × 5″ and weighs only nine ounces. Uses 3-1/2″ × 4″ hook and loop paper. Made of a durable, high-impact ABS plastic. The base has a series of thin, springloaded plates made of high-impact PVC. When pressed onto a profile, the plates conform to its shape. A locking knob holds the plates firmly in place.
Contour Sanding Grips
$7 and up
Good for narrow convex and concave profiles. Made of flexible rubber. Available in various diameters. Wrap sandpaper around the profile and use finger pressure to keep the paper in place. Inexpensive and effective.
Available in wide range of shapes and sizes, from 60 to 220-grit. Consist of foam blocks or pads impregnated with aluminum oxide grit. Can have different grits on each side. Suitable for use on contoured surfaces, trim work, and moulding. Use wet or dry, rinse with water to remove residue.
You might think that doing a ‘little bit of sanding’ without a dust mask or respirator is okay. Not so. A little dust at a time can lead to a big health problem down the road. Unlike wood chips produced by machine planing and jointing, or the shavings generated by hand planing, very fine dust like that produced by hand and power sanding has a long latency period and can get trapped deep in your lungs. Be responsible and cover your mouth with a proper mask or respirator.