How to Sand Inside Safely (and without making a mess)

I live in Minnesota. Winter here is basically an arctic tundra. So for a good half of the year, sanding outside is straight up terrible.

Out of necessity, I sand inside. A lot.

I get questions about this – isn’t it messy? Dangerous? Well, yes. But…

It’s okay to sand inside given you wear a respirator and have a variety of dust collection mechanisms in place. Connecting a shop vacuum to your sander, sanding on a downdraft table, wet sanding instead of dry sanding, and sealing the room you’re working in all reduce the amount of free-flowing sawdust.

Lets go into a bit more detail on my system.

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Consider What You’re Sanding

First off, lets talk about the things I absolutely never sand inside. Number one on this list? Anything with paint.

Sanding Paint

Sawdust is a carcinogen. It’s better not to breath it in. But lead is legitimately poisonous. You never want to release lead paint dust into your house.

(In fact, you probably don’t really want to release it out in the backyard either. But one of these options is vastly better than the other.)

And telling lead paint from latex paint is difficult to do without purchasing chemical lead tests.

So, if I suspect something might have lead paint, it gets sanded outside, even if it means I’m standing in 5 degree weather to do it.

Side note: If you’re trying to strip something you suspect is lead paint, you’re better off using a chemical stripper. I learned this the hard way.

Significant Sanding Jobs

I sand inside all the time. But if I know this is going to be an hours-long process where I take off a significant amount of wood, I try to find a better spot.

I’m thinking something along the lines of sanding the cedar fence pickets for this outdoor sofa.

I had 20 fence pickets to sand, and they were all really rough. I had to hit them with a belt sander, then an orbital sander at 80, 120, 150, and 180 grit.

Even if I picked up 90% of the sawdust with the dust collection strategies I’m going to talk about below, I was still spewing a significant amount of sawdust around my home.

There’s no way around it, this sort of job needs to be done outside. No matter how great your system is, the amount of sawdust produced is just ridiculous.

Outside Alternatives

If you’re forced to sand outside, consider if there are any more pleasant alternatives than plopping your butt in the snow and sanding on the ground.

I had a screened porch when I lived in Missouri, which was perfect for sanding in the snowy winter and rainy spring. I was still cold, but at least I was dry.

I’m in Minnesota now, and I don’t have the screened porch luxury anymore, but I can usually just open the garage door, move my car temporarily, and sand in the garage.

Is Wet Sanding Possible?

Have you heard of wet sanding? It does an amazing job of reducing sawdust, since wet sawdust is heavy and sticks together, and therefore doesn’t go floating around in the air to find your lungs and kill you.

Wet sanding is by far the easiest way to sand safely indoors.

However, wet sanding is really only efficient if you’re in the late stages of a project, and looking to sand the finish. It’s less abrasive than dry sanding, so it takes less wood off.

Because of this, it really doesn’t take off enough wood to remove the manufacturing marks, which is the primary reason you’re sanding bare wood at the beginning of a project.

If you only need to do a little bit of sanding, whether at the end of a project or to scratch up the wood before painting, or something similar, check out this post on wet sanding.

Otherwise, keep reading for my system.

How I Sand Safely Indoors

You have one main goal: to reduce the amount of sawdust that makes it into your lungs.

My first strategy is a simple one. Get a good respirator. None of that paper junk.

Respirator for sanding inside

I have this respirator that I found on Amazon, and I’m quite pleased with it. It’s comfortable (enough… it’s still a giant respirator) and the replacement filters are easy to find.

Any other NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) approved respirator should work too, though.

My second strategy is multi-pronged: reduce the dust in the air.

Shop Vacuums

Shop Vacs are lovely things. I hunt them down at garage sales, because you can never have too many. One is permanently attached to my miter saw. Another sits around waiting for miscellaneous cleanup.

Most handheld power tools that create sawdust have a dust collection port. If you’ve never used it before, it’s in the bag attached to your tool.

Dust collection port on sander

That bag comes off, and you can attach a shop vac hose to the port.

Your tool/vacuum won’t suck up all the dust, but it will help a lot.

Pro Tip: Have you ever heard of a Vacuum Switch? It’s this awesome little invention that turns on your shop vac anytime you turn on your power tool, and then turns it off 5-ish seconds or so after you stop using the tool.

My dad got me this one last summer, and it’s awesome for dust collection with my miter saw. It’s best for stationary tools where you can always have a shop vac hooked up, but I love it so much that I thought I’d mention it anyway.

Downdraft Table*

A downdraft table is another type of dust collection mechanism. The table has a bunch of holes in it that are vacuuming up the sawdust as you work.

Buying a downdraft table new is a really expensive endeavor, and probably not worth it if you’re a DIY hobbyist. But, it’s pretty easy to make one yourself with a shop vac.

Here’s a video with all the details.

*Full disclosure, I haven’t actually built one yet, but it’s on my to-do list after I get the big parts of my new shop all sorted out.

Sealing the Room

If you’re sanding in your home, some sawdust is inevitable. It’s important to keep it in your work area, where you can easily wear a respirator or other protection.

The last thing you want is sawdust floating all over rest of the house.

I’m currently revamping the lower level of my new house to make it into a shop area, and put a door in the doorway for this very reason.

But “have a door” is really obvious advice, and you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.

In addition to having a door, I’d also consider how else you can easily seal the edges of said door. I put one of those winter draft blockers at the bottom.

It got dirty fast, but I’d rather have a nasty draft blocker than sawdust all over the house.

Fan and Window System

If it’s warm enough outside that I can open the widows, I’m usually sanding outdoors. But occasionally, you might have a project that you can’t take outside.

Just the other day, I was sanding some butcherblock countertops that were built directly on my cabinets. No way was I getting those outside.

So I grabbed a window fan, and programmed it to push air out the window. I had the other windows in my shop open. As the fan pushed air outside, the pressure pulled clean air in through the other windows.

I was stunned at how big a difference this made. I couldn’t see a single speck of dust in the air, and I was creating a ton of it!

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