The Complete Guide to Sanding Wood
Sanding wood is one of those steps that people like to skip. Don’t! Sanding wood is an important prep step before staining or finishing wood, and it’s really not that hard to do!
To sand wood, scribble a light pencil line on the wood. Rub 60-grit sandpaper against the wood in the direction of the grain until the pencil line is gone. Repeat with 80 grit, 120 grit, and 180 grit sandpapers, working your way from lowest to highest grit. Then remove the sawdust with a vacuum.
This is the general process for sanding wood, but the directions can be a little different depending on your exact purpose, so lets look a little closer!
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Sanding wood really is as simple as grabbing some sandpaper and rubbing it against the wood. But there are a few other details that help your project come out as flawless as possible!
How Sandpaper Works
Sandpaper works by scratching the surface of the wood, removing a very thin layer of wood from the piece. You probably can’t see the scratches as you sand, but I promise you, they’re there!
Coarser/lower grit sandpapers leave larger scratches than higher grit sandpaper. While you might not be able to see the scratches initially, both wood stain and wood finish can highlight them, because the scratches take finish differently than the rest of the piece.
So it’s important we minimize those scratches as much as we can during the sanding process. Sanding the right way means the finish product won’t have any visible scratches on it, which is exactly what you want!
Sanding With the Grain
The first way to minimize sanding scratches is by sanding in the direction of the grain. The are two reasons for this.
First off, any scratches that still exist at the end of the sanding process will blend in with the grain. While there might still be a scratch, it will be unnoticeable because it looks just like the grain of the wood.
Secondly, scratches that aren’t in the direction of the grain are really difficult to remove. Therefore, if you sand with a low grit sandpaper against the grain, you’ll have major scratches in the wood that you won’t be able to get out of the piece.
Not only are scratches against the grain difficult to remove, they’re also really obvious. Take a look at this tabletop (full saga here) I refinished back when I didn’t know better:
I used a belt sander to remove multiple layers of paint. And here’s the thing about sanding against the grain: it actually removes material faster than sanding with the grain.
I had a real hard time getting the paint off, so I decided to sand against the grain for a bit. And no matter what I did afterward, I couldn’t get the marks off.
And so those marks you see above will forever be embedded in the tabletop, all because I didn’t sand with the grain.
Lesson learned. Sand in the direction of the grain.
Sandpaper comes in a variety of grits. Lower grits indicate corser sandpaper, while higher grits represent smoother sandpaper.
Most wood projects use sandpaper between 40 and 240 grit, with the exception of wood floor sanding, where you might start with a 24 grit sandpaper.
Higher grit sandpapers create fine sawdust that can clog the pores of wood and inhibit staining and finishing, which is why most projects recommend stopping the sanding process at 180 grit, unless you’re intentionally trying to close up wood pores (see staining end grain post.)
At the store, you’ll also see sandpaper that is well above 240 grit, like 400, 800, and even 1000. Those sandpapers are made for other uses, like autobody work.
Lower grit sandpapers remove more wood than higher grit sandpapers, but they also leave deep sanding marks in the wood. This is why woodworkers typically use multiple grits of sandpaper on a project.
I usually start standing with 60 grit sandpaper. Then once I’m satisfied all of the flaws are removed, I’ll sand with 80 grit sandpaper. The intention of the 80 grit sandpaper is to remove any sanding marks from the 60 grit sandpaper.
I continue this up to 180 grit, sanding with 120 grit to remove the 80 grit marks, and sanding with 180 grit to remove the 120 grit marks.
The 180 grit marks are small and in the direction of the grain, so they’ll be unnoticeable when I stain or finish my piece.
Sand With Light Pressure
One last way to reduce sanding marks is by sanding with light pressure instead of heavy pressure. Let the sandpaper (and orbital sander if you’re using one) do the work for you.
You don’t need to press the sandpaper into the wood. Just lightly holding the sandpaper to the wood and rubbing back and forth is enough pressure for the sandpaper to work.
When you press too much, you create deeper marks that are harder to remove without any extra benefit to your piece. Only use light pressure when sanding, and you’ll save yourself work!
How To Sand Before Staining
Since staining wood brings out all of the flaws in the wood, you’ll want to do the most thorough sanding job you can before staining.
Step 1: Lightly Scribble a Pencil Line
Scribble a pencil line on the wood, being careful not to press too hard. You don’t want to make an indentation, which would make the pencil line much more difficult to remove.
Step 2: Sand With the Lowest Grit Sandpaper
What grit you start at somewhat depends on what type of wood you’ve purchased (see my how to buy wood post for more information on wood types.)
If you’ve bought inexpensive softwood, you’ll probably want to start with the lowest grit you have (60 or 40) to remove any manufacturing marks, stains, or flaws.
If you’ve purchased higher quality lumber that has already been sanded, you can probably get away with starting at 80 grit. I wouldn’t start any higher than that if you’re planning to stain the piece.
Regardless, sand in the direction of the grain until your pencil mark is gone.
If you’re working with inexpensive lumber, you might need to sand further if you can still see marks and dents from the manufacturing process. If you don’t completely remove those marks, they’ll be highlighted when you add stain, so if in doubt, keep sanding.
You want to completely remove any marks with your lowest grit sandpaper before moving on to higher grits. Higher grit sandpaper isn’t intended to remove flaws, but instead to remove sanding marks from lower grits.
Step 3: Double Check You’ve Removed All Marks
There’s an easy way to check and see if you’ve removed all the manufacturing marks before moving onto the next grit. Simply get the wood wet!
Once the wood is wet, the marks will stand right out, and you’ll know if you need to keep sanding with the lower grit. You probably will see some marks from sanding; ignore those for now, you’ll remove them with your next grit sandpaper.
If you’re using an oil-based stain or finish, mineral spirits is a great option for getting the wood wet. If you’re using a water-based stain or finish, use water or denatured alcohol.
Make sure to match your “wet” product to the type of stain or finish you’re applying. Mineral spirits can prevent water-based stain or finish from adhering properly.
Step 4: Remove Sawdust
Between grits, you’ll want to remove sawdust. That way, the lower grit and larger pieces of sawdust don’t get stuck between your sandpaper and the wood when you’re sanding with the next grit. When that happens, it creates larger scratches in the wood, which is what you’re trying to remove!
There are a couple of ways to remove sawdust. I like using a shop vac and vacuuming up the dust.
You can also use a tack cloth or a wet rag, although if you go the wet rag route, be sure to use a product that matches your stain or finish. (Mineral spirits for oil-based stains/finishes, water or denatured alcohol for water-based stains/finishes.)
Step 5: Sand With a Higher Grit
Repeat steps 1, 2 and 4 with a higher grit sandpaper. I typically go in this order: 60, 80, 120, 180.
I don’t typically sand past 180 grit, simply because that starts to close the wood pores, and prevents stain from soaking into the wood.
You’ll need to repeat steps 1, 2 and 4 every time you move onto the next grit. You can skip step 3, because you’ve already removed the manufacturing marks, and don’t need to check if they’re gone.
Sanding Wood Before Painting
The purpose of sanding wood before painting is a bit different than sanding before staining.
Sanding before staining aims to eliminate flaws in the wood which would be highlighted when the wood is stained. Sanding before painting aims to help the paint adhere to the wood.
Because of this, the process is a bit different, and thankfully, easier. Because the goal is really to just scratch the wood up a bit, you don’t need to use every grit of sandpaper.
Instead, grab some 180 grit sandpaper, and rub it against the wood. You can do this by hand or with an orbital sander, either is fine.
The amount I sand varies depending on what type of wood I’m sanding. If it’s cheap wood that clearly hasn’t been sanded, I’ll be a bit more thorough. Otherwise, I’ll just take a few minutes to rub down the piece with the sandpaper, and call it a day.
Also keep in mind that if you’re painting, using a bonding coat of primer can do the same thing as sanding. It costs a little more money, but you don’t have to sand, if sanding isn’t quite your thing!
Sanding Previously Finished Wood
If you’re looking to strip a piece of furniture that’s already been finished, the sanding process will look a little bit different.
First off, I don’t recommend using a sander as your primary method for stripping finish or paint off of wood. Remember that table from above? If you read the full story, you’ll learn getting the paint off with a sander was a nightmare.
Instead, I recommend stripping the furniture with Citristrip. I have a whole post on how do to that here.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll be left with a little residue, and whatever stain was on the wood in the first place.
To get the wood down to bare wood, you’ll need to do some sanding. Since you’re going to need to A) sand through any remaining residue, and B) sand off the stained wood, I highly recommend starting with the lowest grit sandpaper you have.
For me, that’s usually 40 grit sandpaper. It’s pretty easy to pop that on my orbital sander, and get a flat surface down to bare wood in about 5 minutes. Then I’ll work my way up the grits, just like I described in the “sanding bare wood” section.
For non-flat surfaces, things are a little more complicated.
Small carvings are difficult to sand in general, but you can purchase sanding attachments for your drill/driver that make it a little bit easier.
If you have a Dremel, there are sanding attachments for that tool as well.
Frankly, I tend to strip and stain flat surfaces, and paint non-flat surfaces. I like the two-toned look, and it’s just so much easier than actually sanding everything.
These nightstands are an example. I think they look great!
Sanding Between Coats of Stain or Finish
Often times, you’ll read the directions on your stain or finish, and it will indicate that you need to sand between coats.
Awesome! But how? And why?
Sanding between coats of finish smooths out any flaws or dust nibs that got into the finish during the dry period. It also helps the next coat adhere to the previous coat.
When sanding between coats, you should use a high grit sandpaper in order to not remove the finish you just applied to the piece. I often use 240 grit sandpaper.
I’m careful to move quickly as I work, and never press too hard on the piece. My goal is just to smooth everything out, and remove any brushstrokes or flaws while prepping the finish for the next coat.
So, first off, recognize that while hand sanding to prepare for painting isn’t so bad, hand sanding to prepare for staining will be, at best, a time-consuming ordeal.
Cheap palm sanders from Harbor Freight are around $15. If you want to stain wood one time for a single project, consider purchasing one. If you think you might stain wood more often than that, check out my guide to orbital sanders.
But if you’re absolutely determined to hand sand, I’ve got some tips for you.
First off, grab a block to wrap the sandpaper around. This can be a fancy block, like the one below:
Or it can just be some scrap wood that you wrapped sandpaper around:
Either way, having the sandpaper wrapped around a flat surface will distribute the pressure from your hand, which will help you sand more evenly.
The exception is if you’re sanding carvings or curved areas. Then your hand will do a better job of shaping the sandpaper to the wood.
Secondly, watch for your sandpaper to dull. If you’re using an orbital sander, this isn’t a huge deal – dull sandpaper will be less efficient, but since the tool is moving so quickly, plenty of wood is still being removed.
But if you’re hand sanding, it’s crucial to be using sharp sandpaper, else your piece will take forever to get fully sanded.
You can check to see if your sandpaper is sharp by rubbing your hand against it, and comparing it to fresh sandpaper. They should feel similar. If the fresh sandpaper is scratchier, then it’s time to switch out your paper.
Finally, if you’re hand sanding, splurge on the sandpaper. Back before I had an orbital sander, I used to purchase my sandpaper from Harbor Freight, and it was such a mistake.
The paper ripped constantly. I thought all sandpaper was terrible, but then I purchased some 3M sandpaper from Home Depot, and it was 100% better.
This is less of an issue if you have an orbital sander, since most of those have either velcro or adhesive backing that holds your sandpaper to sander. I go into the price comparisons and I why I choose the cheaper sandpaper in that case over in the orbital sander post.
Tips and Tricks For Sanding Wood
Tip 1: Wear a Good Mask
Most things in the shop produce sawdust, but sanding produces really fine sawdust, which means you’re more likely to actually breath it in.
I always wear my heavy-duty mask when I’m sanding for this reason. I have this mask from Amazon, and it does a great job at keeping the dust out. Plus, the filters are pink, and I’m kind of love that.
Tip 2: Sand Edges By Stacking Like-Size Pieces
There are a few advantages to doing this. First off, you save a bunch of time by sanding all of the edges at once. Secondly, the widths of the boards all become completely level, which is great in a variety of projects.
But the most important advantage to me, is that sanding edges this way makes your sandpaper last longer. Sanding edges with Velcro-backed sandpaper with my orbital sander stresses the Velcro.
I’m honestly not sure why, but sanding edges is a quick way to make the Velcro go kaput.
Sanding edges all at once also helps you keep the sander totally flat, so that you don’t end up curving the edges accidentally.
Tip 3: Keep the Sander Flat
As you sand your piece, keep the sander flat. I know it might be tempting to tilt the sander and try to apply some extra pressure to that dent or mark in your wood. I hear you. Don’t do it.
When you tilt the sander, or try to apply pressure in a specific area, it results in an indentation in the wood that’s really difficult to remove. I’ve done it, and I promise you, it’s not worth it.
Tip 4: Purchase Sandpaper For Your Orbital Sander Online
A 10-pack of 3M Hook and Loop Sandpaper costs about $10 at posting. That’s approximately $1 per piece of sandpaper.
This 80-pack of assorted grit sandpaper from Amazon is around the same price. That averages down to $0.13 per piece of sandpaper.
I don’t care how good the 3M sandpaper is, I doubt it lasts 7 times longer than the internet sandpaper. And frankly, I’ve been quite pleased with the durability and performance of the sandpaper I’ve purchased online.
For whatever reason, I typically have to purchase from a different brand every time I buy new sandpaper – the one I purchased previously is usually no longer available. Either way, I haven’t bought anything terrible yet, so I’m still recommending you get the paper online.
Tip 5: Sand at a 45 Degree Angle To Remove More Wood
I mentioned earlier that sanding against the grain removes wood faster, but that you should avoid doing that because it creates marks in the wood that are deep and difficult to remove.
This is still true, but sanding at a 45 degree angle doesn’t create deep marks, but still removes wood faster than sanding with the grain.
I’d only do this when I really needed to remove a lot of wood. It’s not something I try on most projects, but it is a technique to have in your toolbox!
Tip 6: Have Good Lighting
It’s difficult to see the marks on the wood sometimes, but when sanding it’s important to see those in order to know when you’ve sanded enough.
I already mentioned wetting the wood after sanding to highlight any marks, and that’s the most reliable method of spotting any flaws before you finish the piece.
But great lighting can also help you identify flaws beforehand. Sanding near a window, or in a workshop with bright “daylight” colored lights can really help you to spot flaws you would’ve otherwise missed.