11 Secrets for Sanding Wood Projects Like a Pro

Sanding is the first step to preparing wood for paint or stain. These sanding secrets will help you sand your DIY projects like a pro.

Sanding is the first step to preparing wood for paint or stain. These sanding secrets will help you sand your DIY projects like a pro.

Why Do You Sand Wood?

A professional looking finish begins with sanding the wood. Sanding smooths the wood which prepares our project for painting or staining. Wood that isn’t properly sanded could mean that we see scratches or imperfections on the surface of our finished project.

Originally published June 7, 2016 updated November 13, 2018

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11 Secrets for Sanding Wood Projects Like a Pro

Before we start sanding or begin any DIY project for that matter we must protect ourselves. Sawdust produced when sanding, or more precisely the fine sawdust that is too small for us to see, can be extremely dangerous for our lungs.

We must wear a dust mask when sanding to protect our lungs. Disposable dust masks are good, but a respirator like this is even better. This respirator tightens on top of our heads and around our chins to provide a secure fit. It also has replaceable filters.

Protecting our eyes while sanding is a must. Wrap around safety glasses with a foam gasket is a great way to keep sawdust out of our eyes.

Electric sanders can be noisy, so we need to protect our ears by wearing hearing protection.


1. What are the Different Grits of Sandpaper?

When we look at packages of sandpaper we’ll see words like coarse, medium, and fine. We’ll also see numbers like 80, 100, 150, and 220. What do these words and numbers mean?

Sandpaper is graded by how coarse it is. In other words how aggressively or quickly it removes material. A “coarse” grit sandpaper removes a lot of material quickly but leaves the surface rough. A “medium” grit sandpaper removes less material more slowly and leaves the surface smoother.

Within each sandpaper grade (coarse, medium, fine, etc) we’ll see numbers like 80, 100, 150, and 220. A lower number removes more material more quickly and leaves the surface rougher. A higher number removes less material more slowly and leaves the surface smoother.

In other words, a 60 grit (coarse) sandpaper will remove large amounts of wood quickly but leave the surface rough. A 150 grit (fine) sandpaper will remove smaller amounts of wood more slowly, leaves the surface smooth and ready to finish.

Related: My Simple Trick for Organizing Sandpaper


2. How Do You Smooth Out Wood?

We smooth out wood by sanding. We start with a more aggressive sandpaper grit and move progressively to less aggressive sandpaper grits. My approach for sanding DIY projects is to start with the least aggressive grit necessary to smooth the wood.

For instance, I’ll begin sanding with 80 grit sandpaper if the wood I’m working with has some gouges or the project has some poor fitting joints. I try to avoid using wood with visible defects but sometimes I miss one and it sneaks into my project. I also try to avoid poor fitting joints when assembling my projects, but let’s face it, sometimes it happens!

If my DIY project doesn’t have any gouges or poor fitting joints I’ll start sanding with 100 grit sandpaper. Next, I’ll switch to 120 grit sandpaper when the piece has been completely sanded with 100 grit sandpaper. I usually finish sanding with 120 grit sandpaper, but if the piece requires more smoothing I’ll continue sanding with 150 grit sandpaper.


3. Don’t Skip a Grit

In the previous tip, I shared that when necessary I start sanding with 80 grit sandpaper, move to 100 grit sandpaper, then 120 grit sandpaper, and then 150 grit sandpaper if further smoothing is needed.

It’s important that we move progressively from more aggressive sandpaper grits to less aggressive grits. The 80 grit sandpaper prepares the wood for the 100 grit sandpaper. The 100 grit sandpaper prepares the wood for the 120 grit sandpaper, and so on.

Each step of the sanding process smooths and prepares the wood for the next sandpaper grit. Don’t start with 80 grit sandpaper and skip to 150 grit sandpaper. We must let each sandpaper grit do its job to ensure a professional looking finish. In other words, don’t “skip a grit”.


4. What Does it Mean to Sand with the Grain?

We often hear that we need to “sand with the grain”, but what does that mean?

In Mistakes with Wood Can Cause Your DIY Furniture to Crack we talked about wood grain. In that tutorial, I shared that the grain or the fibers of the wood run the length of a board. The best way to think of those wood fibers is like a box of drinking straws.

We want to sand in the same direction as those “drinking straws” Sanding with the grain means sanding the length of a board. Sanding against the grain or across the width of a board can tear those “drinking straws” and leave scratches on the surface of the wood.

Sanding with the grain of the wood means sanding along the length of the board.

5. Use a Light When Sanding Wood

We’ve all finished sanding a project and thought the surface looked perfectly smooth. Then we applied some stain and wiped on a finish or sprayed polyurethane only to discover the surface is covered with scratches.

Related: Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: Are They The Same?

We can easily prevent sanding scratches by using a light. But not just any light. Daylight or workshop lights mounted above our project will not work.

What we need is a utility light or clamp light. We can position the utility light or clamp light so it shoots across the surface of the wood. The light shooting across the surface it will “catch” any scratches or imperfections so we can fix them as we sand the wood.

We’re not seeing the whole picture if we’re not using a light while we’re sanding. A utility light or clamp light is cheap insurance that the surface of our project will be perfectly smooth and look professional.

Using a utility light to catch scratches while sanding wood projects

6. How Can I Sand Wood Fast?

There are a few ways we can sand wood. We can do touch-ups or spot sanding with a piece of sandpaper. For this method, I cut a piece of sandpaper into quarters. Then I take one of the quarters and fold into thirds.

We can mount the sandpaper on a sanding block to sand large areas. Sanding sponges are also available and can be used for sanding large areas.

A piece of sandpaper, sanding block and sanding sponges are great tools, but they work slowly for sanding large areas. So how can we sand wood faster?

To make quick work of a sanding project we can use an electric sander. The most common electric sanders we’ll see are palm sanders and random orbit sanders. Some DIYers disagree with me, but I’m not a fan of using a palm sander for my DIY projects.

Related: What’s the Best Sander for Furniture? (Here’s the Answer)

Palm Sanders

Here’s why I don’t use a palm sander. Many palm sanders move in only one direction. The exception are palm sanders that specifically say “random orbit”. So what’s the issue with moving in only one direction? If we shoot a utility light or clamp light across the surface as we sand with a palm sander we’ll notice little scratches in the shape of “figure 8s” on the surface of our project.

The reason this happens is because the sander moves in one, circular direction which produces those little “figure 8s”. We can sand out those “figure 8” scratches by progressively moving to higher and higher grits. But I’ve found that I’ve had to sand to a higher grit when I use a palm sander than if I didn’t use a palm sander. I don’t like sanding, so I want to sand less, not more!

Random Orbit Sanders

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an electric sander that didn’t require more work? There is. It’s a random orbit sander. I use a random orbit sander for my projects because it’s quick and requires less sanding than a palm sander that moves in only one direction.

And there’s one more benefit to using a random orbit sander. Remember the rule in Tip 4 where we talked about sanding with the grain? There’s an exception to every rule and a random orbit sander is an exception to sanding with the grain!

Sanding is the first step to preparing wood for paint or stain. These sanding secrets will help you sand your DIY projects like a pro.

Random orbit sanders move in multiple directions or a random pattern. This random pattern almost entirely eliminates those “figure 8s” produced by a palm sander. This means I can usually finish sanding with 120 grit sandpaper and get a smooth professional looking finish. The random pattern also means we don’t have to sand with the grain!

Here’s one final tip about using any electric sander. Don’t press on the tool while it’s sanding. We need to let the tool do the work for us. Pressing on the tool could actually sand a rut in the wood or make the surface uneven.

The Easy Way I Fixed My Sander

A few weeks ago I began sanding the parts for my new workshop cabinet. I sanded for what seemed like an eternity. Why is this taking so long?! It’s almost like I forgot to attach a sanding disc. Out of curiosity, I flipped the sander over and “Hey, where’s the sanding disc?!”

I found the disc on the floor, stuck it back on and turned on the sander. As soon as turned it on the sanding disc shot out from under the sander like a frisbee! WHAT?! I stuck the sanding disc on again and it kept flying off!

It took me a few minutes, but I finally figured out what was happening. Please skate over to The Fix for Sanding Discs that Won’t Stick to Your Sander and see how I fixed my sander!


7. Sand as You Go

When I first started building DIY furniture projects I would wait to sand my project until the piece was fully assembled. Often times I wouldn’t be able to sand all of the areas because I couldn’t reach into a tight space with a piece of sandpaper or my random orbit sander.

Over time I realized it was much easier to sand the individual parts as I assembled. Not only is it easier, but it’s less time consuming and less frustrating to sand as we build.

Sanding as we build means we’re able to properly sand all of the areas of the project which ensures a professional looking finish.


8. Don’t Play the Chase Game When Sanding Wood

We’ve all placed a workpiece on our workbench, started our random orbit sander and chased the wood around our workbench.

Another lesson I’ve learned over the years is to sand my parts on a non-slip router pad. The rubber grips to the workbench and the parts which minimizes the “chase game” around the workbench.

Sure, the parts still move a bit, but nothing like they do without a non-slip router pad. The pad also protects our workpieces from any dried glue or debris on our workbench. Plus we can also use the pad with our router and sanding block.

Sanding wood projects on a rubber router mat prevents parts from sliding

9. Vacuum Between Grits

Little bits of the sandpaper is left behind as we sand. These bits could scratch the surface of our project as we move progressively from more aggressive sandpaper grits to less aggressive grits.

In order to prevent these bits from scratching our project, we should use a ShopVac to remove any residue before moving on to the next grit.

Vacuuming between grits will help to reduce scratches in the wood and ensure a professional looking finish.


10. Ease the Edges

When we look at a piece of store-bought furniture we’ll notice the corners are just ever so slightly eased or “knocked down”. This helps the piece to look finished and also helps the edges to resist denting and chipping.

We can get that same look for our DIY furniture projects. All it takes is 2-3 passes with a sanding block to make our piece look finished. We can also continue sanding to give the edges a more rounded look which works well for rustic pieces.

Using sandpaper to ease the edges of furniture projects prevents denting and gives the piece a finished look

11. Bevel Furniture Legs

Sharp edges can get caught when sliding a piece of furniture on the floor which can chip and tear out the leg. We can use a sanding block or an electric sander to sand a bevel on the ends of furniture legs.

Sanding a bevel on the bottom of furniture legs helps to reduce chipping and tearing. Plus, it gives our furniture projects a professional, finished look.

Sanding a bevel on the ends of furniture legs helps to prevent chipping

Next Steps

DIY Wood Filler

Sometimes after sanding, we may notice nail holes or small gaps or cracks in the wood. We could buy a wood filler, but we can make our own DIY wood filler with sanding dust and shellac.

Skate over to the free Wood Filler Recipe here.

Don’t Get Blotchy

After all of the holes and gaps are filled with DIY wood filler I apply a coat of tea to DIY furniture projects I plan to stain. Yes, tea! The tea prevents the wood from getting blotchy when the stain is applied, plus it has a few other benefits.

Skate over to see the 3 Reasons I Always Apply Tea to My DIY Furniture.

Finish Ideas

Now that our DIY furniture project has been properly prepared we’ll need to apply a coating to protect our project for years to come. For an easy wipe-on finish, we can make our own DIY finish. Bob’s Miracle DIY finish for wood is made with just three ingredients and is easy to apply with just a rag.

Skate over to Bob’s Miracle DIY Finish for Wood.

When we need a more durable finish we can spray several coats of polyurethane with a HomeRight Super Finish Max Sprayer. Spraying polyurethane is so much easier than applying with a brush.

Skate over to Spray Polyurethane Rather Than Brush for Professional Looking DIY Furniture.

Final Thoughts

Sanding is the first step to preparing wood for paint or stain. These sanding secrets will help you sand your DIY projects like a pro.

Thank you for stopping by. If you found this information helpful, would you please pin it to Pinterest? Other DIYers would appreciate it and I would too! Thank you – Scott


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16 Comments

  1. Hello Scott,
    These tips will greatly help me. I always thought my palm sander was doing a good job but I was just doing it wrong. I sold all my electrical tools when I moved to Spain and will look for a random orbit sander when I go to pick up one. Great info. Thanks a lot.

    Michael

    1. Thank you, Michael. Hope you can get a workshop up an running in your new hometown soon.

  2. Another great article Scott!
    Here’s something I use occasionally on soft Woods to get a slight dent out, rather than trying to over sand it out. I apply some water to the dent, let it soak in a little while, then use an iron or heat gun on it to raise the grain. After making sure it’s dry, I finish sand it leaving it smooth and ready to stain.
    Good day and keep the tips coming.

    1. Hi John – That’s a great tip! I’ve used the iron trick on a few dents and it works really well. I haven’t done it with a heat gun, so I’ll have to give that a try!

  3. There must be over a dozen paint sprayers on Amazon.com. As a first time adventurer with spray painting, I want the best bang for my buck. Why do you recommend the HomeRight Super Finish Max Sprayer from all the others?

    1. Hi Greg – Thank you for stopping by. I like the HomeRight Super Finish Max sprayer because it gives professional quality results, it can be used on projects ranging in size from furniture to the siding of a house, and it’s easy to clean.

  4. I’m recently retired and new to woodworking. I’m excited about learning and applying all the tips you can give me. Thank you so much for making this and additional information available for us.
    Knowledge is Power…..

    Respectfully,

    John

    1. Hi John – Thank you for stopping by and for the compliments. Good luck with your woodworking journey. You’re going to love it!

  5. Hi,I am new in woodworking,I work on my first project,a table.I have a problem,when I am sanding I press the dust into the surface.I have to start sanding again.It looks worst than before sanding.I tried to find out what I did wrong but when I tried to corrwct it got worst.Thanks!
    Hajni

    1. Hi Hajni – Have you tried using a ShopVac to remove the sanding dust? I would give it a try and see if that improves the situation for you.

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