When we first started out, we didn’t know the importance of sanding. Actually, we didn’t even know you were supposed to sand since most tutorials leave out the finishing steps.
But sanding is one of those things in DIY that will make a huge difference in your projects. Sanding can take your projects from looking like a DIY to looking and feeling professional when done correctly.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- Why you need to sand
- Sandpaper grits
- Types of sanders
- How to sand wood
- Common sanding mistakes to avoid
- Frequently asked questions:
- How do you prepare wood before sanding?
- How do you know when you’ve sanded enough?
- How to minimize dust when sanding
- Which sandpaper grit should I start with?
- Should I sand after staining?
Alright, let’s dive in and talk about all things sanding.
Why You Need to Sand
Sanding can make a huge difference in your projects, both in terms of how it looks and how it feels.
Just look at the difference sanding can make when staining!
Be sure to check out our full post on how sanding affects wood stain. We also drop my favorite sanding/staining tip in that post!
Not only does sanding prepare the surface of the wood to better accept wood stain, it can also hide a lot of imperfections. Just look at the before and after of this c-side table:
Sanding has the potential to make your project look so much more professional. It also gives you the freedom when building to not stress out if everything isn’t absolutely perfect and flush. Yes, you want to try to get it as good it as it can be when assembling, but don’t stress if it’s not flawless. Sanding can fix a lot of things.
Finally, you’ll want to sand for the ease of cleaning. Yup, seriously. Before we understand the importance of sanding, we built a few projects that have led to a lot of regrets.
Poppy’s dog bed is probably the worst. Every time I go to dust it, it’s a hot mess. The duster gets caught in the rough areas of the wood and ends up making things look worse. Not only does the duster not actually clean out the dust and dog hair, but it also snags and leaves behind pieces of the duster.
Sand now so you can dust with ease later.
Do I always need to sand?
There are always going to be exceptions to the rule. We sand on 99.9% of projects, but sometimes you can get away with not sanding or very quickly sanding.
If you are creating something that you want to be more rustic, you can forgo the sanding (as long as you’re okay with not being able to dust it in the future). When we made this Pottery Barn dupe artwork, we didn’t sand so that the wood would look more rustic and reclaimed.
If you are using primed pine, you can also potentially forgo sanding. We generally sand a little bit to even out joints or to remove some unsmooth areas of the primed pine boards, but when using primed pine, you don’t need to sand much at all.
Generally, I’ll just sand quickly with 220-grit sandpaper. The primer on the pre-primed boards comes off really quickly, so you don’t want to sand for long or you’ll remove all the primer!
The last instance where you might not need to sand is when using finish-grade plywood. Nice plywood is already pretty smooth when you get it. I still generally quickly sand with 180 and 220 grit, but it’s your call.
When sanding plywood, it’s really important not to oversand. If you sand for too long or with too coarse of a grit, you can sand all the way through the top layer of veneer…aka the pretty wood grain pattern. If you oversand, unfortunately, you can’t add the wood grain back.
One of the most important things to understand when it comes to sanding is sandpaper grit. Sandpaper grit ranges from 24 – 1200, but don’t worry, you definitely won’t be using all of those options.
The grit of sandpaper refers to the rating of the size of the abrasive material on the sandpaper. A higher grit has finer abrasive materials, giving you a smoother finish. A lower grit is more coarse and removes more wood more quickly.
If you have some major imperfections or areas you need to smooth out, you’ll want to start with a coarse sandpaper, like 60 or 80 grit.
If everything is already feeling pretty flush and smooth, I’ll start with 120 grit sandpaper, then move to 180, and finish with 220 before staining or sealing my piece.
Most finishes like stain and paint recommend that you sand with 220 grit sandpaper or higher before applying the finish.
Now I know what you’re thinking… if you need to finish with 220, why can’t I just start with 220? Why do I have to sand multiple times??
As you move into higher grits, the amount of wood that the sandpaper takes off is reduced. So if you have some rough patches you need to work through, you’re going to spend the whole day sanding if you start with a high grit like 220.
You might be tempted to start with say 60 grit and then jump to your 220 finishing grit, but that’s a big no-no in sanding.
As you sand, the sandpaper is actually leaving little scratches in the wood. Each sandpaper grit is only capable of removing the scratches that the previous grit left behind. If you skip too many grits, you might end up with little swirls and scratches in your wood that you likely won’t notice until staining.
So the lesson is this: don’t skip more than 60 grit at a time. You can jump from 120 – 180 – 220, but don’t try to skip from say 80 to 220.
Another quick note about sandpaper. Not all sandpaper is created equal. We generally use WORKPRO sandpaper from Amazon since it’s a great deal, but it doesn’t sand as quickly as a higher quality sandpaper.
If you’re having any issues with sanding, try giving Gator sandpaper a try. It’s the best brand I’ve tried so far, but it is a little bit more expensive.
Types of Sanders
Random Orbital Sander
There are a lot of different types of sanders on the market today, but I’d recommend getting a random orbital sander to start. This is the most versatile and popular sander among DIYers.
I would also recommend getting some sort of sanding sponge or block for higher grits (like 220 and 320). These are really helpful when you want to lightly sand between coats of Polycrylic or Polyurethane.
Personally, I generally prefer the sponges, but you can also get a block that allows you to change out different sandpaper grits.
If you are planning to refinish a lot of furniture, you might want to consider a detail sander. The tip allows you to get into corners, which is something you can’t do with a random orbital sander.
If you are planning to primarily build furniture from scratch, you don’t need to worry about getting a detail sander. We’ve never used one on our projects.
We generally like to knock out the majority of our sanding before assembly. Once assembled, we can use a sanding block to get into corners if absolutely necessary.
You can also get these small sanding blocks to help you get into small places.
You can also use sanding attachments on a Dremel if you have very small places to get into. But again, you’d likely only need this if you were refinishing furniture. Not so much for building it.
The last major sander type is a belt sander, which removes a lot of material quickly. We’ve made it through our DIY projects with just our random orbital sander, so I definitely wouldn’t say this is a necessity.
Yes, it would have saved us some time on bigger projects that had uneven joints like our DIY dining room table, but we were able to get everything flush and smooth with our orbital sander.
So which sander should I get?
The takeaway of this section is that you should get a random orbital sander and a couple of sanding blocks (220 and 320 grit) to start. If you eventually want to expand your sander collection, all the power to you, but it’s definitely not required!
How to Sand Wood
STEP 1: SET UP YOUR SANDING SPACE
Before you start sanding, you want to make sure your wood is on a surface that won’t scratch it. I highly recommend these Kreg project blocks to lift your project off the table or floor. They are also grippy so your wood won’t move around or bounce when sanding.
If you don’t have project blocks, you can place something soft like an old towel or an old yoga mat underneath your wood to protect it.
Don’t skip this step. If you try to sand directly on the table or ground, it’s likely that the other side of your wood will get scratched. If there’s a dried glue blob or something else underneath the wood, those scratches can get pretty deep.
STEP 2: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PROPER PPE
Before sanding, you want to make sure you have ear, eye, and dust protection. You can find our favorites in our Amazon storefront.
Be sure to check out these headphones. They are super comfy and hook up to Bluetooth so you can listen to podcasts or music while sanding. That definitely helps the time go faster!
STEP 3: LIGHTLY DRAW A CURVY LINE ACROSS THE SURFACE OF THE WOOD
This is more of a pro-tip than a necessary step. When you’re sanding, you want to make sure to sand everything evenly. Sometimes we want to just sand the uneven joints, but that can result in a wavy finish.
So to combat this you can lightly draw on your wood with a pencil to leave a mark. As you sand, you’ll focus on removing the pencil line evenly.
Note: it’s very important to draw lightly. If you apply a lot of pressure with the pencil, that’s just going to create an indent that you’ll have to also sand out!
STEP 4: START WITH THE LOWEST GRIT
Now that you’re all set up and ready to sand, place the lowest grit sandpaper on your sander (something between 60-120). If you’re not sure which grit to start with, we have recommendations for different situations in the FAQ section of this post.
As you’re sanding, don’t add any pressure to the sander. The weight of your hand is more than enough.
You also want to move slowly. Like really slow. 1” per second is the pace you want to go. You may be tempted to move faster, but moving your sander faster will actually make it less effective, meaning you have to sand for longer.
Sand across your wood surface until you remove the pencil marks from step 3. Once the pencil lines are removed and you feel good about how flush everything is, you can move on to step 5.
Note: even though the lower grit sandpapers remove the most wood, you’ll likely spend the most time sanding with the first grit you use. This is because you really want to make sure everything is smooth and even before you move on.
Once you move onto a higher grit, you’ll be more focused on evenly sanding and removing the pencil line than trying to remove any imperfections.
STEP 5: WIPE YOUR WOOD SURFACE
Between every sandpaper grit, you want to wipe off the surface of the wood to remove any sawdust.
You can use tack cloth, a clean cloth, or vacuum the surface. The key is to remove any dust so that nothing gets trapped underneath the sandpaper and leaves scratches.
STEP 6: INCREASE SANDPAPER GRIT AND REPEAT
Repeat steps 3-6 until you work your way up to 220 grit sandpaper.
Common Sanding Mistakes to Avoid
Mistake #1: Thinking more pressure or more speed is better
When hand sanding, yes, more pressure can help you sand faster. But for random orbital sanders, the opposite is true.
You actually want to move slowly and avoid applying any downward pressure on the sander. If you apply pressure, you’re actually slowing down the sander and making it work less efficiently. It also increases the likelihood of squiggly or curly scratches being left in your wood.
When sanding with an orbital sander, don’t apply any additional pressure and move slowly (approximately 1” per second).
Mistake #2: Sanding against the grain
When we were first getting started, I sanded against the grain and didn’t realize the implications until I went to stain. The dark stain when on and revealed all sorts of ugly scratches!
When you sand against the grain, it leaves deep scratches in your wood that are hard to remove. The worst part is, you might not even notice the scratches until you go to stain. Then they become very obvious.
Always sand with the grain.
Mistake #3: Skipping grits
You don’t have to go through every grit, but don’t skip more than 60 grit at a time. If you increase the grit too quickly, the higher grit sandpaper won’t be able to remove the scratches left behind by the previous sandpaper grit.
My recommendation is to go up in grit as follows:
60 → 80 → 120 → 180 → 220
You might not even need to start at 60 or 80, but wherever you start, progress through the grits as laid out above.
Mistake #4: Tilting your sander
If you want to smooth out an uneven joint or remove a lot of wood quickly, sometimes people will resort to tilting their sander. Yes, it does remove a lot of wood quickly, but it also makes your wood very uneven.
If you run your hand over an area where you tilted the sander, you’ll feel an indent. If you don’t keep your sander level, you’ll cause your wood to be wavy and full of hills and valleys.
Tilting your sander can also cause issues when sanding edge or edge grains. If you don’t keep the sander flat, you’ll take off wood inconsistently, creating a slight angle on your wood. You might not notice it to the naked eye, but it sure will frustrate you when you start to assemble and nothing is fitting together quite how you expected!
Always keep your sander level. The only exception to this rule is if you are intentionally trying to round the corners or edges of your wood.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you prepare wood before sanding?
When sanding for most projects, there’s not too much you really need to do. Unless your project has a lot of wood shavings and debris on it, you can just get started. If the piece is really dirty, you’ll want to wipe it down first so that the debris doesn’t get caught in the sandpaper and scratch your wood.
If you are planning to finish your project with a water-based finish, there is an extra step you’ll want to do before your final phase of sanding (aka right before your final sandpaper grit).
Water-based finishes can cause the grain to pop, making the surface look and feel fuzzy or unsmooth. Sometimes the grain on oak can pop so much that it’s rough enough to cause splinters. See the example before for an extreme instance.
To prevent your final finish from having this problem, you can apply either a water-based pre-stain wood conditioner, or you can simply wipe water on the surface of the wood.
Both of these methods will cause the grain to pop. Don’t worry if you don’t notice much of a difference. Not every piece will have a dramatic grain pop like the photo above.
Once dry, you can sand your surface down again using the highest-grit sandpaper you were planning to use on your project (usually 220).
Be sure to only sand as much as is required to get the wood nice and smooth again. If you sand off too much wood, your grain might pop again when applying the finish.
Once you’ve popped the grain and re-sanded, you’re good to apply your finish.
How do you know when you’ve sanded enough?
There’s no perfect answer here. The pencil method is generally helpful with this as you’ll sand with each grit until the pencil marks disappear.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll want to inspect your wood closely to see if it has any squiggly sanding marks on it. If you can see some, keep sanding with your higher grit sandpapers.
If you want to really get a better look, you can brush some water on your wood. This will reveal any scratches that you might not have noticed.
If you go this route though, you’ll want to let the wood dry and then lightly sand everything down again using 220-grit sandpaper (or whatever the highest-grit is that you used) as the water can cause the grain to pop (see question and answer above).
How to minimize dust when sanding
You can hook your sander up to a shop vac or vacuum system to help suck up some of the dust as it’s being created. This won’t get rid of it all, but it will cut down on the amount of dust that accumulates when sanding.
P.S. We talk more about our vacuum system in our Ideas of the DIYer’s Workshop Guide.
Which sandpaper grit should I start with?
This is a fantastic question.
If you have really uneven joints, deep scratches, or other more major imperfections, start with a low grit sandpaper like 60 or 80.
If you don’t have any major issues, then the grit you’ll start with will depend on your wood type.
For softwoods like pine and common board, I’d recommend starting with 80 grit and then progressing through 120, 180, and 220.
For hardwoods like oak, you can start with a higher grit like 120 or 180.
For finish-grade plywood, you can start with 120 or 180 grit depending on if you need to smooth out any joints.
Should I sand after staining?
NO. Do not sand after sanding unless you want to remove some of the color of your finish. You should also NOT sand between coats of stain if you are applying more than one coat of color.
Though you shouldn’t sand right after staining, you should lightly sand between coats of polyurethane or polycrylic. I’d recommend using a 220 or 320 sanding pad.