7 Pro-Approved Tips for How to Sand Woodwork by Hand

Updated: Jun. 01, 2023

Special tools and high-quality sandpaper produce great results with less effort

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With a few special tools and good sandpaper, you can smooth wood easily and quickly with first-class results. Often even better than with a power sander. We tell you how to choose the best sandpaper for wood and demonstrate several of our favorite tools.

Tools Required

  • Putty knife
  • Sanding block
  • Sanding grips

Materials Required

  • Rigid foam insulation
  • Sandpaper
  • Spray adhesive

Video: How to Sand Wood By Hand

I know, you’re probably thinking, “Yuck, I hate sanding. ” But the truth is that with top-quality sandpaper and a few special tools, sanding by hand can be made a lot more pleasant. Sure, hand sanding is a little slower than power sanding. But it’s quieter and doesn’t spew dust all over the place. And besides, there are some places that you can’t reach with power sanders. In this article, we’ll tell you how to choose the best type of sandpaper for the job and show you some of our favorite hand-sanding tools.

Project step-by-step (9)

Step 1

Tip 1: Choose Three Grits to Find the Best Sandpaper for Wood

3 grits of sandpaper Family Handyman

When you sand, you’re scraping away material from the surface to remove imperfections or to shape and contour edges. The goal is to start with the sandpaper that’s just coarse enough to remove the worst defects easily. Starting with sandpaper that’s too coarse will mean extra sanding later with finer-grit papers to remove the deep scratches left by the coarse grit. On the other hand, if you start with sandpaper that’s too fine, it’ll take forever to sand out defects. In most cases, 80-grit paper is a good starting point for sanding planed or shaped wood. Start with 100-grit if the wood is already smooth with no deep scratches, planer marks or other surface defects.

Both 80- and 100-grit leave a network of fine scratches behind, so the next step is to sand with a little finer grit. This replaces the scratches with smaller, less visible ones. If you started with 80-grit paper, skip to 120-grit paper, or if 100 then to 150. Finally, sand with 220-grit sandpaper. For most types of wood, this is the finest grit you’ll need. Wood with a very dense grain, like ebony, may require one additional sanding step with 320- or 400-grit paper to eliminate visible scratches. Here are the two grit progressions we recommend: 80/120/220 and 100/150/220.

Step 2

Tip 2: Use a Sanding Block for Flat Surfaces

sanding blockFamily Handyman

It’s tempting to just fold a piece of sandpaper and go to work. But you’ll get better results with far less effort if you use a sanding block. The block distributes sanding pressure more evenly and maintains a flatter surface. A block also lets you bear down harder. You can make a sanding block by cutting a small square of rigid foam or gluing a thin layer of cork to a wood block. Or you can buy a simple rubber sanding block at almost any hardware store, paint store or home center. But for the ultimate in hand-sanding convenience and efficiency, consider ordering a sanding block like the one we show here. Its shape conforms comfortably to your hand, and the well-designed clamps make it easy to install quarter sheets of sandpaper.

Buy it on Amazon.

The biggest mistake I see people make when they’re using a sanding block is failing to change paper often enough. To encourage more frequent changing, use a straightedge and utility knife to cut to size a bunch of paper sheets in each of the grits you’ll be using. With exact-size sheets on hand, it’ll be easy to change the paper often—as soon as you notice it isn’t cutting efficiently.

In general, it’s best to sand with the grain of the wood, especially for the final grits. But to remove deep scratches and stains, it’s OK to angle across the grain, up to about 45 degrees for the initial sanding. This goes contrary to popular opinion, but it’s a good method to remove material quickly. But before switching to the next finer grit, sand with the grain to remove all cross-grain scratches.

Step 3

Tip 3: Foam Pipe Insulation and Swimming Noodles Make Great Sanding Pads

pool noodle foam pipe insulation sanding block sand paperFamily Handyman

Soft, flexible foam makes a great base for sandpaper because you can easily squeeze or compress it to fit a variety of shapes. Wrap sandpaper around scraps of foam pipe insulation to sand medium-size coves. For large concave surfaces, use scraps of foam swimming noodles. These are easy to cut with a bread knife. Stick paper to the inside surface of pipe insulation to make a sanding pad for dowels and other cylindrical shapes. You can adapt many household objects to become sanding pads if you like the contours and they’re a bit soft.

Check out these tips for using your noodles at home, in the garage, around the yard and at the pool!

Step 4

Tip 4: Save Your Fingers—Try Contour Sanding Grips

sanding tips save finger tipsFamily Handyman

Contour sanding grips make it easier to sand molding profiles because you can get a good grip and the shape stays consistent as you sand. We’re sanding a coved edge created with a router. You can buy a set of these shaped rubber sanding pads. (They’re also sold under the Tadpole brand name.) Simply choose the one that fits the profile you’re sanding and wrap sandpaper around it. I like to use sandpaper with pressure-sensitive adhesive on the back and stick it right to the pad. You can buy small rolls of adhesive-backed sandpaper at home centers and woodworking supply stores.

Buy them on Amazon.

Step 5

Tip 5: Stick Sandpaper to a Putty Knife to Reach into Tight Corners

putty knife to sand tight spotsFamily Handyman

It’s difficult to sand “with the grain” into tight corners without scratching the adjacent wood. Here’s a tip that works great for those hard-to-reach areas. Wrap an adhesive-backed sanding discover the edge of a flexible putty knife. Trim the sandpaper flush to the edge of the putty knife with a utility knife. Adhesive-backed sandpaper discs are readily available at home centers and hardware stores. Otherwise, you can use spray adhesive to mount regular sandpaper or buy a roll of sandpaper with adhesive backing.

Step 6

Tip 6: Buy ‘Clog-Resistant’ Sandpaper for Sanding Painted Surfaces

Clog resistant sandpaperFamily Handyman

Paint and resinous wood like pine will clog most types of sandpaper quickly. To avoid using reams of sandpaper, look for sandpaper labeled as “no-clog” or “clog-resistant.” It’s coated with a soapy film, called stearate, that is shed as you sand, taking the paint or resin with it and leaving the grit exposed for more efficient sanding. This “no-load” paper is easy to recognize. Look for a mottled gray or colored surface. Two common types of sandpaper, brown aluminum oxide and yellow garnet, are not coated and will clog easily. Clog-resistant sandpaper costs a little more, but it’s worth it because it’ll last three or four times longer and save you sanding time.

Buy it on Amazon.

Step 7

Tip 7: Make a Custom Sanding Block to Speed Up Sanding of Complex Shapes

sanding blockFamily Handyman

Scraps of rigid foam insulation (extruded polystyrene) make great sanding blocks and have the advantage of being easy to shape. And you’ll be able to make a sanding block that conforms to your molding profile. Make three blocks while you’re at it. Then glue three progressively finer grit papers to the blocks to complete your sanding sequence. If you don’t have any extruded polystyrene, ask for scraps at a local building site or look for a damaged sheet at a home center or lumberyard.

To begin, spray the molding and the backside of 120-grit sandpaper with spray adhesive. Stick it to the molding, making sure to press it into recesses with the blade of a putty knife.

Step 8

Sand a Foam Block to the Profile

customized polystyrene sanding blockFamily Handyman

Rub a block of rigid foam insulation over the sandpaper until it conforms to the molding’s profile.

Step 9

Adhere Sandpaper to the Block

customized sanding blockFamily Handyman

Coat the foam block and the back of the sandpaper with spray adhesive. Carefully stick the sandpaper to the block and sand the molding.

This profile sander has one drawback. It’s difficult to fit the sandpaper tightly into the sharp corners of the custom-shaped block. This can result in rounded-over edges on some molding profiles. To prevent this, slice the sandpaper with a utility knife in the “creases” and press it tight to the block with a putty knife. The other solution is to cut the custom-shaped block into sections to eliminate the parts that could round over a sharp profile. Sand these areas separately with a small square sanding block or a small piece of folded paper.

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