Sanding: A bum rap

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We woodworkers seem to have a phobia about sanding. In most shops, sanding is considered a "bottom of the totem pole" job. The new guy always has to start out sanding and the guy who had been doing most of the sanding gets to graduate to more worthwhile work.

Ask any woodworker what his least favorite task is and he will inevitably tell you it's sanding. Most guys would rather be cleaning the shop (my own least favorite task) than sanding. We are willing to spend ungodly amounts of money on anything that promises to ease to work of sanding.

The problem is that while it's understandable that sanding had gotten a bum rap, that's really what it is … a bum rap. It has been said that a properly prepared surface can be finished with shoe polish and end up looking great, while a poorly prepared surface will never take a fine finish no matter how much effort is put into the actual finish. Most of us understand this.

Proper surface prep is essential to achieving a good finish. And for most of us that means sanding. And we know that sanding must be done correctly. It is an essential woodworking skill. Unfortunately, it is dusty, tedious and often painful work and we can hardly resist the temptation to delegate it to someone else, even if that person hasn't the foggiest notion of how to do it correctly.

We are constantly looking for ways to make sanding easier. Hand-held power sanders have improved over the years but none of them can compete with a properly hand-sanded surface.

Of course, most modern finishes (anything from nitrocellulose lacquer forward) are not nearly as dependent on a finely sanded surface as something like a hand-rubbed oil finish or an oil/varnish finish or a French polish. Most modern finishes will lay down quite nicely on a surface sanded to 220 grit and many shops stop at 180. But an oil or polished finish will not look its best until it has been wet sanded down to at least 600. Often I will follow that with 1000 grit and sometimes even go to 1500. Then I get a finish that is, in the words of a piano finisher friend, "four fingers" deep.

It's all in the sanding.


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