Dry Sanding vs. Wet Sanding Wood: When to Use Each?

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/09/23 • 

Sanding wood is essential to remove milling and other surface marks made by machines and woodworking tools. Before applying a finish, you should properly sand the wood’s surface to ensure the finish goes smoothly. When applying a finish to wood, there are two different types of sanding: dry sanding and wet sanding.

What is Dry Sanding?

Dry sanding is when you sand bare wood to remove mill marks, gouge marks, and other imperfections before you finish the wood. With dry sanding, you can use coarse sandpaper like #80 grit sandpaper to smoothen rough wood. You can then progressively work your way through higher grit sandpapers up to around #180 grit or #220 grit.

Using a Sanding Block and Sandpaper to Sand Wood

Using a Sanding Block and Sandpaper to Sand Wood

Dry sanding is great when you want to remove more materials faster. You can dry sand wood using your hands or use an electric sander, like an orbital sander. When dry sanding wood, always sand along the grain of the wood to avoid cross-gain, which will be visible if you’re staining the wood.

Sanding Using an Orbital Sander

Sanding Using an Orbital Sander

When dry sanding wood, you’ll be exposed to sawdust or sanding dust. Proper ventilation and using a respirator are essential so you don’t inhale the dust. A respirator is especially useful when sanding toxic woods like Brazilian cherry, Cedar, Ebony, and Olivewood, among many others. When progressing between each sandpaper grit, always remember to clean the wood so you can check the progress.

When to Dry Sand Wood

Dry sanding is the sanding you do when smoothing a bare wood to get a smooth and even surface before finishing it with a stain, paint, or other finish. Although a wood’s surface appears perfect after passing it through a table saw, planer, or jointer, it’s not. All these machines will make their marks which are often not visible.

If you stain or apply a clear finish, all those machine marks will show up. Sanding the wood removes these make to give you a flawless-looking finish. Check out our guide on sanding wood for sanding basics and other tips to effectively sand wood.

What is Wet Sanding?

Wet sanding is a different sanding type involving finer grit sandpaper or steel wool and a lubricating liquid. Wet sanding is usually done to a finish like polyurethane, lacquer, varnish, and other film-building finishes to make the finish smoother and even.

Using Water to Wet Sanding an End Table to Get that Perfect Mirror Finish

Using Water to Wet Sanding an End Table to Get that Perfect Mirror Finish

When wet sanding wood, finer sandpaper grits are used, you can start at #400 grit and work your way to finer sandpaper grits. Steel wool can also be used to wet sand a finish, especially if you’re looking for a higher sheen. The grades of steel wool range from #0, which is fine, to #0000, which is super fine and best for final finishing.

Wet Sanded End Table to a Perfect Mirror Finish

Wet Sanded End Table to a Perfect Mirror Finish

You can use different lubricants to wet sand a finish, from soapy water, mineral oil, and even polishing compounds. For a higher sheen, use mineral oil and polishing compounds for rubbing out the finish.

When to Wet Sand Wood

Once you’ve applied a finish and it’s fully cured, wet sanding is a great way to take your finish to the next level. Wet sanding the surface of a finish gives it an even and smoother appearance. It will remove brush marks, dust nibs, and other smaller imperfections that might have cured in a finish.

Wet sanding will also polish the surface of the finish to a higher gloss or mirror-like appearance. For a glossy or mirror-like appearance, use mineral oil for wet sanding rather than water. You can also use a polishing compound or paste wax for a higher glossy look.


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