The Comprehensive Guide to Sanding Wood Like a Pro

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/08/23 • 

Sanding is the final process before staining or finishing a piece of wood. Sanding wood mainly aims to remove mill marks, dents, gouge marks, and other blemishes caused by woodworking machines, planes, scrapers, and other hand tools. If you’re a beginner looking to sand down a piece of wood properly, you’re in the right place.

Sanding Basics

Start With Coarse Grit to Finer Grit

When you start sanding, the efficient way to do it is, to begin with a coarse sandpaper that will cut through and remove problems quickly. Afterward, you can sand out the rough sandpaper scratches with finer and finer sandpaper grits until you reach the desired smoothness.

For some rougher-shaped woods, you might begin with #80 grit, and sometimes #120 grit will be enough. Before you decide on the sandpaper grit to use, check the condition of the wood. This will eliminate problems like starting with very coarse grit sandpaper, which will cause you to overwork.

Check out this informative article on choosing the right sandpaper grit for wood. Learn about the different sandpaper grits, when to use them, and also some available sandpaper materials.

Sand with the Grain

The grain of the wood is the direction most of its fibers point towards. For example, the grain of the wood below is is moving from up-to-down or vice versa. If you’re sanding the wood, you sandpaper would move up and down the wood, rather than moving horizontally. Sanding in the direction of the grain is important to create a smoother wood surface and minimize cross-grain scratches.


Cross-grain scratches occur when you sand across the grain and tear the wood fibers. This makes the scratches more visible, especially if you apply a stain. Sanding along the grain is the best way to minimize cross-grain scratching. This is why it is commonly suggested for users of the random orbital sander to hand sand the final pass along the grain to remove cross-grain scratches.

Fine Sanding

Fine sanding is sanding your wood finer with a #180 or #220 grit sandpaper. In most cases, sanding wood past #180 grit is rarely beneficial. The appearance of a finish, especially film-building finishes such as varnish, shellac, and lacquer, after a couple of coats will be independent of how fine you sand the wood.

For other finishes, such as oil-based finishes affected by a coarse surface, you can sand between the cured coats using finer grit sandpaper. It is much easier to sand the finish between coats with a #400 or #600 grit sandpaper than sanding the wood through the different finer grit sandpaper.

If you plan to use a water-based finish, sanding to about #320 grit will minimize the roughness of the wood surface because it will reduce the grain raising. However, this will not remove all the tiny wood fibers that make wood rough after using a water finish. You can dewhisker the wood by slightly wetting and resanding it smooth after the water dries.

The Three Methods of Sanding

Sanding by Hand

The most popular way of sanding wood is using sandpaper with just your hand backing it. However, because your hand is not flat, you can hollow a softer wood, which will stand out more in reflected light once a finish is applied. If you’re using your hand as sandpaper backing, apply light pressure and rub back and forth.

Block Sanding

Attach a piece of sandpaper to a sanding block for sanding flat surfaces. Attach the right sandpaper grit to the sanding block and grip it firmly. Sand the wood’s surface in a straight, overlapping, back-and-forth line, but apply moderate pressure. All this time, you should be working with the grain of the wood.

Using a Sanding Block

Using a Sanding Block

The sanding block should always lay flat on the wood’s surface, especially when you reach the edges. To improve the performance of a sanding block, it should have a softer material like cork and be lighter and comfortable to hold for long sessions.

Power Sanding

Most woodworkers use a random orbital sander for power sanding because they are easier to use, very efficient, and don’tdon’t leave visible scratch marks. When working with any power sander, avoid pressing it down because it will go deeper and make more obvious marks that will be harder to sand out. Simply let the sander’s weight do the work.

Power Sanding Using an Orbital Electric Sander

Power Sanding Using an Orbital Electric Sander

Once you’ve properly sanded the wood to your satisfaction, do the final sanding using a block sander? Take the last grit sandpaper you used, say #180 grit, and use a flat block sander for sanding along the grain. This will eliminate smaller cross-grain scratches, especially when staining the wood.

How Much Wood to Sand

The main purpose of sanding wood is not to get a very smooth glass-like surface. It is to get a clean and scratch-free appearance. Knowing when to stop sanding is essential. Once you start with a certain grit, how much time should you spend on it before moving to the next grit?

One way of knowing how much wood to sand is using the pencil hack. Using a pencil, lightly draw an “S’ motion along the wood. After that, use your sanding block or power sander for sanding away the wood until the pencil mark goes away. Once done, mark up the wood again and sand it with finer grit sandpaper. Continue doing this until you reach the desired smoothness.

Using Pencil Marks When Sanding Wood

Using Pencil Marks When Sanding Wood

Proper lighting and experience will also help you know if you’ve sanded enough. Remove sanding dust after sanding and look at the wood in a well-lit room. For experienced woodworkers, looking at the wood from different angles shows how much more should be sanded or if it’s enough.

How to Remove Sanding Dust

When sanding wood, it is good to always keep the surface clean after each stage. Before moving on to finer grit sandpaper, always ensure you have cleaned off wood particles. You can remove sanding dust with a vacuum cleaner or a dust/paintbrush. These are great for cleaning up a rougher wood surface.

Before applying a stain or finish, clean the wood surface. Once you’ve used your vacuum cleaner or dust brush, smaller wood particles might be harder to remove. A tack cloth is better for those smaller particles and acts as a magnet for picking up dust.

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This tack cloth holds up without falling apart even after wiping several boards. Folding it reveals a fresh part for wiping sawdust without leaving any visible anything visible behind. This is a perfect product for prepping your wooden surface before applying the first finish coat.

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When cleaning sanded wood before staining, getting all the dust out is unnecessary. However, remove as much as possible but don’t overdo it. There will be no visible difference if you apply a stain or finish. A tack cloth will clean it enough, so you won’t feel any dust when you pass your hand over the wood’s surface.


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