Easy Guide on How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish

September 21, 2023

Hi! I'm Nicole

Fearless DIY. Sharing building project tutorials and interior design tips. Let’s build something beautiful together. For more projects, design tips and behind the scenes, follow me @designtobuild.nicole

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Ok, I’m just going to put it out there before starting this post all about, how to sand wood for a smooth finish. I loathe sanding. I think I literally say that every time I get to the stage of sanding. BUT I love a silky smooth finish! So, in the end it’s all worth the time and effort.

Whether you love it or hate it, it has to be done. And I would even go so far as to say, it’s probably the most important step of the building process. After all, a poor sanding job, or no sanding at all can ruin the entire project.

Without proper sanding, the wood surface will be rough and the finish will look awful. And even worse, you may end up with unsightly swirly marks, which are next to impossible to get rid of.

All of this to say, it’s so important to know the best tips for sanding before taking your first sandpaper swipe.

So, let’s dive in.


How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish

Why Sanding is Important

There are so many reasons why it’s important to sand. When you sand, you’re using abrasive materials to smooth the surface of the wood. In this process, you’re removing imperfections, and preparing the surface for finishing.

Here are some key reasons why sanding is important:

Smooth Surface

Sanding helps to create a smooth and even surface by removing rough spots, bumps, and inconsistencies. This is important for achieving that professional finished look.

Girl sanding a tabletop with a power sander for How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish post

Preparing for Paint and Stain

Before applying any type of finish, whether it’s paint, stain, or sealant, the surface needs to be prepared properly. Sanding helps to remove existing finishes, dirt, debris, and any uneven areas. This ensures that the new finish adheres well and looks consistent.

An example of this is, getting rid of the yellow hue in pinewood. Most of my projects I build, consist of pine wood.

Stained unsanded pine wood vs. sanded pine wood is a different look all together. The stain takes on a completely different color tone on sanded wood than it does unsanded wood.

On sanded wood, you see the true color of the stain. Unsanded wood gives off a yellow tone when stained.

2 boards side by side. One is sanded; one is not for How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish post

Source: Capturing Wonderland

In addition to this, sanding evens out the surface. Not sanding can result in uneven color absorption.

How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish: Rounding the Edges

To get rid of that blunt sharp edge of a cut piece of wood, you need to contour the edges. This is done by running a high-grit sandpaper along the edges.

Even if you’re wanting a streamlined furniture piece with no curved edges, it’s still important to get rid of that sharp edge, for safety reasons. This can be done by very lightly running the sandpaper along the edges. This will just smooth it down a tad, while not changing the look of the edge.

Getting Rid of Blade Marks

When making all of your wood cuts, the saw you’re using may leave behind blade burns. Sanding will get rid of these and make the visual appearance of the wood more appealing.

Which Sandpaper to Use

The choice of grit sandpaper depends on the specific task you’re working on. Different grits are designed for different purposes, ranging from coarse to fine. Here’s a general guideline for selecting the appropriate grit sandpaper:

  1. Coarse Grits (40-80): Use these grits for heavy material removal. Such as stripping paint, smoothing rough wood surfaces, or reshaping wood or metal.
  2. Medium Grits (100-150): These grits are suitable for removing minor imperfections. If you need to smooth out wood or metal surfaces after using a coarse grit, this is the sandpaper you’ll need. This grit is also used in preparing surfaces for finishing.
  3. Fine Grits (180-220): Fine grits are used for light sanding between coats of finish, removing small scratches, and preparing surfaces for painting or staining.
  4. Very Fine Grits (240-320): Use these grits for achieving a smooth, even surface before applying a final finish. They’re also good for lightly sanding finishes (such as poly) in between coats.

In short, the specific project and material will influence your choice. We’ll look deeper into this when we talk about how to sand.

4 different grits of sandpaper on a table

Choosing the Right Sander

Random Orbital Sander

I use my orbital sander more than any other sander. It can be used from start to finish on a wood project.

If you’re in the market for a new palm sander, here’s a great article to help you choose which one is best.

Here’s one of the sanders I love and use for many of my projects.

Girl sanding a large slab of wood

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How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish: Belt Sander

This type of sander uses a continuous loop of sandpaper on a rotating belt. It’s primarily used for heavy material removal and rough sanding. Great for large surfaces such as floors, tabletops, and decks.

Corner Sander

A corner sander is also called a rabbit sander sometimes. With its pointed tip, it has the ability to get in tight corners and spaces. Great for intricate woodworking projects and refinishing furniture.

Dremel with Sanding Tool

Sometimes you need an even smaller sander for even more detailed work. Using a Dremel Tool with a sanding attachment works like a charm. Great for detailed sanding, curves and contours.

Sanding Block

There are times you won’t want to use a power tool at all. A power sander may be too powerful for what is needed on your woodworking project. In this case, you’ll want to use a sanding block.

These are handheld blocks with sandpaper already built into them. Or, in some cases, you have to wrap the sandpaper around them. The shape of the block makes holding it in your hand more conducive to sanding.

These are great for the last step in your sanding process. When you just want to lightly sand your piece one more time with a high-grit sandpaper.

Sanding blocks are also used when sanding in between finishes on wood projects.

Sanding blocks stacked on top of one another for How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish post

Source: Amazon

Some of the benefits of a sanding block are:

  • Less risk to end up with scratches
  • Easier to get into tight corners
  • Easier to sand curved edges

So, with all of these sanders to choose from, how do you pick the right one? To be honest, I have been woodworking for several years now and I only use my random orbit sander and sanding block. If your primary focus is furniture building and room renovations, these two sanders will give you the results you need.

If you’re taking on a bigger project like sanding hardwood floors, then you will definitely want a bigger sander. In this case, renting or purchasing a belt sander will be necessary.

But overall, the specific project and material will influence your choice.

How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish: Ready to Sand

Safety First

Be sure you have all of the necessary safety gear.

Safety glasses. Safety glasses are important, especially in the first stage of sanding. When you’re starting with a rough piece of wood, it’s possible for pieces to fly off the board. Best to wear glasses to protect your eyes, just in case.

As you move through the sanding stages, this becomes less likely. But you do still have dust particles flying around. Good idea to protect your eyes through the whole process.

Girl in a wool hat sanding a table top for How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish post

Dust mask. With all of the dust flying around while you’re sanding, a dust mask is a necessity. Protect those lungs!

Ear protection. Power tools are loud. And a power sander is no exception. Not to mention, you’re going to be here sanding for a while. So, make sure to protect your ears.

I like to throw in my noise canceling earbuds and listen to my favorite podcast or music. But I will say, this is not ideal. The better option would be to not listen to any music at all and just wear my noise protection earmuffs. Or purchase bluetooth headphones that protect from loud noise projects. (Here’s some that I have my eye on).

Utility work gloves. If you’re like me, and you’re bound to get a splinter every time you touch a piece of wood, you might want to wear work gloves.

For as much as I’m around wood, you would think I wouldn’t be so prone to splinters, not the case. I get them all the time. Work gloves are great for preventing splinters.

Here’s to not having to stop every 10 minutes to perform surgery on your fingers. Those things can be next to impossible to get out!

How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish: Materials and Tools

These are all of the tools you may need for your woodworking project.

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Choosing the Right Sandpaper Grit

Choose the appropriate grit of sandpaper for each sanding step. Lower grit numbers (i.e. 60-80) are coarser and are used for heavy duty sanding. Higher grit numbers (i.e.120-220) are finer and are used for smoothing.

Large modern wood table sanded for How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish post

Want to build this beautiful modern table? Here’s the link!!

Here is the grit number order I use, when sanding a furniture piece or anything I want to be super silky smooth.

  • Using my random-orbit sander, I start out with a 60-grit. A coarse grit sandpaper. Making sure to remove all of the yellow from the pine wood. I know this step is finished when my piece has turned more of a white color than yellow hue. I’m also focusing on making sure my wood surface stays even during this stage. Without applying much pressure, my goal is to even out the rough wood.
  • Next step, I move onto 120-grit. A medium grit sandpaper. At this stage, I’m starting the smoothing process. It’s important to work your sander across the surface in the direction of the grain of the wood. Once again, I’m careful not to apply too much pressure. Let the orbital sander do the work.
  • Moving onto the finer-grit papers: 180-grit. A finer grit sandpaper. Again, I work my sander across the entire surface of wood.
  • And for my final step, I use a 220-grit sandpaper. A fine-grit sandpaper. At this stage my piece of furniture looks and feels amazing. But running this super fine grit sandpaper in the direction of the wood grain, will make it even better.

4 Different grits of sandpaper for How to Sand Wood for a Smooth Finish post

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, sanding takes a long time. But I can’t stress enough the importance of working through each of these steps. Without putting in the hard work, your furniture piece will not have that silky smooth, luxury furniture feel.

Dining room with mid century modern furniture

But there’s another reason you want to be sure to go through each of these steps.

In the early stages of my furniture building journey, I would only use two sandpaper grits. Starting with a 60-grit, I would then jump straight to a 220-grit. While my furniture piece would be pretty smooth, it didn’t look good. There were swirl marks all over it. It drove me crazy.

I blamed it on my sander, the type of wood I was using, the store I bought it from. Until I finally did some research and realized, I was doing it wrong. From then on, I have used this method and it never fails. No swirl marks. Super smooth finish. It’s so good!

Step by Step Sanding Process & Tips

Now that we know the best way to work through the sandpaper grits, we’re ready to start sanding. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • To avoid sawdust, you’ll want to attach a shop-vac to the dust collection port of your orbital sander. Too much dust on your sanding surface can clog your sanding pad. This not only reduces its effectiveness, but can lead to a poor final finish.
  • Apply your orbital sander to the wood before turning it on. Making sure the sander is completely flat on the wood before hitting the power switch. This will prevent deep scratches or gouges in your wood.
  • Be sure to always work with the grain of the wood in the smoothing stage. It’s ok to work against the grain during the first stage (60-grit).
  • For best results, run your orbital sander across the wood in two different ways: long strokes back and forth or in small circular motions.
  • When finished, remove all of the dust from the wood surface. You can do this with a soft brush, tack cloth and/or a damp cloth.
  • Hand sand the curves. By hand sanding the curves with a sanding block, you’ll have a lot more control. It doesn’t take much time to run the sanding block over the sharp edges of your new furniture piece. And you’ll have much better results than trying to use a power sander.
  • Avoid swirly marks. Move the sander slowly across the wood surface in the smoothing stages. Apply light pressure; letting the power sander do the work. And most importantly, use all 4 sanding grits….60, 120, 180, 220. In that order.

DIY arched bookshelves in a teenage girls bedroom painted green

Want to build this gorgeous arched bookshelf? Here’s the link!

Ok, I know that was a lot of work, but there’s something so truly rewarding to step back and be able to say, I built that! So, as you run your fingers over the silky-smooth wood and admire the radiant finish, take pride in knowing you put in the hard work to build something beautiful.

Let’s go beyond the design to build something beautiful together!

Be sure to Pin This Post to your Pinterest Board for later…


More DIY Inspiration:

How to Build Your Own Furniture

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