A Beginner's Guide to Detail Sanding

Discover the basics of sanding and prepare for your next DIY project
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Step By Step Instructions


Just startin’ out

Wood and sanding tools

You need: Sand paper, Cleaning cloth, Varnish or paint, Rubbing alcohol

What is sanding and why do we do it? First, sanding can turn an average project into a great one. Wood straight from the mill looks rough and often is covered in dents and other marks. Wood sanding helps to smooth the surface and bring out the beauty of the wood’s natural grain. In addition to wood, sanding tools can remove rust from metal and polish fiberglass. What’s more, sanding prepares the surface for painting – it ensures paint (or varnish) goes on smooth and looks the best it can. Sanding is one of the most important steps in determining the end of finish and quality of a project.


Finding the true grit - choose the right sandpaper

Sandpaper and bit attachments

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The most important thing to know: The higher the sandpaper’s grit, the smoother the result. “Grit” refers to the particles of sand that make up the sandpaper. Larger, fewer particles with more space between them is coarse grit. The smaller and more packed together the particles, the finer the grit. Coarse sandpaper removes imperfections faster and with less effort than fine sandpaper – which is great if you are trying to shape or level. Fine grit is used for the later stages of wood sanding – for smoothing and polishing. Begin with a coarser grit to level the wood, then buff scratches with finer grits until you reach the desired smoothness. Between fine and coarse, there are quite a bit of variations to make sure you are getting the level of smoothness desired!


Know the best sanding tools for your project

Dremel Multi-Tool in use

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The sanding tool you use depends on the sanding surface. For large surfaces, nothing beats a high-speed stationary sanding machine. Aside from these machines, you can use sandpaper alone, sandpaper with a sanding block, on oscillating tool or a rotary tool such as the Dremel Multi-Tool. Hand sanding techniques are best when light sanding is required, or when the surface is quite soft. Many woodworkers favor oscillating tools for flat surfaces, and the Dremel Multi-Tool for detailed jobs and hard-to-reach areas. For example, decorative chair legs would be impossible to smooth with the flat surface of an orbital tool.


Pick your Dremel sanding accessories

Sanding discs and bands

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Dremel sanding accessories in order of coarseness: Sanding Bands: Best for flat surfaces and edges. Coarser grit removes more material. Great for roughly shaping wood. Flap Wheels: Move with the material, making them suited for contoured surfaces. Sanding Discs: Less coarse than bands and flap wheels. Suited to light shaping and removing chips. Abrasive Brushes: Perfect for detailed jobs like grooves. Remove the surface layer without damaging what’s underneath. Abrasive Buffs: Flexible accessories that take the shape of whatever you’re sanding or buffing. Great for hard-to-reach areas.


Before you sand be safe!

Putting gloves on

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Sanding produces quite a bit of dust, which is why you should always wear a dust mask and sand in a well ventilated area to prevent harmful inhalation; especially when you’re sanding materials like fiberglass or metal. Also consider using direct vent goggles, which have a foam seal to keep particles out of your eyes.


Stay steady - clamp either the project or your tool before sanding

Clamp tool before sanding

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Sanding is all about preparation and finish, so it’s important that what you’re sanding isn’t going to move during the project. Non-slip pads are great for gripping flat pieces of wood during sanding. Or, simply use a clamp or vice.


Your mom says to clean your…sanding surface

Vacuum sanding surface

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We’ve spoken a lot about how sanding works to prepare a surface for further steps like painting. But it’s important to do some prep before the prep. By this we mean: prepare the surface before turning on the sanding tool. Use a damp cloth to clean your surface, and make sure the surface is dry before you start sanding. What if you’re in the middle of sanding and want to change to a coarser grit? Use a vacuum cleaner. You can also use a brush, but with a vacuum cleaner you’ll remove all the dust and prevent it from flying around. If you’re working with wood, a vacuum cleaner will also prevent dust from being pushed back into the grains of the wood.


Know when enough is enough

Sanding wood

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The biggest challenge faced during sanding? Knowing when to stop! It also depends on the finish you’re after. If you’re going to finish wood with a light stain, you’ll want the surface to be as smooth as possible. Scratches from coarse grits will absorb more of the stain, making it darker in the scratched areas. This means you should finish with a very fine grit. This kind of finish requires a bit more patience, and several levels of coarseness. Check for scratches by shining a flashlight at an angle over the surface; the scratches will cast shadows. By contrast, if you’re going to use several layers of paint, you don’t need to sand it as finely.


Finish your sanding project with a wipe or tack cloth

Cleaning supplies

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Whether you plan on staining or painting your newly sanded surface, you need to ensure it’s clean. The vacuum cleaner clears away the bulk of the mess, but it will still leave traces of sawdust or other residue. There are a variety of attachments you can use to get rid of leftover dust. Remove even the finest grains of dust with a damp sponge or tack cloth. As the wood dries, the loose fibers will stand up. Once it has completely dried, lightly sand the whole surface with the highest grit sandpaper. Finally, a clean cloth and some rubbing alcohol will take away the last traces of dust. Now, you’re perfectly prepped for a coat (or two) of dust-free varnish or paint. Nice work!


To reduce the risk of injury user must read instruction manuals for all tools used in this project. Wear eye and respiratory protection. Use clamps to support work piece whenever practical.