How to Sand Wood Furniture – 5 Game-Changing Tips

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How to Sand Wood Furniture - Photo by Christopher Jolly on Unsplash
Photo by Christopher Jolly on Unsplash

Ever have a furniture project you’ve sanded down (you think) 100% – only to find out when you apply the stain there are swirls and scratches all over the place??

Trust me, we all have. You should know the basics of how to sand wood: sand WITH the grain, use proper ventilation, and dust masks, etc… But here are 5 Game-Changing Tips on How to Sand Wood Furniture to eliminate those swirls and scratches.

Tip #1: Research the correct technique for the type of wood you are sanding.

Not sure what type of wood your piece is? Check out my Ultimate Guide to Identifying Wood Types in Furniture.

Softwoods should be treated differently than hardwoods. Most softwoods should start no lower than 100 grit unless there are severe gouges. 

Start with 120 on woods like cedar, fir, and alder. And finish with no finer than 180 for oil-based stains and 220 for water-based stains. 

Hardwoods like maple and oak start with 120 grit and finish with no finer than 150 grit for oil-based stains and 180 for water-based stains and gel stains.

Pinewood should be treated differently still. Start no lower than 120 grit, follow up with a 150 grit, and then finish sand with 120 grit one more time.

This opens up the pores to accept stain more easily as pine is a very difficult wood to stain properly.

Sandpaper Grit Guide

 1st Sanding2nd Sanding3rd SandingAfter 1st Finish Coat
Soft
wood
120150180220 or 320
Hard
Wood
120150150/180320
Pine120150120320

If you need more help with staining after you get your sanding game down, checkout my article how to stain wood.

PLUS be sure to read my most recent experiment in which I FINALLY figured out the best treatment method for preparing wood for staining. You definitely don’t want to miss this one step before you apply your stain. 

Tip #2: Make sure you move up to the next sandpaper grit correctly.

A good rule of thumb: do not go up by more than 50% of the current grit. 

So if you are using 120 grit – go no higher than 180 grit(+60 = 50% of 120) for the next sanding.

If you are using 100 grit, go no higher than 150 grit(+50), then to 220 grit, etc. 

Each grit basically scratches the wood in a specific “pattern”. When you move to the next grit, the “scratch pattern” becomes smaller, but fills the spaces left from the prior grit’s “scratch pattern”.

 If you skip to a much finer grit from a low one, there will be gaps left where those patterns just did not line up correctly.

This also explains (I hope) why you should always go in the direction of the wood grain, and not across the grain. 

Free Printable Sandpaper Grit Guide

Sandpaper Grit Guide

I created a nice guide for future reference to help you never use the incorrect grit again!

For the full-size, printable version please enter your email below. You’ll be added to my email list, and gain access to this printable, plus a ton more helpful resources!

Tip #3: When using power sanders, random orbital or not, do not move faster than 1 inch per second.

This one was definitely a game-changer for me! It feels very slow at first, but practice it long enough and you get used to it. 

You can even use a stopwatch and measuring tape lined up with the piece you are sanding if you can’t quite get it down. 

Moving too fast causes those awful swirls you can’t get rid of. Once you start slowing down they will disappear!

Tip #4: It IS Possible to over sand a piece. Make sure not to go too fine on the final sand.

Even 220 grit is sometimes too high. Those higher grit sandpapers are for finish sanding after you coat with polyurethane or sealer.

If you use 300 grit on bare wood it will close off the pores making it impenetrable to stains.

180 grit is usually best for finishing before stain. 150 grit even; for some woods.

I’d also recommend using a hand sander or sanding block on the final sand. Be sure to go slow and smooth with it. It will help to eliminate some of the little circles left from your orbital sander if they happen to occur. 

Tip #5: Use lighting to your advantage.

While you are sanding, keep a light pointed across the plane of the wood, NOT straight above you.

This helps the light bounce off of the scratches so they will stand out.

Then you can easily fix them while you sand instead of finding them when it’s too late.

Definitely worth the time to set up your space correctly. If you don’t have a light that would work for that, I recommend these magnetic LED Lights.

I bought some for Scott for Xmas and have been stealing them ever since 🙂

Related: Refinishing Metal Furniture – Things to Know Before You Start

1 more tip on sanding wood that’s not on my list: put the piece you’re working on, on a non-slip pad like this:

How to sand wood furniture no slip pad

(Or a drawer liner)It helps a ton with the wood sliding around which is another way to get swirls and scratches on the wood.

These 5(+) tips on how to sand wood truly were game changers for me in my sanding game. Hopefully, they will help some of you as well!

Have any other tricks for getting the perfect sanded piece? I’d love to hear them!

If you have any questions or problems with any of your sanding projects – please get in touch!🙂 

Or if you’d rather, check out a few of the sites I got my info from that really taught me a lot!

Also, before I go, I just wanted to note for you guys,

My Favorite Orbital Sander:

The Ridgid brand is The Home Depot’s go-to brand (I think), and is definitely my favorite.

It cuts through wood like a beast for how small it is. The filtration system on it is also amazing!

It collects dust like no other, and can be hooked up to a shop vac for big jobs so you don’t have to empty it a million times.

My favorite part is that all of their products have a lifetime warranty as long as you register it on their site.

They will replace anything for free no matter what happened to it pretty much. (I think, please check their website for more info.)

We had another tool sent out for repair to them and it was basically no questions asked, just had to send it out for a couple of weeks and it was back in no time completely fixed. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!

To Order A Sander Online – Be Sure To Also Checkout Hardware World

You’ll find everything your local hardware store carries – plus a lot more! The Makita Random Orbital Sander would definitely be my choice on their site. You can’t beat the price!

I hope these tips help you with your next sanding job!

Thanks for reading, feel free to pin the image below if you enjoyed my post.

KRay 🙂

Sanding Wood Furniture 5 Game Changing Tips
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