Chris Schwarz's Blog

Permission to Sand – Granted!

I’m always bemused by woodworkers who boast that they never use sandpaper.

I usually say something to them such as: “Then I guess you don’t like old-school technology.”

When they look confused, I add: “Egyptians used sandstone to abrade wood flat. Sanding is older technology than planing, which is a Greek or Roman invention.”

As far as I know there hasn’t been a definitive history written about abrasives. And please don’t ask me to write it – I have enough to do on this earth already. So if you need a good idea for a gritty bestseller….

The problem with abrasives is how they are abused in this modern day. Abrasives have almost always been some part of the finishing process, but the key word in that sentence is “part.” Today, most modern shops start with abrasives and end with abrasives. And that’s when they become the lung-clogging, vibrating misery known as power sanding.

So let’s take a close look at a more balanced approach that was practiced in England during the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s explained here by Charles H. Hayward in the book “The ABC of Woodwork.”

“Cleaning up a panel, table top, or whatever it may be is a fairly straightforward job. The smoothing plane cutter is sharpened to as straight an edge as possible, and the plane is set fine with the back iron as close as possible. It is assumed that the wood is already true and requires only to be skimmed to remove marks or tears made by the trying or panel plane. The entire surface is gone over with the grain. In most woods, the tears will come out, though, admittedly, there are difficult woods. So much depends on the plane and the way it is set. The cabinet maker’s smoothing plane has a high pitch in which the action approaches that of scraping rather than cutting, and if this ha the back iron set fine there are only a few woods which cannot be planed. (Remember on this score that the straighter the edge the more closely the back iron can be set.)

“In any case, however, the scraper must foll ow for all hardwoods. It is not only that it will remove any tears that may be left, but it will take out all marks left by the plane. This is a point that is easily overlooked. Then again, in some difficult woods the grain runs in streaks about 1/4 in. or 1/2 in. wide, and it is impossible to plane one with the grain without tearing up those adjoining. The scraper can be bent and used on a comparatively narrow area of the wood.

“Glasspapering follows, and a flat rubber (usually of cork) is essential. The purpose of glasspapering is only partly to smooth the surface; it has for its second object that of getting rid of marks left by the scraper. This cannot be done when the glasspaper is merely held in the hand. The pressure is uneven and is not great enough. Furthermore, all sharp edges and corners are liable to be dubbed over, giving a dull, unspirited appearance to the work.”

To summarize: Plane until you cannot improve the surface. Scrape until you cannot improve the surface. Sand until you cannot improve the surface. Finish.

This is the way I’ve worked for many years. I buy a box of #220-grit Abranet every couple years, and that covers all my sanding needs.

And one last detail: Hand sanding is a hand process requiring great skill to execute – especially when it comes to contoured surfaces. So don’t hide your sandpaper when your breeches-wearing hand-tool buddies come over for a beer.

— Christopher Schwarz

If you want to learn a lot more about handplanes, check out my book “Handplane Essentials,” a huge tome on handplane work that encompasses much of my writing on these tools for the last decade. Click here for details.

28 thoughts on “Permission to Sand – Granted!

  1. Bill Lattanzio

    Thank you for you permission to sand. I will now dig my random orbit sander out of the hole I buried it in under my garden shed, where I was forced to hide it in fear of persecution. Many nights I lost sleep wondering if and when roaming mobs of hand tool enthusiasts would pull me from my home to re-educate me. I feel safer now.

  2. Richardwood

    Hello Christopher. I am writing from Argentina. Workbenches found your book on Amazon, you can buy and sent by post at home in the city of La Plata. My English is not very good, but with google and common sense’m translating your concepts.
    I’ll be looking at, according to the types of hardwood and semi hard to comerciarlizan in Argentina for you to recommend the best adatpe to build my workbench
    My profession is electrical engineering Extra High Voltage and I work with a lot of enthusiasm to the professional carpentry furniture.

    Best Regards
    Ricardo Raia

    Hola Christopher. Te escribo desde Argentina. Encontré tu libro Workbenches en Amazon, lo puede comprar y lo enviaron por correo postal en casa en la ciudad de La Plata. Mi ingles no es muy bueno, pero con el google y el sentido comun voy traduciendo tus conceptos.
    Te estaré consultando , de acuerdo a los tipos de madera dura y semi dura que se comerciarlizan en Argentina para que recomiendes la que mejor se adatpe para contruir mi banco de carpintero
    Mi actividad profesional es la ingenieria electrica de Extra alta tension y me dedico con mucho entusiamo a la carpinteria profesional de muebles.

    Un cordial saludo
    Ricardo Raia

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick

      Ricardo,

      In case Chris doesn’t see your note, my suggestion would be to use whatever is abundant, not too hard to work, isn’t full of knots, doesn’t cost too much and preferably is heavy enough that your bench will have sufficient mass to stay in place while your using it — beyond that, well, it’s to some degree a matter of aesthetics (though many people prefer a light-colored bench because it’s easier to sight against). I believe there are several pine species available in Argentina, and those are what I would consider first (I’m assuming pine is, as it is here, more affordable than most hardwood species). I wish I knew more about the available species so I could give a specific reccomendation, but I’m afraid I don’t.

  3. JeffK

    Personally, I use power tools to take the drudgery our of a project. I have begun hand tools more and more when I am building something that I consider important, at least to me. I find my mistakes happen slower with hand tools. It’s not about adherence to using only muscle powered tools even though a lot of those are cool. It’s about learning a type of work that was largely forgotten. I know I will never be fast enough to have worked in an 18th century joiner or cabinetmaker shop, but that really isnt the point. Also, it’s therapeutic. All the stress of modern life drains from me as I work a chair leg with a draw knife. Am doing it ‘correctly’? heck I dont know, but at the end, I have made a chair leg, and enjoyed doing it. And I use both power sanders and sanding blocks, when it seems to make sense.

  4. bobnewmyer

    “Do not follow in the footsteps of the old masters, but seek what they sought.” Basho

    I’m coming at this from the perspective of a power tool user who is now using more hand tools. I am seeking the best ways to get the results I want. Often that means using and mastering hand tools.

  5. pcbg01207

    The method described above is how I was taught at school and the method I follow to this day. The process of completing your project is about working with care to minimize any marks you might inadvertently put into your work and moving onto the next process that removes the marks left by the previous process. Use an appropriate finish after sanding to 220 grit and possibly go finer before the final coat of finish.

      1. Derek Cohen

        Jacque

        I would encourage handtool amateurs to master what constitutes good joinery before what they imagine what constitutes correct tools choice. I would encourage them to learn about grain direction, how to match panels … and a host more aesthetic and functional matters – all of which are about sound woodworking practices that begun centuries ago. However none of this is about the tools we use. We may choose to use handtools or not. Woodworkers need to emulate the good construction of the 18C, not the choice of tools. I would happily take a bet that an 18C woodworker would have jumped at the opportunity to use a Festool sander or a Sawstop cabinet saw. It is the slavish adherence to what some fantasize should be emulated that is the problem.

        Regards from Perth

        Derek

        1. zdillingerzdillinger

          I don’t consider ignoring table saws or Festool “slavish adherence”. And not using electric table saws isn’t fantasizing… I’m pretty sure they didn’t have them in 1720… People will work the way they want to work. Your way isn’t better than my way. My way isn’t better than your way.

          1. zdillingerzdillinger

            But maybe I’m missing your point Derek. If a person already practices sound woodworking techniques from the past (although if you study 18th c. stuff, you’d be amazed at the haphazardness of it, even the masterpieces), then tool choice becomes irrelevent.

            1. colleystudio

              Tool choice can influence relationship that you have with wood you are working. I’m sure we would all say that this relationship is as important as techniques used. Machines do not consider grain, species or structural needs when working, hand tools force you to become more aware. An ex employer of mine from a “box” shop liked to give me a hard time about using hand tools saying things like “if a guy 200 yrs ago could use power tools they would”. He was missing the point, ALL tools can be important but understanding medium is ALWAYS key.

        2. Gary Palmer

          Derek,

          In my honest opinion, the problem rests with passing judgement on others preferences.

          Tool choices and techniques are good examples and such an approach often proves necessary in each and every aspect if one intends to study and accurately replicate C18th woodworking, it’s craftsmen and historical pieces. Living archaeology is an excellent form of study and one from which a more thorough understanding of past craftsmanship can be gained.

          I choose not to become absorbed totally by such an approach to the craft, but see nothing wrong in others doing so. Freedom to choose is a marvellous thing. :-)

          Perhaps craftsmen would have grabbed the opportunity to work with every power tool under the sun IF such chance arose, but – in hindsight – they also recognised the fact that labour saving devices can negatively impact employment prospects and potential earnings.

        3. skoonz

          Derek,

          I never had much of modern wood shop, and I got involved in 18th century woodworking a number of years ago. I am trying to fill out my collection of tools and skills as time and funds allow. I am trying to create less and less dust and more chips and shavings. But sometimes the project and/or circunstances dictate a more modern path.

          If you choose to do your work in another era, you have to limit your tool choices and methods to learn “How it was really done.” Nothing teaches you about grain direction and other wood behavior better than attacking it with hand tools. It can be bossy! You certainly would win your bet as far as “If they had it, they would have used it.”, I explain to people all the time that as much I enjoy living in a canvas house and cooking over a wood fire for several days, I do keep things in a hidden cooler which our ancesters would have killed for. Some folks go much further than I to live the life, it’s a choice. I have done very few projects from tree to finish, but it is a pretty rewarding feeling. I admire what folks can do with a power shop filled with jigs and digital readouts, but as perfect as the product from such a shop is, it will be an “I can do that” project for the well heeled to some. Pick your path and enjoy Derek.

    1. zdillingerzdillinger

      I believe that 21st century amateurs should emulate the 18th century crafstman, if building 18th century furniture is their intent. However, they need to clearly understand the methods used and not get wrapped up in the hype, i.e. no sanding ever, flat chisels, must-have beveled edged chisels, etc. Who better to copy, when copying 18th century work, than the men who built the pieces?

    2. Gary Palmer

      I’m all for sanding, but people are free to emulate anyone they wish. Especially if they want to pursue working within a given style of work, e.g. Campaign furniture, Chippendale, Japanese schools of carpentry, etc.

      1. zdillingerzdillinger

        I’m with you Gary. You can work however you want, but my point was that a person shouldn’t be put down simply because they choose to work with a certain method. I just want people to understand the method they choose, what it actually means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. Like “18th century cabinetmakers didn’t sand because they didn’t have sandpaper”… It’s a pervasive viewpoint but dead wrong.

        1. Gary Palmer

          I agree wholeheartedly ZD. Historical understanding of method, technique, tooling and materials handling plays a massive part in learning the craft. Knowledge gained from the past allows us to expand upon the present.

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini

      Chris is just mad because I teased him about his table saw. He’s also ticked about my winning the prestigious “Tallest and Gawkiest woodworker” 5 years running. Now you know how Chris Becksvoort felt when you snatched the title from him 6 years ago!

      1. wmickley

        Chris, you can call early and mid 20th century work “old school technology” if you want. I would not. Forty years ago, when I was an amateur, I thought the 20th century to be the dark ages. I aspired to higher standards and was looking further back for inspiration.

        1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini

          Hayward isn’t my notion of “old school” either. We think they had sand paper in the 18th c. Whether they used it or not and what they used it for is the question. The few conservators I’ve spoken to think most pieces, including the finest pieces built at the time, left the shop with a very spartan finish. Smooth planed, maybe scraped, with oil probably, shellac possibly. They had “better” finishes, but like sand paper, we’re not entirely sure what they were used on and when.

          I have no opinion on sand paper use for 21st c amateurs. My only take would be I’d like to see more evidence of hand tool work in an age where every surface in our homes is machined, injected, extruded,or rolled. I like grill marks on hamburgers too.

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