When I wrote about the 50 or so essential hand tools you need to make furniture in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” I neglected to include my cork sanding block in that list. I think the reason I forgot was that the block is as essential as my marking knife.
I know the tendency today is to eschew abrasives and finish projects straight from the tools, but that’s a pretty new idea. The Ancient Egyptians finish-sanded their furniture with blocks of sandstone. And virtually every Western culture has employed abrasives as a way to make the wood’s surface level and smooth.
I suspect the reason many hand-tool woodworkers avoid sanding is that in the 20th century the craft had devolved into a drunken madness of power sanding. All surface prep was done with abrasives hooked to machines that dulled both your senses and the work below. It’s unpleasant, dusty and expensive.
If you pay close attention to historical references on abrasives, you find that early woodworkers used them sparingly because they were (and still are) fairly expensive compared to edge tools. So the woodworker would use edge tools to get the surface as perfect as possible. Then abrasives would quickly blend the surfaces together and refine them just a bit more.
And while you can use sandpaper with just your hand, your work will be more crisp by wrapping the abrasive around a cork block. Cork is firm enough to remove chatter from edge tools but soft enough to follow imperceptible high and low spots on the surface.
My personal block of cork is about 1” thick, 2-1/2” wide and 7” long, which is a good size for my hand and to receive the 6”-diameter Abranet discs I use with it.
Sanding should be brief, using a fine grit and refine the surface without changing its shape. Each area of your project should require only five seconds of work. Do this, and you’ll start to consider the cork sanding block an essential hand tool in your chest, too.
— Christopher Schwarz