How to prep your woodwork before finishing

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The topic of sanding has as much to do with finishing as anything. No matter how well you apply your finish, if your surface isn't carefully prepared you will end up with a sloppy looking job. So, if you've put a lot of heart and effort into creating your work, you should do the same with the finishing. That means, I'm sorry to say, sanding.

Your goal is to make the surface smooth so it will accept the finish evenly.

Sanding Options

You can smooth your work with a hand plane, a scraper, sandpaper, or some combination of the three.

Whatever method you use, start by getting rid of milling marks left by saw blades and other tools. These will be obvious marks and can usually be gotten rid of relatively quickly using a rough grit.

If I'm not scraping or planing the wood, I usually start with 100 grit (80 if the work is really rough) and work my way up to 220 or higher.

While it is a good idea to work with the grain, at this rough stage. I will often go across the grain as it makes the work go faster. But once the milling marks are gone you want to work with the grain and get rid of all the scratches from the previous grit before moving on.

Orbital sanders can leave tiny swirls on the wood, so keep an eye out for them.

Don't skip grits

Unless you are doing rough carpentry, don't skip grits.

You can work pretty much forever without getting a smooth surface if you jump grits too quickly. Don't let the feel alone guide you. It's possible to work until the surface feels smooth, but still has scratches. And scratches always show up when you put on the finish.

It takes a while to learn how to differentiate scratches from the grain. Tilt the wood under a strong light to see the grain from different angles.

Another trick is to scribble on the face of your piece (lightly!) and continue with your selected grit til the pencil marks are gone, then put them back and go down a grit.

The purpose of your project will determine how smooth you need to get your surface. I usually go down to 220, although if the piece is spectacular I might go a bit higher.

In the end, the goal is a finely smoothed and finished piece that lets the beauty of the wood shine through.

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