How to Sand Intricate Wood Carvings

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A rotary tool gives you an effective method for sanding small surfaces, and it's sometimes an appropriate tool to use for wood carvings, as well -- provided the wood is hard enough. If the wood isn't hard, a rotary tool can be too aggressive -- altering delicate shapes and affecting the overall quality of the carving. You don't have to resign yourself to working these areas with pieces of folded-up sandpaper, though, because there are alternatives.

Detail Sanding Options

Whether you're refinishing antique furniture or getting a jewelry box that you made yourself ready for a coat of finish, smoothing out those tiny corners on carvings can be a chore. The alternatives to a rolled-up piece of sandpaper between your fingers for detail sanding include:

  • Detail sander -- A detail sander is essentially an orbital palm sander, but it has a triangular pad, and the points of the triangle can work their way into very tight places. Pros: Fast sanding; less aggressive than a rotary tool. Cons: Leave orbital marks; tends to flatten as it sands.
  • Rotary tool -- Fitted with the proper sanding accessories, a rotary tool is a go-to tool for detail sanding. Accessories include sanding drums, disks and brushes. Pros: Accurate, fast sanding. Cons: Can alter the shape of delicate carvings quickly.
  • Contoured sanding grips -- You use one of these hard rubber grips by folding sandpaper around it and sanding along the grain of the wood. Pros: Contoured to fit exactly inside coves and around curved edges. Cons: You need the exact grip for the shape you're sanding. No other will do.
  • Converted oscillating toothbrush -- Cut the bristles off a battery-powered toothbrush; glue on a rubber backing and stick self-adhesive sandpaper to the rubber, and voilá -- you have an orbital detail sander. Pros: Fits into small spaces and less aggressive than a rotary sander. Cons: Leaves orbital marks; sandpaper must be replaced frequently.

Choose Your Tool

When deciding on a sanding method, the three most important considerations are

  • The intricacy of the detail
  • The hardness of the wood  
  • Whether or not you have to remove a finish.

Power tools are fast and especially useful for removing finishes, and you can often compensate for aggressiveness by using a light touch or fine sandpaper. When you're preparing raw wood for its first coat of finish, you may not need more than that rolled-up piece of sandpaper, your fingers and a file or emery board to flatten the grain in valleys and corners.

Sanding Procedure

Step 1: Go with the grain.

Always sand with the grain of the wood. If you're using a rotary tool, ensure the sanding action goes with the grain -- never across it. Otherwise you'll create scratches that may never come out.

Step 2: Use a light touch.

Don't bear down on a power sander to try to access a tight spot inside a crevice. If the tool can't reach it easily, use sandpaper or a file to do the job. Even when sanding by hand, excessive pressure can leave deep scratches or alter shapes.

Step 3: Use fine-grit paper.

You seldom need paper coarser than 120-grit to sand carvings, and if you can, you should avoid it as well, and start sanding with 150-grit. If you're hand-sanding and find the paper gumming up quickly, try switching from inexpensive garnet paper to aluminum oxide or silicon carbide -- the latter is usually known as wet/dry sandpaper.

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