Small details make a big difference when finishing carvings, inlays, contoured surfaces and complex joinery. You can find plenty of belt, disk, orbital and drum sanders for shaping and sanding larger surfaces, and the options for detail sanding are almost as varied. Although you won't see any tiny belt sanders, you can easily find disk and drum sanders for those small projects. You can also find oscillating detail sanders, or you can make your own.
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Help for Hand-Sanding
Whether trying to even out an imperfect butt joint in molded trim or getting the last bit of finish off the end of a chair spindle, hand-sanding is the least invasive option. If you find it frustrating to fold sandpaper in thirds and work the edges bare, try using contoured sanding grips. Made of hard rubber -- the same rubber used for automobile tires -- they come in a variety of shapes to fit the rounded surfaces and reach those barely accessible corners. You can buy these handy sanding aids online or from hobby or woodworking suppliers.
The Rotary Option
Hand-held rotary tools serve a variety of functions, and they are ideal for detail sanding. Most come with a selection of accessories for this purpose, including sanding drums and disks in a variety of grits. In a pinch, you can also use one of the cone- or cylindrical-shaped grinding attachments that fit the tool you're using. Rotary tools are useful for sanding finish off hard-to-reach contours, and you can also use them for shaping. Add support to a disk-sanding accessory by cutting a piece of foam or plastic bottle cap to fit under it. This gives you a useful tool for sanding concave surfaces, such as the insides of model ship hulls.
Small Oscillating Sanders
Oscillating sanders don't wear down wood as quickly as disk or drum sanders, but they remove finish faster than hand-sanding. A conventional pad sander with a triangular or circular pad can be a good detail sander; it has the ability to reach small corners, but the tool itself is bulky. A more manageable tool has a smaller cylindrical body similar to that of a rotary tool. In fact, several such tools are available, and most do more than sand. Know as multi-tools, these versatile oscillating tools come with attachments for sanding, flush-cutting, grinding and scraping. The triangular sanding pad easily reaches small spaces most sanders can't.
A DIY Oscillating Detail Sander
If you're a woodcarver, inlay artist or model builder, you need a sander that can reach small spaces without the invasive action of a rotary tool, and it isn't difficult to make your own. Simply cut the bristles off an old battery-powered toothbrush and replace them with a custom-shaped piece of heavy rubber. The rubber needs to be stable, so adhere it to the toothbrush with two-part epoxy. Custom-cut pieces of sandpaper to fit on the rubber and, when you're ready to use one, coat the rubber with a small amount of spray adhesive and press the sandpaper to it. When the paper wears out, pull it off and replace it with another piece.