- The best sandpaper for wood is the open type, aluminum oxide abrasive from grits 80-240. Good brands to look for are Norton 3X and 3M Pro Grade.
- Although the premium sandpapers cost more, the time you’ll save when sanding with better sandpapers is totally worth it. The best sandpapers cut faster, are more durable, and resist clogging longer, all qualities favored by production shops and pros to whom time is money.
- Start with 80 grit to remove mill marks, dings. Amazon stocks a durable, fast cutting abrasive that you'll love. Save money and time by buying bulk.
- 120 grit is good at removing the scratch pattern by 80 grit paper. This 120 grit sandpaper from Amazon is superb! The same paper is available in a Bulk pack.
- Finest grade sandpaper before applying film-based surface treatments (paint or lacquer) is around 180 grit, by going higher than that is not beneficial. This 180 grit sandpaper from Amazon will save you time!
- For best surface quality with oil and oil/varnish finishes, you should sand the surface with 220, 300 and as high as 400 grit.
- Sanding the oily, resinous and gummy woods is best done with stearated, open type aluminum oxide paper. Non-stearated papers tend to clog fast with these woods. Norton 3X papers have water-based stearate that doesn’t cause harm if finishing with water-based finishes.
Sanding is an essential and almost inevitable step when you begin to finish any woodworking projects. For most of the woodworkers, at least those I know, sanding is an dreaded, irritating chore that just has to be done.
The purpose of the sanding is to remove and smooth all scratches and blemishes from the surface of wood left by earlier handling and machining steps and to prepare the surface for finish. A proper selection of abrasive material is crucial whether you are sanding by machine or hand. By selecting suitable grit, right kind of abrasive, and appropriate backing material for the job, tedious sanding job is done efficiently and quickly, and the results are great. If you make the wrong choice of sandpaper, the work does not progress at all when you need to fix problems caused by wrong materials or the progress is so slow and you burn through lots of sandpapers without noticeable improvements.
Sanding is a skill that you need to learn like hand planing, hand sawing, sharpening or almost any task in woodworking.
If you hate sanding, learn to master it, so the skill-driven efficiency allows you to pass the arduous task swiftly and with good results.
Choose the right sandpaper grit and grit progression
Sandpapers are graded in many ways. The most important point is to choose relevant grit, or I should say, relevant grits, suitable for your work at hand. Grit number defines the coarseness of the sandpaper, smaller the number, the coarser the abrasive and the more aggressively it eats through the material. Conversely, larger the number, the finer the sandpaper, and the finer the outcome. Finer grades are naturally slower at removing material.
Sandpapers are generally sorted as Very coarse (12 to 24 grit), Coarse (30 to 50 grit), Medium (60 to 80 grit), Fine (100 to 120), Very Fine ( 150 to 220), Extra Fine (240 to 600,) Super Fine (800 to1200), and Ultra Fine ( 1500 to 2500 grit).
Sanding with progressively finer grits is the most efficient method for best surface quality. The desired quality of the finished surface determines how many grits you should use. Generally, three grits are enough if the surface is to be painted or lacquered.
Sandpaper grit chart for wood and other materials
|Grit size range (FEPA)||Name||The speed of material removal||Intended job||Material|
|12-36 grit||Extra Coarse||super fast||Heavy stripping||paint, varnish, lacquer, poly|
|40-60 grit||Coarse||very fast||Stripping and surface repairing||wood, paint, varnish, lacquer, poly|
|80-120 grit||Medium||fast||Surface leveling||Wood, drywall, spackle, filler|
|150-180 grit||Fine||moderate||Surface smoothing, finishing||wood, drywall, plastic, fillers|
|220-240 grit||Very Fine||slow||Finishing, smoothing between coats.||Finishes, hardwoods, plastic, stone, metals, glass|
|280-320 grit||Extra fine||very slow||Finer smoothing between coats||Finishes, hardwoods, plastic, stone, metals, glass|
|360-600 grit||Superfine||barely noticeable||Final finish, polish||Finishes, hardwoods, plastic, stone, metals, glass, ceramics|
|800-4000 grit||Ultra-fine||imperceptible||Final polish||Finishes, hardwoods, plastic, stone, metals, glass, ceramics|
First grit – coarse and fast cutter for leveling the surface
For the first grit, you should choose coarse enough grit to get the workpiece surface quick and efficiently leveled and smoothed of the machining marks.
Surface left by a table saw, or bandsaw or planer is best sanded first by 80 grit or coarser whereas for veneered or pre-sanded plywood faces the 120 grit is coarse enough to start with. If you use coarser grits with laminated substrates, you will risk sanding through the veneer and completely ruining your workpiece!
When using sanders, eg. ROS or another vibrating sander, you should start with one step finer grit than when hand sanding. Vibrating sanders, particularly random orbit sanders leave visible cross grain swirl marks that are hard to remove if deep. Ros sanders are also quite aggressive if used with very coarse grits and can ruin your piece if used carelessly.
Next grits – For cleaning and smoothing the surface from coarse grit marks
After sanding the surface smooth with coarse grit pick every other finer grit to progress through to the final fine grit. If you start with 80 grit, skip the 100 grit and use the 120 grit as next abrasive, until the surface quality is as needed.
When the purpose of the first grit was to remove machine marks from the surface, the goal of the subsequent grits is to remove traces left by coarser grits fast and efficiently. Remember always sand with the grain, cross grain sanding marks are hard to remove and will show through the finish as a sore thumb.
Important tip! Clean the sanded surface between the grits by a vacuum cleaner or tack cloth! Coarser grit particles may remain on the surface that may cause troubles when going with the finer grits, so they have to be cleaned away before moving to finer grit!
Final grit – where should I stop?
For film-based finishes (paints, varnish, lacquer shellack), the finest grit you should use is the 180 grit. Oil and oil/varnish mixes require finer surface because they don’t build a film. Finer the grit, the better quality surface you will get.
Tip! For the stunning oiled surface finish, learn to use wet sanding method. With it, the oil is applied by sanding with progressively finer wet-or-dry sandpaper. Sanding with oil produces a sludge that fills the pores, and polishes the surface to a high shine. For best results, you should go as high as 400 or 600 grit. The resulting surface will be gorgeous.
Grits when staining the wood before finishing
There are a couple of important points to note if you are going to stain the wood before applying the finish. You should avoid too fine grits because the highly polished bare wood surface doesn’t absorb stain well. Also, the use of ROS-sanders is not practical – any cross grain marks will take a lot of dye, and it will stick out like a sore thumb. Careful hand sanding along the grain up to 180 grit is usually best practice when staining. But now, essential tip: Make always a test piece of some scrap wood before staining the actual piece!!!
Skip the sanding altogether? – nobody loves dust.
Proficient hand plane user may skip most of the grits almost altogether. With proper use of hand planes, especially smoothing plane, the woodworker can smooth the surface without sandpapers. Read our article about smoothing planes for more information.
Another efficient method to smooth the wooden surfaces is to use various types of scrapers. With a sharp cabinet scraper, you can prepare the surface fast and efficiently without dust. For more information, check out our how-to guide about using the scraper.
Open or closed coat sandpaper?
Sandpapers and abrasives for wood are almost always of open coat type. The open coat means that the surface of the sandpaper is not entirely covered with abrasive articles. Abrasive particles are distributed so there are empty spots or gullets between the particles. Those gullets help to transfer the dust away from the surface; they also help to keep the sandpaper clean from clogging.
Stearated sandpapers – the secret weapon against resinous woods
Some woods are hard to sand with ordinary sandpaper. Oily, resinous or gummy woods tend to clog the sandpaper fast, and you have to replace the sandpaper every so often. Fortunately, the sandpaper manufacturers have developed a product just for the problematic woods; the stearated sandpaper.
The surface of stearated sandpaper is covered with a lubricant that prevents the sticky dust from sticking on. One thing to check; some types of stearated sandpaper and water-based finishes don’t mix. The residues of oil-soluble stearates on a workpiece surface can cause fisheyes or other finishing faults.
If you are going to use a water-based finish on your work you should stick to the non-stearated type of abrasive or buy stearated sandpaper with specific water-based stearates. Norton makes excellent X3 series waterbased stearated sandpaper.
The best type of abrasive material for wood?
A best and most common type of sandpapers for wood is made with aluminum oxide and ceramic aluminum oxide abrasive materials. Aluminum oxides have best properties as an abrasive for wood; it is hard and blocky, but has sharp edges, it is friable, which means that it breaks easily under stress revealing new and sharp edges. It is colorless and doesn’t color light woods.
Newer, more durable type of ceramic aluminum oxide is more robust than standard aluminum oxide and is used in premium lines of sandpaper such as Norton x3. It has a longer life in heavy duty applications, and it is available in coarser grits.
Is expensive sandpaper worth it?
It really is! Look at the production shops and pros that use sandpaper a lot; they want to have a job done quickly and efficiently. For them the time is money, if you can save a half hour of work with investing dollar more for sanding medium they’ll do it. Although premium sandpapers cost more when compared to cheap sandpapers, the time saving that you can get with better quality is totally worth it. Premium sandpaper will cut faster, is more durable, last longer, and doesn’t clog so easily, all traits that are important for real work.
Can you use drywall sandpaper on wood?
Yes, you can. Sandpapers for drywall are similar to sandpapers for wood. They are made with aluminum oxide and work well with wood.
Can you use metal sandpaper on wood?
Yes with some caveats; sandpapers meant for metals are usually of the closed type which clogs easily when used with wood. Another thing to check before use is the type of abrasive material – if it is made of silicon carbide it is not suitable with light woods. (Silicon carbide papers tend to be dark grey colored) The dark, abrasive residue will stain the light woods.
Can you use wet&dry sandpaper on wood?
Yes, with some caveats. Wet and dry sandpapers are closed coat type so they will clog fast especially on resinous woods. The most common abrasive in wet and dry sandpaper is silicon carbide, the dark nature of its abrasive grains will in some cases discolor light woods. I recommend using wet&dry sandpapers only on darker hardwoods.
Should you wet wood before sanding?
In general, you should not wet the wood before sanding, wet dust will stuff up the sandpaper, and it will stop cutting short.
However, there is one particular case when wetting the wood is wise; If you are going to use water-based stain and/or water-based finish, then you should wet the wood lightly after sanding with the final grit. Let the surface dry, and with a very light touch, sand the raised grain and fibers away with the last grit sandpaper. If you don’t do that, the grain/fibers that rose up when wet will undoubtedly rise up when staining/finishing causing an uneven or rough surface.
What is the best grit sandpaper for removing paint from wood?
Best grit for removing paint with sanding is 40-60 grit, open type, stearated sandpaper. However, there are more comfortable and faster methods for removing paint that you should use first. Consider using paint strippers or heat gun for paint removal; it will save you hours of sanding and acres of sandpaper. After removing the bulk of paint with either paint stripper or heat, you have to still use sanding for removing the paint residue and preparing the surface refinishing. Start with 80 grit, follow with 120 grit, and finish with 180grit, the surface will be ready for refinishing.
Learn more about sandpapers and abrasives in general from my recent article: SANDPAPER PRIMER – ALL ABOUT COATED ABRASIVES