Have you ever been so excited about a woodworking project that you eventually found yourself rushing through the different phases to see the end of it? Well, it happened to me, and in this post, I will share my experience on why sanding is sometimes overlooked as a critical phase of the construction process. Fail in this, and a weird-looking piece of furniture will shadow all your efforts in the design and construction.
Here is what you will read in this post:
I've been writing many times about patience in woodworking and will never stop stressing the importance of finding relaxation and enjoyment instead of stress and anxiety. Rush has several adverse effects on the process and the final result. Although it may look that a fast working pace would produce immediate results, the truth is that rush only brings mistakes and poor outcomes with inevitable extra time to do things.
This post is about an important point I learned during the construction of the Ocean Wave and how a piece that I'm particularly proud of for the several techniques I used could have ended in a complete disaster.
Yes, because after spending almost 150 hours on the construction, an overlooked sanding process could have spoiled the final result and stayed under my eyes forever.
I know very well that the sanding process is quite frustrating for most woodworkers, and there's a strong temptation to make it faster, possibly using power tools. But sometimes patience pays back and delivers faster results, believe it or not!
Before I dive into this topic more specifically, I want to tell you this: don't trust your eyes too much, as they can trick you and make you believe things that are not true.
I will explain it better: not all the woods are the same, not all the finishes are the same, and...not all the workshops are illuminated the same way!
See where I'm pointing? And I'm not saying this to justify myself for the mistake (that, by the way, I fixed), but to make you realise that there are so many factors involved in sanding wood that you want to be careful before you call it a job done.
So, here was my situation: I was working on the stand and the frame of the cabinet, made of sycamore and finished with Indian Ink that would give a pitch-black finish. This weird combination had two threats: the first one was the very light colour of the sycamore that made it difficult to see uneven spots during sanding; the second was the black colour of the Indian Ink that would exaggerate any imperfection.
Ah...I almost forgot..as a contribution to the scenario, I had to do all the sanding by hand in a sanding room whose illumination was not exceptionally bright.
I take full responsibility for not carefully checking through the steps, as I trusted my eyes in a poorly lit environment. But my desire to proceed fast was probably a fatal contribution to this complacent behaviour.
The bitter truth came after the third coat of Indian Ink and a final coat of wax that created the sheen. Imagine the time I spent applying the three coats; it took me a whole day to realise that all that work was for nothing.
Now, here's the thing. A matt and a glossy finish have a completely different effect on the eye when illuminated; the glossy finish reflects the light more intensely and can reveal the tiniest uneven spots. And a black finish aggravates the situation even more!
At this point, it should be clear that sanding in woodworking is as essential as any other task, and spending the correct amount of time is beneficial for the outcome.
So, I would like to give you some good tips to know when sanding is enough to prepare our wood for finishing. They are not rocket science, and there are undoubtedly several methods that can be used, but here are a few that I'm sure you will find helpful:
Lightly draw with a pencil on the wood covering the entire surface: this is a perfect way to determine the state of your sanding. Once the marks disappear, you will be ready to move to the next step. Continue until you reach the finest grit, and then moisten your wood with mineral spirits to ensure no more marking traces.
Look for scratches and uneven spots: Check the piece from different angles and under other lights, detect rough areas and correct them before moving to the next grit.
Rub your hand over the wood's surface to check for roughness or inconsistencies. Move to the next grit when the surface feels even and smooth.
Examine the colour of the wood; it can indicate whether it's ready for the next grit. If the wood appears evenly coloured with no light or dark spots, it's a good sign that you're ready to move on.
I missed some of these tips while sanding my Ocean Wave and had to learn the hard way. Every time I walked by the finished stand, my eyes could only see those defects, and funny enough, it was only me seeing them. When I asked other woodworkers, they wouldn't notice them (or at least they were pretending...).
But for me, it was frustrating after spending so much time designing something that I thought should be a high-end piece of furniture.
I remember it was two days before the project presentation to the rest of the class. It was an excellent opportunity to present our idea and the work in progress. Would I have been able to go through the presentation and pretend that all was fine and no one would notice? I'm terrible at acting and knew this would harm my performance.
So I decided to strip off the finish from the stand and the frame and repeat the process from zero. In the beginning, it looked like it would take forever to remove and sand the ink deep down into the wood's pores, but as my hands progressed, they were also becoming faster, and I could see the defects disappearing, one by one.
It took me two full days to complete the work, but I will never regret the decision. The quality of the cabinet finally reflected what was in my mind, and I could look at it with pride and satisfaction for what I had achieved.
"The key to successful sanding is to let the sandpaper do the work, and not force it or push too hard." - Gary Rogowski.
Gary Rogowski is an esteemed woodworker, well known also for his continuous contribution as an educator. His words speak the truth and come with another question: what kind of sandpaper and which grit should we use in the workshop?
Several brands produce fantastic products, 3M and Mirka are just two. They mark the difference between a mediocre and a quality result and impact the speed of the process.
But it is also essential to know to which grit we should sand the wood. It is a common belief among beginner woodworkers that to reach a smooth surface; it should go as high as possible with the grit. Although it may seem like a natural deduction, it can become a problem for the wood to absorb the finish, and I'm talking in particular about natural finishes like oils.
As you go higher in the grit, the sandpaper produces fine dust particles that slowly go into the wood's pores and saturate them, making it impossible for the finish to penetrate and act as a wood protector. It is generally a good practice to sand the surface up to 180 and, in no case, go above 220 to prevent this possible issue.
Sanding is an essential process in woodworking and affects the outcome of our work in woodworking. It is then necessary to address it with the same care as when we prepare our stock or cut our joinery. This is essential when considering how much time we dedicate to building a project, starting from the design phase.
Remember that sanding shortcuts are never worth it, as they only lead to frustration and disappointment. So take your time and do it right, and you'll be rewarded with a beautiful, polished finished product you can be proud of. Happy sanding!
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