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.


Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at