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Sandpaper Buying Guide

Proper sanding creates the best finishes, whether you're working with wood, metal or drywall. Learn how to choose the right sandpaper for your work.

Hand Sanding with Sandpaper.

Sandpaper Basics

Power Sanding with a Random Orbit Sander.

Sandpaper is available for use with power tools and for sanding by hand:

Power-sanding products remove material quickly and efficiently. They're a good choice for getting rid of blemishes and for shaping and leveling wood. Power sanding is an effective method of preparing metal surfaces for paint. Sandpaper for power sanding comes in sheets, discs and belts designed to fit specific power tools. Some tools also accept sheets cut to size.

Hand-sanding products give you a lighter touch for woodworking and finishing. You have better control and can sand areas that a power sander can't reach. With proper technique, the scratches align with the wood grain and are less visible. Hand sand wood as final preparation for finishes and between finish coats. Sandpaper for hand sanding comes in sheets you cut to the size you need. You can use some sandpaper for both hand sanding and power sanding.

Sandpaper Types

Sheets of Sandpaper.

One way to determine which sandpaper will work best for a particular job is to know the abrasive materials and their properties.

Some papers use natural abrasives:

  • Garnet is good for hand sanding. It works well on raw wood — removing light scratches and preparing the surface for finishing. The abrasive particles break during use, providing new edges for removing material, but garnet sandpaper wears quickly.
  • Emery works for both hand sanding and power sanding metal. Use coarser grits to remove rust or paint and finer grits to polish. Emery sandpaper often has a cloth backing and is also known as emery cloth.

Other abrasives are manmade:

  • Aluminum oxide is a common sandpaper type that works on wood, plastic, metal and drywall. The particles break during sanding, constantly exposing new, sharp edges. Aluminum oxide sandpaper is long-lasting, making it a popular choice for power sanding, but you can also use it for hand sanding.
  • Silicon carbide sandpaper removes material more quickly than aluminum oxide, but doesn't last as long. Use it on wood, plastic and metal for tasks such as rough sanding, paint or rust removal and sanding between coats when finishing. Use it on drywall to smooth joints. Silicon carbide products often have a waterproof backing that allows you to wet sand. Wet sanding uses liquid to lubricate the work surface, minimizing scratches. This technique also helps prevent the sandpaper from clogging with dust, removes loose abrasive particles and reduces airborne dust.
  • Zirconia alumina is suitable for wood, fiberglass, metal and painted surfaces. You'll find it in the form of belts, pads and discs for power sanding. Like garnet and aluminum oxide, the particles break during use, maintaining sharp edges that remove material quickly. However, zirconia alumina lasts longer than aluminum oxide.
  • Ceramic alumina is available in belts and discs for power sanding and is good for aggressive material removal on wood. Ceramic abrasives are durable — lasting longer than aluminum oxide.

You may see sandpaper labeled closed-coat or open-coat. Closed-coat products feature abrasives covering all of the backing. This construction removes more material — making it effective for hand sanding — but can clog more quickly than open-coat products. Open-coat products have empty space on the backing, giving waste material room to accumulate without reducing performance. Since they don't clog as quickly, they're effective for power sanding.

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Good to Know

Paper is a traditional backing for sandpaper, but you can also find fabric and film backing, which offer better durability. Unlike products with paper backing, you can use fabric-backed products for wet sanding. Film backing on hand-sanding papers allows you to sand contours and difficult-to-reach parts of your work piece.

Sandpaper Grit Numbers

Sheets of Sandpaper.

The grit number of a sanding product indicates the size of the abrasive particles. The lower the number, the larger the abrasive particles — they remove more material but create more noticeable scratches. A higher number indicates smaller particles which don't remove as much material but leave a finer, more polished appearance. Sanding projects use several grit sizes, starting with lower-number grits and moving up the scale to finer, higher-number grits. Each higher grit removes scratches from the previous grit, creating an increasingly smooth surface.

There is a wide range of grit numbers available, from 24 for heavy material removal to 2000 and beyond for working with automotive finishes. Grit numbers between 60 and 220 will handle most household projects.

The specific grit numbers you need vary by project and the material you're sanding, so follow the abrasive product manufacturer's recommendations. Here are some general guidelines:

Grit numbers from 36 to 100 are good for removing material and work well with power sanders. Applications include:

  • Stripping away finishes such as paint or varnish
  • Removing rust on metals or flaws in wood
  • Leveling and shaping wood

Grit numbers from 100 to 180 perform well with both hand sanding and power sanding, preparing bare surfaces for finishes. This range is good for:

  • Smoothing work pieces
  • Removing scratches
  • Final preparation for finishing

Grit numbers from 180 to 320 work for finishing. Hand sanding is good for these applications:

  • Removing raised wood grain fibers
  • Scuffing between finish coats

Other Abrasives

Hand Sanding a Cabinet Door with a Sanding Block.

In addition to sandpaper, there are other abrasives, available in a range from coarse to fine:

  • Sanding sponges are flexible pads with an integrated grit. They're effective on both flat and contoured surfaces, and you can use them for wet sanding or dry sanding. They're more durable than sandpaper and are reusable. Sanding sponges with channels built into the surface help keep the abrasive from becoming clogged with dust.
  • Steel wool is another abrasive that can conform to the work surface, letting you work on areas sandpaper can't easily reach. Steel wool can leave behind small strands which, if left on the workpiece, can rust and cause discoloration. Bronze wool is a similar product that does not rust.
  • Refinishing or stripping pads are flexible, reusable sheets of abrasive material that won't shed. You can cut them to a specific size or shape.
  • Drywall screens are metal, open-mesh products designed to level joint compound and plaster. Drywall screens don't clog as easily as sandpaper and are simple to clean for reuse.

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Sanding Tools

Orbital Sander.

Common tools for hand sanding and power sanding include:

  • Hand sanders and sanding blocks use sandpaper sheets cut to size. These tools give you more comfort, control and leverage than sanding with sheets alone and can generate good results on flat surfaces.
  • Pole sanders also accept sandpaper sheets. Use these for sanding large, flat surfaces such as drywall.
  • Orbital sanders — also known as sheet or finishing sanders — are handheld power tools that use small sheets of sandpaper attached to a rectangular base. The base vibrates in a continuous pattern of small circles. This motion can create a smooth finish, but doesn't remove as much material as other power sanders.
  • Detail sanders function like orbital models but use a triangular or teardrop-shaped sanding base. This design uses custom-fit sandpaper to reach tight spaces. Detail sanders are suitable for small areas.
  • Random-orbit sanders are handheld power tools that use an arbitrary, circular sanding motion to prevent conspicuous marks on the work surface. These sanders remove more material than an orbital sander.
  • Handheld belt sanders are power tools that use a rotating band of sandpaper to aggressively remove material or shape wood. They work well on large surfaces but aren't suitable for more delicate finishing projects. Poor technique with these sanders can lead to gouges in the workpiece. They take more effort to control than other sanders and require two hands to operate.
  • Benchtop belt and disc sanders are stationary power tools that provide sanding surfaces for large workpieces.

Other devices, such as drills, oscillating tools and rotary tools can use bits and accessories designed to handle sanding jobs.

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Good to Know

Power sanders generate dust quickly. Look for tools with dust collection and extraction capabilities. Some tools can connect to a shop vacuum with a fine particle filter for dust extraction.

Caution

Use suitable breathing protection and eye protection when using sanding or abrasive products. Depending on the tools you're using, you may need additional equipment such as hearing protection and gloves. See the product and tool information for specifics.

Using Sandpaper and Other Abrasives

Good technique helps create a successful finishing project:

  • Practice on scrap wood or surfaces that aren't easily visible to get the feel for how an abrasive or sanding tool removes material.
  • Use the finest grit size that will handle the task, but follow the correct sequence. Skipping a grit number won't save time. You'll spend more time sanding with the next grit.
  • Power sanding requires a slower pace than hand sanding. Moving a sander too quickly creates scratches that are especially visible when you're staining wood.
  • Don't press down when using a power sander. Too much pressure creates a poor finish and removes less material than if you let the tool and paper do the work. Use a new piece of sandpaper if a light touch doesn't get the right results.
  • Between each grit number, clean off dust and loose abrasive from the work piece. Vacuum the surface or wipe it down.

Watch Our Video: How Do I Use Sandpaper?

Caution

Follow manufacturers' instructions for use and safety when working with sanding and abrasive products.