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Sanding finished carvings

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Recently I have watched quite a few carving videos here on Mary's site and also on YouTube, and quite often the carver talks about sanding the piece once the carving is done, but nobody ever offers any details on how this is done. This doesn't seem straightforward to me. There is often a lot of nooks and tight curves and other awkward to reach areas. How does one deal with them? Do you affix sandpaper to custom shaped sanding blocks (sanding sticks?), use files, or is there some better method I can't think of? If it matters, I guess I'm particularly interested in ball-and-claw feet and concave and convex shells, but also, just in general, what do people do? I'd like to see a video just on that.

Hi Charles,

Ideally, in that perfect world where everything works out just as we want, no sanding is needed. And I have a reputation of being horrified if I hear the "S" word with carving.

However... life doesn't always happen that way. Tiny, pointed, very fine riffler or needle files can clean out deep, inside corners. Also, compressing those corners with a sharp, bamboo skewer gets rid of "fuzzies" that like to stick in the inside corners. Sand paper can be folded around a hard, contoured surface to sand particular curves sections. Nail files can be cut to different shapes to fit into awkward areas.

Typically, in woodworking it is recommended that sanding is never done across the grain. With carving and all the twists and curves, this is nearly impossible to stick to. So as a result, if you use a too rough sandpaper, clear scratch marks can be seen in the surface - especially in these cross-grain areas. So it is important to use very fine sandpaper.

The main issue with sanding is that it does change the surface or texture of the wood. The "burnished" look of some woods just off the chisel is reduced after sanding (especially walnut and cherry) so I try and resist using sandpaper on these.

Newport shells and ball and claw feet can be lightly sanded, and the inside, sharp corners can be cleaned up with a very sharp, pointed riffler file.

What you want to try and avoid is to "carve" with sandpaper. Do your shaping with gouges, and just use the sanding process to remove unwanted tool marks. But then again... those tool marks make it unique, and hand-carved. It really depends on how refined and smooth you want the final surface.

Have fun! Oh, and don't forget that if you do sand, don't carve on the wood after you have sanded or you will be sharpening your gouges.

Tom Weir, Charles Hubbard and 2 other users have reacted to this post.
Tom WeirCharles HubbardRobert ButlerCathy Paschane

Thank you for your comment on his question. I have found the same. They talk about it but don’t show it. I’m just a beginner also so a lot to learn. Enjoy your videos on u tube and also your tool section for buying is great  ?.  Hope to get some of your classes this summer

Thanks! So far not a lot of classes are happening through August.

Have you seen the daily Livestream I started a few weeks ago? It's been a lot of fun.


Here's my two cents about sanding a carving. 99% of the time I sand. For me a consistent and even tool mark finish is hard to produce even though I've been carving since 1979. You really need to have a consistent technique and razor sharp tools to make it look good. Plus I happen to like a smooth finish. However I think it really depends on what you are carving. I recently carved a mother and baby seal and I think that kind of carving needs to be sanded smooth. However I did leave tool marks on the base which I carved to look like rocks.

Anyway, for detail smoothing I have a large collection of small files and rifflers which I use to get into small areas. I will also use a micro-motor with a fine grit burr to smooth areas.  For sanding I'll normally begin with 100 grit, use 220 next, and finally end up with something in the 300 range like a 340. As Mary said, you will wind up sanding against the grain in certain areas but the finer grits should help remove any noticeable scratches. If you use a garnet or aluminum oxide sandpaper you will leave grit particles behind on the carving and if you then decide to use a gouge on the carving you will probably dull the gouge. For most of my sanding I now use micro-mesh sanding sheets in the grits I mentioned above. The nice thing about micro-mesh is that it doesn't leave particles behind to dull tools. It also lasts longer and seems to cut faster then regular sand paper.

Charles Hubbard and Cathy Paschane have reacted to this post.
Charles HubbardCathy Paschane

Great information, Jim. I have also discovered the wonders of micro-mesh sand paper. These do work amazingly well and hold up much better (I would say at least 10 times longer use) than "sandy" sand paper, and don't leave that grit. I also use these wet for sanding stone carvings.

Mary May:

I am interested in viewing your live stream, but when I click on that link you gave in one of your responses to this post, I get the message ... "Sorry. Unless you’ve got a time machine, that content is unavailable."

Here is the link that you provided ...  http://www.twitch.tv/marymaycarver


Hi Roger,

the twitch address is wrong. try http://www.twitch.tv/marymaywoodcarver

One thing not mentioned about sanding is the following. I typically use boiled linseed oil and polyurethane to finish my projects because I want to maintain the beauty of the wood. I use mahogany, some walnut and have tried cherry, which I will never use again. I like to highlight some parts of the carving surface by mixing the percent of the linseed oil with the poly. I also often sand areas I want highlighted with very fine sandpaper, say 400 grit vs. the background with courser grits, maybe 100 grit to show light shinning at desired angles. This is achieved because the amount of linseed oil, which darkens the wood, does not penetrate as much in areas that are sanded with finer grits. Using both mixtures of poly & linseed oil and sanding with various grits works for me.


Cathy Paschane has reacted to this post.
Cathy Paschane

Anyone have a suggested source for micro-mesh sandpaper in the lower grits? Amazon, Rockler & Woodcraft all  seem to start in the 1500 grit range.Thanks!

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