Thats a very interesting question, and I hope I am able to help you. First of all, I need to tell you I am definitely not a finisher, and know very little about it. My time and energy has been spent focusing on making the shapes and I leave it to the experts to do the finishing. Quite often a furniture maker gives me the parts to carve and I have been absolutely spoiled in that I can hand it off to him to do the finishing.
Re: Sanding - My ultimate goal is to not have to sand a piece after I carve it. However, the reality of the situation sometimes veers me off that goal. Here are some situations: If I am carving in something that is going to be painted, than I have much more flexibility in the final surface, and will be more likely to sand it when I am completely finished carving. And then if I really want it to be obvious that it is hand carved, I don't touch it with sand paper - I leave all the gouge marks in the carving.
If it is an unpainted period reproduction piece, I try to match the surface of the original piece - usually lightly sanded to remove the facets of the carving tools - nothing that will actually leave scratches in the wood, however. One wood I really try to avoid sanding is walnut. The burnished surface of walnut after carving is so beautiful, that touching it with sandpaper can completely change the surface and cause it to be dull. Other woods which I would more likely sand - basswood and poplar.
One thing I tell my students is not to carve with sandpaper, or as David Reilly, my assistant at Marc Adams School, calls it a "50 grit gouge". If you have to sand it to reshape it, you might as well use a gouge - it's a lot quicker and a lot less dusty.
I hope that helps. Maybe someone who is much more knowledgable in the finishing aspect can throw in some ideas or comments?
I'd really love to see how you finish a carved piece. Do you use sandpaper on every project or just let every little facet show? Does the finish bring out different shades if it's not sanded? Is it a much different procedure from finishing furniture? I've never seen anyone actually put finish on a carved project and I'm very curious. Thanks
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