Sanding your work is one thing, sanding it well is another. In this post, I share my top bowl sanding tips on getting it right every time to produce an item that is not just gorgeous, but something to be proud of.
Many who follow my work on YouTube and Facebook will know how picky I am about my sanding and finishing. It’s not merely a case of being a perfectionist, it’s a case of wanting to do it well.
Having been to a few ‘woody’ and craft fairs hunting round for places I may feel like attending, I’ve picked up other’s work and seen tool and sanding marks in some of the pieces and to be honest, it is almost embarrassing to see a turner pumping out imperfect work, irrespective of the price.
The frustrating thing is, is that sanding isn’t difficult. It can be boring, sure, but it’s not difficult, and neither is doing it well.
The techniques are easy to get to grips with, but I think the major downfall of many a poorly sanded piece is the amount of time the turner spends on his or her sanding. It’s either because they rushed it, or they’re just lazy finishers. Whether you’re going to sell your work for five pounds of 500 pounds, do your customers (or even gift recipients) not deserve a well finished piece?
So before I explain the technique I use, here are my tips on sanding:
Tip One – If You Can See Tool or Sanding Marks, Do it Again;
Tip Two – Go Back to Tip One
There’s more than one way to skin a cat of course, and sanding is no different. Explained here is the method that I use. It works well.
Turn your piece and get the best finish you can ‘off the tool’. Some woods tear out more than others on the end grain. A sharp tool and safe lathe speed will help you a lot with these types of wood. There are other methods, not covered here to cope with soft, spalted or punky woods.
The Sanding Tool
Generally, I’ll use a rotary (friction driven) bowl sander. It saves a lot of time and produces a much better finish than trying to do it with hand held paper. My preference is either the Simon Hope Pro Sanding System (link) or the Axminster Deluxe Bowl Sander (Link). Depending on the size of the piece determines if I use the 25mm, 50mm or 75mm sanding heads. Also, I prefer these as the heads are connected to a rotating bearing which keeps it spinning.
In the picture, the Hope sanding tool is the top one, the Axminster one, the bottom. Both are with their 50mm heads on.
The Grits Used and Checking for Marks
For sanding bowls and platters, I use 120, 180, 240 and 400 grits and find that the finish achieved is just as good as using the ‘missed’ 320 grit. Very occasionally I’ll use 600 to finish.
My ‘Outside’ Method
Running the lathe a little slower then it was when I was cutting with the gouge, I put the tool to the piece a bit below the horizontal centre line and on ‘my side’ of the vertical centre line with a little bit of pressure. It is important to use the same pressure from grit to grit. As the piece is turning with the pad on it and spinning nicely, I’m listening for a hissing sound and (obviously) dust coming off it and keep the pad moving from the start position down to the 8 o’clock position and back again.
I’m very careful not to ‘slip’ up from the bowl up onto the foot of the piece. This will round the transition over and look sloppy when the piece is complete.
After each grit is ‘finished’, I check over the piece closely for any marks left behind and remember their position. After the next grit, I’ll check the same place for the same marks to check they are gone, or are significantly reduced. If any of those marks are left from say, the 120 grit after I ‘finish’ 180 grit, I’ll run the 180 grit pad again. I do this all the way down to the final grit.
Don’t be afraid to go back up to a coarser grit to remove marks. The end result will be better and you’ll be happier in the end.
My ‘Inside’ Method
The method pretty much the same as the above, but I work on the opposite side of the piece, as illustrated below. Like on the bottom, not slipping up onto the foot, I’m careful not to let the tool slip from the inside of the bowl on to the rim to ensure there is a neat transition from wall to rim.
Sanding in Reverse
I recommend sanding for a few seconds with the lathe in reverse if possible. It’s not absolutely necessary to do this, but I find the finish to be superior to sanding forwards only. Be careful though as this throws dust straight back up to your face and feels very, very strange. For the most part, I work from the top of the piece towards centre from about the 11 o’clock position for the outside and the 8 o’clock position on the inside.
When you think you’ve finish sanding, check over the piece closely to make sure you really have got a ‘perfect’ as possible surface. Any remaining tool marks, tear-out or sanding marks will be very, very obvious when applying your final finishes, especially if you are adding colour first. If you find any marks, go back a couple of grits and go again. If they are still there, go back further.
Also, be aware that sanding can put a lot of heat into both the piece and the head of the sanding tool. Take care not to heat either up too much in case the wood starts to check or the adhesives on the tool heads starts to melt. I know this because I’ve done it more than once!
I hope you found this article helpful. With a beady, critical eye, a little bit of time and a reasonable technique, you can get sanding results to be proud of which will in turn become a perfect base onto which you can apply your final finishes.
Thanks for reading and please let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Ensure you wear appropriate PPE and take other precautions to keep yourself and anyone else in your workshop safe from potentially harmful dust and keep in mind that this method is for pieces without a natural edge or large inclusions such a holes etc. I am not affiliated to either Axminster nor Simon Hope Woodturning and provide the links as a courtesy rather than financial gain.