How to Smooth Wood: Choose the Best Tool for the Job

When it comes to wood smoothing tools, it's important to understand what to use, when and why. Use this guide to determine whether sanding, scraping or handplaning will work best for smoothing wood on your finished product.

| June 12, 2012


The grit in sandpaper acts like a series of minute pointed scrapers, removing wood by compression failure at the points of the abrasive. It is a reliable way to smooth wood, but in some ways, it is as if you are using an uneven bed of nails. It leaves a series of erratic uneven grooves across the board, often leaves little balls of wood fiber at the end of the grooves, and tears the edges of the wood pores and fills them with dust. Clarity of the wood’s grain and figure is compromised for reliability. 


If you are a craftsman looking for the smoothest finish to your piece, reveal the true beauty of your wood’s grain and figure by sanding, scraping or using handplanes. Woodworker’s Guide to Handplanes (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2010) by Scott Wynn evaluates and compares handplanes for the best result in every woodworking situation. The following excerpt from Chapter 1, “Smooth: What to Use, When, and Why,” explores how to smooth wood using the best tools and techniques possible. 

Understanding How to Smooth Wood Is Essential

To get to that level of finesse—of craftsmanship—the use, position, and intended finish of a piece, or parts of a piece, all will have to be considered when deciding on the best tools to use for a project. To make informed decisions, understanding the nature of the different surfaces different tools produce is essential.

The three ways to smooth wood—sanding, scraping, and planing—all leave a different kind of surface.

Sanding Wood

Sanding abrades the surface, leaving a series of irregular microscopic grooves with slightly fuzzy edges. Sandpaper, which consists of randomly distributed abrasive particles of irregular size, shape, and orientation, tears and scrapes the wood fibers. The points and edges of the particles project and wear unevenly, cutting to different depths. The result is most noticeable when starting with coarse sandpaper and then skipping grits, because coarser grits leave deep scratches finer grits will not reach (see Image Gallery).

Sanding also leaves a myriad of microscopic torn fibers hanging onto the surface. And even though you may be meticulous, sanding thoroughly through progressive grits, you still have to sand to a grit finer than 600 to get light to penetrate the torn fibers with enough clarity to bring out the grain of a figured wood.

Scraping Wood

Scraping, using the burr turned on the edge or a sharpened blade held at a high angle, tears the wood fibers as well, removing wood essentially by compression failure at the edge of the burr (see Image Gallery). The burr is a relatively blunt cutting edge that establishes a point where compression failure begins, rather than actually cutting or shearing the wood.

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