It’s hard to think of any old-house project that doesn’t involve sanding at some point. Like any other tedious process, having the right tools will ease the pain (literally as well as figuratively) and help you get things done as proficiently as possible.
Manual hand sanders, sometimes called sanding blocks, are essentially sandpaper mounted on a wooden or rubber base with a handle. Sandpaper is attached to this base in a variety of ways, from rubber channels that spread apart to slide the sandpaper in, to more complicated models that require dismantling of fastening mechanisms to get the sandpaper tightly in place.
There are also hand-held synthetic blocks with sandpaper of various grits permanently attached around the sides of the block. When the sandpaper is worn away, you just toss the block. These are good solutions for small, quick projects. There are even sanding blocks saturated with silicon carbide particles that can remove rust, corrosion, scratches, and buildup on metal surfaces.
What to Look For
There are lots of different hand sanders on the market. Your project ultimately will dictate the best choice, but start with one that fits comfortably in your hand, which is essential both for ergonomic comfort and sanding control. Also, look for one that has an easy paper-changing mechanism and fits standard sandpaper sizes. As your projects expand, you may want to consider going up or down a size, depending on whether you need to sand large surfaces more quickly or get into smaller spaces.
For a good basic sander, my vote goes to models that use 3" x 21" paper belts (the same ones you’d use in many power sanders). Simply cut or tear the length your hand sander needs and slide the paper into place. Any sandpaper grit fits, replacing papers is fast, and there’s no need to buy additional accessories. One step up is a sander (such as the Clever Lever Sand Devil pictured above) that uses the same standard papers, but has several built-in sanding profiles so it can be used on flat or curved surfaces, corners, and decorative profiles.
Where to Use It
Hand sanders won’t eliminate the need for power versions, but they will complement your surface preparation arsenal. There are many reasons to reach for the hand sander first—or exclusively. They offer much more versatility and expose historic surfaces to much less damage. Power sanders, even used by the most careful hand, tend to be too aggressive for many historic surfaces, leaving sanding marks and dents, and taking away more historic fabric, finish, and/or surface than is necessary. You also have far less control over what you are sanding off, and risk removing details.
Prepare for sanding by removing any unwanted nails, any badly rotted or damaged boards, and any finely detailed trim work that needs to be handled more gently. This will give you a good surface to sand and allow you to gently scrape off any old caulking, wood putty, or other gunk that has accumulated over the years. Clean the surface first so you can be sure of what you’re sanding, won’t over-sand, and can avoid filling the sandpaper with debris.
The Bottom Line
No one wants a finished project to end up lumpy and bumpy, which is why sanding is such a critical step. The ability to carefully control how much surface you’re removing makes the hand sander a useful tool to have at your side.