Tools and Techniques


September 20, 2016

Let’s talk about sanding things.

Obviously, you should sand the wood that goes onto your ship.  I knew this on my first build.  But, I inevitably would find myself a little to excited to get that next piece on, and would forget to give things a good sanding first.  Sometimes I’d think to myself “Self, you’re going to paint it anyway…the paint will make it smooth!”

Sanding makes a big difference.  Every piece of wood that goes on your ship should be sanded.  How much you sand is a matter of preference.  A quick sand with a low-grit sheet of sandpaper will give a rougher finish, which might be what you’re after if you want that real-world ‘wood’ look.  If you’re looking for a more polished look, you might use a higher grit sheet of paper.

I use a variety of sandpaper grits and sanding tools on my ships.


I use a variety of sandpaper grits.  The higher the grit, the finer the finish.

A few my commonly used sheets are 800, 400, 220, 150, and 80.  The lower the number, the more wood it takes off (and the rougher the finish).

A low grit, like 80 or 100, is great for evening out pieces of wood that don’t quite line up, or quickly reducing the thickness of something.  A medium grit, like 220, will remove less at a time, and give you a fairly nice finish.  A high grit, like 400 or 800, can give you a very smooth finish, but it won’t help if you need to remove a bunch of material.

Let’s take a look at the impact of a bit of light sanding with a few different grits.  To show the difference, I cut some 1″ pieces of 1/8″ square basswood.


From left to right, un-sanded, 80 grit, 150, 220, 400 and 800.

Left to right, you see the original wood, with no sanding, then 80 grit, 150, 220, 400, and 800.  You can see the wood starting out pretty rough, then getting progressively smoother.

I took these photos with a macro lens so we could get in close and see how the surface of the wood changes as we change grits.


Sanding with 80 grit paper actually made the surface worse.

This first picture (above), shows a close up view of the original basswood and one sanded with 80 grit (rough) sandpaper.  You’ll notice the texture of the wood is even rougher than it started!  Rough sandpaper is great for removing material, but it isn’t going to give you a smooth wood surface.


Sanding with 150 grit gets us back to where we started.

Next we compare the 80 grit to 150 grit sandpaper.  I’d say the 150 gives us a slightly better finish than the original.  It is definitely better than the 80 grit, but still not what I’d call smooth.


At 220 grit, the surface starts to look good.

Once we get up to 220 grit, we’re starting to get a smooth finish.


400 grit gives us a really nice finish, with no noticeable roughness in a ‘finger test’.

At 400 grit, the surface starts to get really smooth.  This is normally the point where I can’t detect any roughness when I run my finger over the surface.  For many places on the ship, 400 will give you a very nice, smooth surface.  When painted, you’ll still be able to see the grain of the wood as long as the paint isn’t too thick.


At 800 grit, you’ve got a really, really smooth finish.

Finally, we go up to 800 grit paper.  The surface of the wood is very smooth, and depending on the paint, you can get a finish where you can’t even see the wood grain.


Comparing un-sanded (left) to the final 800-grit result.

To round this out, let’s compare where we started (original, un-sanded) to the final 800 grit version.  There is a very noticeable difference.

I try to sand my surfaces down to 800 grit.  I like the smooth finish.  For some, this might be too smooth – you might want the wood to look a little more like actual wood.  For me, I think that when the wood on the ship is scaled down to model size, you probably wouldn’t see much ‘roughness’.  Just a personal preference.

I’ve also found that if I’m not needing to remove material (thin down some wood, or even out some pieces), I don’t ‘work my way up’.  I jump right in and do the initial sanding with 800 grit.  Most wood that comes in ship kits is already cut pretty nicely.  Jumping right to a high grit also helps to ensure I don’t take a 1/8″ piece down to 1/16″ because I was trying to smooth it out.

Sometimes, you need to sand something that is already painted.  Often this happens because the paint itself is a little rough, or because there is bead of paint you need to eliminate.  For those times, I use some special sanding pads I picked up at a hobby store.  These are very high grits.  Yup…it goes up to 12,000 grit.


Specialty sanding pads, up to 12,000 grit can be used on painted surfaces.

I also have some foam sanding sticks that I use for tight spaces.  I’ve got these in a few different grits.  Typically each side is a different grit, and they are color coded.  The black stick is rough, the blue is medium, and the white is fine.


Sanding sticks in various grits help with sanding small spots.

I tried some other sanding sticks that are made from hard plastic and have a point on the end.  They were awful.  I tossed them in the trash on the first attempted use.

Some sanding can be done with just a pice of sandpaper.  In those cases, I typically use a 1″ by 3″ piece, often folded over.  Using a small piece gives me better control over where I sand.

For larger areas, or for when you need to keep a surface flat, you need a sanding block.


Sanding blocks are essential for keeping the surface flat and straight.

I use a normal wood sanding block, available at any hardware store (left).  I also use a piece that came with a fancy Sand-it tool that I bought.  This piece is machined metal, and I put adhesive sandpaper on all four sides.  I’ve got it loaded with 2 sides of 120 grit and 2 sides of 220 grit.

The Sand-it is a specialty sanding tool designed to aid in evenly sanding straight pieces and angles.  I tried it, and found that it was a bit of a pain to use.  But that machined sanding block was worth the price I paid – I use it daily.

If you need to remove a LOT of material and don’t feel like carving, a Dremel is very handy.  I have a typical plug-in Dremel with a flex-shaft attachment.  The flex shaft attaches to the Dremel and moves the rotating bit out to the end of a long, flexible cable.  This means you don’t have to try to hold the whole Dremel tool steady.  It hangs from a shelf, and I can just grab the end of the flex shaft and get to work.


A Dremel is sometimes a better choice if you need to remove a LOT of material.  A flex-shaft attachment makes it easier to use.

I also use a variety of files.  These are handy for cleaning up joints, sanding the inside of holes, or getting into corners.  I have them in two sizes, both of which are considered really small by woodworking terms.  I bought them in sets that come with a variety of shapes.  Picking the right one is trial and error – just keep trying different ones based on the spot you’re trying to get to.


Files come in a variety of shapes and sizes to help getting into the odd small spot.

To sum up, sanding is critical for getting a good finish on your ship.  It can make all the difference in the final result.  You need a variety of sandpaper grits, as well as some tools for special purposes (like files).  If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend a pack of assorted sandpaper grits (under $10 at a hardware store), pack of 400 or 800 grit (about $10, usually not included in the assorted pack), and a set of mini files (about $20 from a hobby supplier).  Pick up a sanding block while you’re out since they are cheap ($5 or so).

You can live without a Dremel until you have a specific need, and the sanding sticks are handy, but not essential.