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What Grit to Use for Sanding Wood?

A collage of different type of sand paper grit.

Ultimate Sandpaper Grit Guide 2023 | Sandpaper Grits To Use For Wood, Metal, Plastic & More

Most people think they understand what sandpaper is pretty well. I know I did. But, as it turns out, the realm of sandpaper is considerably more intricate than you might expect. Join me on this journey of sandpaper love and understanding as we discover the different grades, grits, types, base materials, and myriad uses for this seemingly unimaginative product that we all think we know so well: sandpaper!

Prepare your brain to be inundated with more information than you ever thought you would care to know about this simple product that revolutionized the entire world.

Ready? OK, here we go!

Related To: Can You Sand Plywood? | What Is a Sanding Sealer and How To Use It?

A Brief History of Sandpaper

Used sandpaper with different types of grit.

Nobody really likes history, so we’ll keep this quick and easy. Here are the most interesting key facts about sandpaper:

  • King Solomon eluded to a strange abrasive substance in the Bible
  • The first recorded use was in China during the 13th Century.
  • Patented for mass processing in the USA in 1834 by Isaac Fisher Jr.
  • 3M introduced silicon carbide sandpaper for automobile production in 1921

OK, enough history. Let’s move on.

Sandpaper Grit Guide

Different types sandpaper with different grit.

The world needs sandpaper. Imagine life without it. You’d get splinters in your feet walking across your floor, your paint would peel off, and your drywall would look like a third grader finished it!

OK, so how is sandpaper made anyway?

Good question.

Sandpaper is manufactured by using an adhesive to attach abrasives like garnet, silicon oxide, or aluminum oxide onto a base material backing. That backing could be paper, cloth, rubber, or a sponge. (Back in the 1500s, they used shark skin!) Then it is put under pressure and dried.

That’s it (in a nutshell). That’s how sandpaper is made.

Sandpaper is available in various different types. Variables that differentiate types of sandpaper include its base material, abrasive substrate, grit, and coating.

We’ll get into abrasives and coating later, but now let’s talk about grit. Shall we?

What Is Sandpaper Grit?

Sandpaper with a course girt surface.

Grit refers to the size of the abrasive particles on sandpaper. A given grit value denotes the number of holes in a filtering screen used to separate the particles during manufacturing. The lower the number of abrasive particles (low grit), the coarser the surface. The higher the grit number, the smaller the substrate particles are, meaning the sandpaper’s surface is smoother.

So, in general:

  • Low grit number = coarse sandpaper
  • High grit number = smooth sandpaper

Sandpaper grits range between extra coarse and ultra-fine.

There are industry standards for labeling sandpaper, according to its grit range, as follows:

Ultra-Fine Sandpaper

  • 400+ Grit
  • Used for final sanding and polishing

Super Fine Sandpaper

  • 360+ Grit
  • Used to polish hard materials like ceramic, stone, or plastic

Extra Fine Sandpaper

  • 320+ Grit
  • Excellent for polishing hardwood

Very Fine Sandpaper

  • 220+ Grit
  • Perfect for sanding surfaces in between coats of paint or stain

Fine Sandpaper

  • 120 – 180 Grit
  • Great for smoothing out naked wood

Medium Sandpaper

  • 80 – 100 Grit
  • Used for initial sanding of soft wood and for general wood shaping

Coarse Sandpaper

  • 40 – 60 Grit
  • Excellent for removing old, hardened paint and otherwise stripping wood

Very Coarse Sandpaper

  • 30 – 36 Grit
  • Often used for first sanding on aged hardwood floors

Extra Coarse Sandpaper

  • Below 30 Grit
  • Used on sanding machines for removing paint or other finishes from hardwood floors

PRO TIP: I like to begin a sanding project with as coarse of grit needed to make a good first pass. I always choose a grit a little smoother than I could probably get away with, but, to me, it’s worth a little extra work and patience to achieve a finer finished result. Anyway, start with a coarse paper, and then gently transition to higher gritted sandpaper to enhance your finish. Work Smarter Not Harder!

Types of Abrasive Materials

Different kinds of sanding tools.

So now that we understand more about what grit is and which grits are used for what, let’s talk about the different types of abrasive substances used to give sandpaper its gritty surface. Each abrasive material is unique and will therefore produce distinct results as it gently shaves away the wood, drywall, or whatever else is being sanded.

The most common abrasive substrates used on sandpaper include:

Aluminum Oxide

Sandpaper made from Aluminum Oxide.

Aluminum oxide is a synthetic substance that yields a brittle sandpaper. Its edges will wear away with use, leaving fresh, sharp edges. This long-lasting type of sandpaper is an excellent all-around choice for metals and woods. It’s especially useful for sanding and polishing alloy steel and bronze.

Ceramic

Ceramic sandpaper is durable and hard. It’s used primarily for rough sanding and should be used with a power sander for the best effects. It’s also expensive relative to other sandpaper types, and you might have a difficult time finding it for sale.

Emery

Emery is a grayish-black combination of corundum and magnetite. It’s a sharp natural material and sandpaper made with it can be pricey. It isn’t very durable and wears away quickly. However, it is widely available and a good choice for general sanding purposes on metals.

Garnet

A sandpaper with Garnet surface.

Garnet is a rich red-translucent nesosilicate mineral. It makes a soft sandpaper that’s very suitable for woodworking and is the most common type you’ll see for sale in most home improvement stores.

It’s quite affordable and it does a really good job at removing existing stain and paint from wood. One problem with it is that it tends to clog quickly during usage. It’s also not the best choice for sanding metal because it will wear away quickly.

Silicon Carbide

Silicon carbide is a synthetic material and sandpaper made with it can be used on dry or wet surfaces. It is a highly durable sandpaper that is able to sharpen itself when used on metal or other hard materials.

It’s commonly used for sanding in between coats of paint and for polishing. Although it is probably the priciest type of sandpaper, it is also the longest-lasting and most durable. It’s my choice to strip away old, hard paint that other sandpaper fails to put a dent in.

Zirconia Alumina

Zirconia alumina is another synthetic material with properties much like those of silicon carbide. This type of sandpaper is an excellent choice for shaving down rough metal edges, or making a first pass when sanding rough wood. It’s also able to sharpen itself when used on hard materials, and its long-lasting, meaning you pay more up front but don’t have to pay as often.

PRO TIP: I asked my good friend, Arthur Ross III from Advanced Construction & Remodeling what he thought the best grit to use for sanding wood is. He explained, “I go to at least a 180 finish on everything. Depending on the client’s wants, I’m always happy to go further because I like everything flawless and super-smooth. And I’ll tell you this, it’s good to use your fingers as extra eyes when sanding anything. Your fingertips are amazingly sensitive and, when trained properly, can truly enhance your sanding performance.”

Sandpaper Coating Types

A man sanding a piece of plywood.

The last topic we need to discuss before we address the question “What is the best grit to use for sanding wood?” is sandpaper coating types.

The motion of sanding creates friction between the sandpaper and the surface being sanded. Friction creates heat. Heat can melt resin inside wood, which can subsequently cause the sanded shavings to accumulate and bind to the surface of the sandpaper.

When your sandpaper is clogged, it doesn’t work well anymore. And if you have to keep replacing your clogged sandpaper with fresh sandpaper, it can lead to unpredictable, uneven final results.

That’s why the sandpaper’s coating matters so much! The proper coating can help your sandpaper to live a longer, more productive life. And that means better finished results for your sanding projects.

So, what is a sandpaper coat?

A sandpaper’s coating refers to the amount of space that’s between the abrasive particles on the sandpaper. Less space in between abrasive particles means that there’s less room for air and wood resin to flow through. This increases the probability of sandpaper clogging.

Comparatively, more space in between the abrasive particles on the sandpaper’s surface allows more air to flow through, while also allowing resin to fall away instead of lodging in between the abrasive particles, causing sandpaper clogging.

There are three different types of sandpaper coats, including:

  1. Open
  2. Closed
  3. Semi-opened

Let’s look at each closer really quickly.

Open Coat

Open-coated sandpaper has between 60% and 65% surface coverage, meaning the abrasive particles cover about 2/3 of its surface. This type of sandpaper has the most open space in between particles, meaning that air will flow nicely to reduce friction. This is a good choice if you’re sanding softer wood that has a high resin content. That way, your sandpaper will not clog up as often, allowing you to achieve a smoother finish on your sanding project.

Closed Coat

A closed coat sandpaper has the highest level of abrasive particle coverage, ranging between 90% and 95%. That means that there is less than 10% of the surface area open for air to flow. This type of sandpaper is best used for the first sanding of raw wood. It’s also good for grinding away lacquers and sealers on hard metal. It produces a uniform scratch pattern that helps to achieve a better finish in later sanding stages.

Semi-Open Coat

As you might expect, semi-open coated sandpaper falls in between the ranges of coverage of open and closed coated papers. It’s about 80% covered with abrasive particles, leaving about 20% open for air and resin flow. This type of sandpaper is typically recommended for woodworking with hardwoods while they are still raw.

OK! That sums up what we need to know about sandpaper grit, abrasive materials used to manufacture sandpaper, and the different sandpaper coatings available.

So, without further delay, let us answer:

What is the best grit to use for sanding wood?

A man sanding a table made from wood.

In my opinion, the best grit to use for sanding wood is 220. But that doesn’t mean that you start out with 220. Sanding is an art. You shouldn’t be in a hurry about it. In most cases, you’re going to start out with a coarser grit, and then work your way to a 220 finish.

The best grit to use depends on exactly what you’re sanding and what shape it’s in when you begin. For instance, if you’re beginning sanding on a piece of wood that has just come out of a well running planer, you could probably begin with a 150 grit.

However, if the wood you are working on has scratches or grooves in it, you might want to start with a 120 grit. And if the wood you’re working on has deep scratches, uneven joints, or stains when you get it, you might need to begin with an 80 or 100 grit. It all depends, and every case is different.

Now, let’s talk about stepping up the grit from where you begin. Let’s say that you started out with 100 grit. And you are trying to work your way to a 220 finish. The general rule is that you shouldn’t step up more than about 50%.

So, in this example, if you give a first pass with a 100 grit paper, and you are working to a 220, then you would want to step up to a 150 grit for the second sanding. Then, you may want to step it up to a 180 grit. And after that, you’re probably good to go ahead with the 220.

It’s all about stepping up in safe intervals, building on the previous sanding to achieve the flawless finish that you envision. Again, take your time, this is not a race. Rather, it is an art, and patience is a virtue.

PRO TIP: I asked my good friend and woodworking mentor, Michael Sikorski to explain his thoughts on the best grit to use to sand wood. He told me, Alan, I always go for at least a 180 finish, but I typically go ahead and polish down to a 220. And if I really want a glass-like, nonporous finish, I’ll blast it down to a 320 finish. And like I have always told you, treat your woodwork like a fine woman. Love her. Be gentle.”

Final Thoughts about the Best Grit to Use for Sanding Wood

A woman sanding a piece of wood.

While it’s rather difficult for me to get the thought of Michael Sikorski loving his woodwork out of my mind, he makes a good point. Mike is the smartest guy I know when it comes to woodworking, and basically, anything to do with any type of building trade. He is a true master and I am happy to have learned from him for so long now.

I want to thank you for reading along on this journey of sandpaper education and love. Now, you can show off to your friends with your new knowledge of the seemingly mundane but actually quite intricate luxury product that we all need so much. Life without sandpaper would be pure hell!

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