Sandpaper is a critical tool for woodworkers as it smooths and finishes surfaces that have been cut, sawn, or cracked. It may be coarse enough to sand away a rough edge or fine enough to smooth a surface in preparation for paint or varnish. But what do you do if you run out?
If you don’t have sandpaper, a few alternatives may achieve a similar effect. Sand or ground walnut shells will smooth a surface when rubbed with leather, and pumice can act as a sander when water is applied. For small areas, nail files could be used when sandpaper is not an option. Here is a list of some sandpaper alternatives:
- Sanding blocks
- Emery cloth
- Sand and leather
- Walnut shells
- Nail files
- Hand files
- Emery boards
This article will explore some alternatives to sandpaper along with how to make your own at home.
How Do You Sandpaper Something Without Sandpaper?
Sandpaper is used to smooth rough edges in woodworking and, in some cases, metalwork.
Typically found in sheets, sandpaper comes in various grit levels, including but not limited to:
- Extra-coarse: Used for the initial sanding work right after a cut has been made
- Medium: Primarily used for sanding a surface in preparation for varnish or polishing
- Very-fine: Used to smooth a drywall surface between coats
- Ultra-fine: For finishing and polishing a surface
Woodworkers choose the grit level required for the job at hand, usually starting with a coarse grit before moving to something finer to finish the job.
Luckily, some alternatives can be used if you do not have access to sandpaper.
What Can I Use Instead of Sandpaper on Wood?
Sandpaper is inexpensive and available in most hardware stores.
It is available in sheets, belts for power tools, or block form for more demanding jobs.
Sandpaper replacements may be sought out for environmental reasons or when traditional sandpaper is not available.
1. Sanding blocks
Also known as sanding sponges, they have a similar construction to a standard kitchen dish sponge but have a rough texture.
They can be manipulated and bend very easily, making access to unusual shapes far easier.
They are more durable than typical sandpaper and can be used multiple times.
Sanding blocks are a very common substitute for sandpaper.
2. Emery cloth
Most commonly used on metal, emery cloths are far more durable than sandpaper.
Sold in sheets or rolls for power tools, the cloth backing prevents them from wearing in the same way as sandpaper.
Though mainly used on metals, it can be used on wood when applied gently.
3. Sand and leather
Start by sprinkling dry sand over the area that needs sanding.
Using a piece of leather, or a dry cloth, gently rub the surface to sand the rough spots away.
This is an easy method that is best for light sanding on a flat surface.
4. Walnut shells
Walnut shells are often used in sandblasting and may sand a surface in the same way sand can.
The shells need to be ground into a coarse powder before using a leather cloth to rub the surface.
This method’s drawback is that walnut shells are more expensive and harder to come by than sand.
Pumice is a very rough volcanic rock that is often used to remove dead skin.
It is available in most stores and online, in varying abrasion levels, and is far more durable, lasting much longer than sand and leather.
With this technique, the area being worked on needs to be wet the entire time.
Can I Use a Nail File Instead of Sandpaper?
Depending on the size of the job and the amount of sanding needed, yes, it is possible to use a nail file as an alternative for sandpaper. Emery boards are a type of nail file made out of cardboard or wooden back, with sandpaper adhered to the top and bottom. Some will have multiple sections with different grit levels to file and smooth nails.
If working on a small section, these can be used in place of sandpaper, as they are made out of the same material.
However, larger areas will take too long given the handheld nail file’s size and the grit level, which is usually super-fine.
This fine grit level is typically only used for smoothing out a surface after it has been sanded clean by something more coarse.
Some steel nail files have tiny metallic flakes adhered to the surface, which are small enough to smooth out a nail’s surface.
Such files may be used on smaller areas in place of sandpaper.
However, it is essential to remember that a steel nail file will become hot when working to smooth anything for long periods.
Alternatively, metal strips are cut repeatedly at different angles to create a distinct abrasive grid.
This latter type of nail file would not be suitable for use in place of sandpaper, as the ridges are not designed for use on wood.
Typically, this kind of grid-patterned file is for use on metal.
The reason is, wood can splinter when caught in the tiny gaps between the cuts.
Can You Make Your Own Sandpaper?
As the name would suggest, sandpaper used to be made using sand and other abrasive particles, such as seashells.
These particles are bonded to a flexible, hard-wearing surface or solid blocks in some cases.
Over time, other types of abrasives have been used, such as:
- Glass is not used as much anymore.
- Garnet is common for use in woodworking.
- Aluminum oxide is not only the cheapest, but the most widely used on both wood and metal.
- Emery is typically used to wear or polish surfaces.
- Diamonds are used to finish and polish hard metals and ceramics.
It is possible to make your own sandpaper, using thick, coarse, stiff paper and gluing sand or emery powder over one side.
Emery powder is available online and can be bought in small bags.
Sand is an excellent option for homemade sandpaper, and it can be found in nature at no expense.
How Do You Make Homemade Sandpaper?
To make your own sandpaper, begin by determining the project’s scale and the grit level needed.
For example, for small surface-level jobs, sandpaper sheets will be enough to cover the work.
You may consider working with wooden blocks for larger areas to allow for an easier grip.
Making your own sandpaper will take a few steps, plus time to allow the glue to dry:
- Purchase a coarse, textured, stiff paper that is thick enough to withstand being rubbed against a rough surface.
- Place the paper on a table or an additional piece of paper that can allow for excess glue and sand to spill.
- Paint a layer of heavy-duty liquid glue over the entire surface of the paper.
- Using a mesh gardening sifter, spread the sand in an even layer across the surface of the wet glue.
- Allow the glue to set until it is no longer sticky to the touch.
- Place another board over the top of the sandpaper and clamp or weigh it down.
- Leave the glue to set for 24 hours.
- Using a utility knife, cut the sandpaper away from the surface.
Once you have a sandpaper sheet, you can cut it into smaller-sized sheets depending on the job at hand.
For larger, flat areas, sandpaper blocks are typically more comfortable to hold.
To create a sandpaper block:
- Follow the steps above until the glue has begun to set.
- Wrap the paper around a wooden block, gluing it to the surface.
- Clamp the sandpaper on each side and leave to set for 24 hours.
Read also: Can Sandpaper Be Reused?
If you don’t have access to traditional sandpaper, several options will do the job just as well. From sanding blocks and emery cloths to pumice, your choice will be dependent on the scale of the work at hand.
Nail files may be used for smaller sections of work, and it is also possible to make your own sandpaper at home. Be sure to dry the sand before attempting to glue it, and always use heavy-duty, stiff-backed paper.
I hope this article was useful. Cheers, tools owners!
- You may also be interested to know what are hook and loop sanding discs.