Is it Better to Sand or Strip Wood?

Sanding Wood with sandpaper

Do you have a big refinishing project coming up? Are you trying to decide whether to use a paint stripper or sander? You’ve come to the right article. 

Sanding works well for a large, smooth surface; however, sanders have more trouble with intricate shapes. Stripper works for odd angles, but it’s sticky and may require multiple attempts if you’re stripping several layers of paint. 

As you can see, both paint stripper and sanders have their pros and cons. Some people think stripper is far superior to sanding. However, others contend that sanding is the better technique. 

So, which is it? 

What are the Differences Between Sanding and Stripping? 

Why would you need to sand or strip a project? Perhaps you have an old piece of furniture, and you want to refinish it. In this case, you’re looking for the best method to remove the paint or stain and get to work. 

Here are some variations between sanding and stripping: 

  • Sanding works well for large, flat surfaces 
  • Stripper works for contours and tight corners 
  • Stripper takes less effort 
  • Sanding, especially with a power sander, is loud! 
  • Some paint stripper is exceptionally toxic 
  • The stripper will struggle with multiple layers of paint 
  • Paint can clog sandpaper, making it difficult to finish a project 

This list is meant to give you a little sample and get the gears turning. Now, let’s look at several benefits of sanding. 

What are the Benefits of Sanding? 

Sanding offers a few key benefits. Also, most woodworkers and DIYers have sandpaper laying around, so it’s a technique people are usually familiar with. 

Here are the pros to sanding: 

  1. Sanding is relatively fast. If you’re just trying to add some texture to your project, then a sander will quickly get the job done. 
  2. Sanding doesn’t stink. The chemicals in paint strippers often produce strong fumes – sanding prevents this stink! 
  3. Sanding is one and done. As you’ll see with the paint stripper, even after applying the stripper and scraping it off, you may need to do some finishing sanding. 

Alright, now that we’ve discussed the positives of sanding, let’s take a moment to address the negatives.

Note: Many of the pros and cons are a matter of personal opinion. Some people loathe sanding, while others find it satisfying. 

What are the Cons of Sanding? 

While sanding has some advantages, it certainly has its share of cons. If you’ve been sanding for a while, you know about the pitfalls of sanding. For those new to the task, let’s go into some details. 

Downsides to sanding: 

  • Dust and mess. Even if you attach a vacuum to a sander, you’ll usually have some dust that escapes into the air and the room. Not only is this cumbersome to clean, but it could negatively affect your eyes or lungs. 
  • Easy to over-sand. This is especially true when using a power sander, like a belt sander. If you aren’t extra careful, you can over sand and cause scuffs and dips.
  • Paint clogging. Another issue with power sanders, they can make paint rather gooey and sticky, clogging the sandpaper. As a result, you’ll need to change your sandpaper constantly, or you’ll need to take some time to clean it. 
  • Tight spaces. Even by using a small hand sander, like a mouse sander, it can be hard to sand tight places. This is particularly problematic if you’re trying to strip all the paint. 
  • Noise. Sanding is loud and requires a large area in the workshop. Otherwise, you’re left hand-sanding, and this can take a long time!

Now that we’ve discussed some of the cons of sanding, let’s go over a step-by-step guide to sanding. 

How to Sand Effectively 

Depending on what you’re sanding, your technique will change. The guidelines described below might change depending on the project you’re sanding. 

Steps to sanding: 

  1. Protection. Always wear eye protection, ear protection (for power sanders), and respiratory protection. Also, it’s always wise to sand in an open area with adequate ventilation. Finally, if you’re sanding something old, double-check that the paint doesn’t contain lead. 
  2. Sander selection. If you just need to add some texture to an existing surface, you can do some quick hand sanding. However, if you need to strip an entire surface, you might need a power tool, like the belt sander. If you choose the wrong method, you’ll be constantly frustrated. 
  3. Grit selection. For most projects, you’ll start with a low grit and work your way up. If you have some serious refinishing to do, a rougher grit (around 80) will be helpful. Though, rougher grits make it easy to over-sand. 
  4. Think like a lawnmower. Sand the surface evenly. Like mowing a lawn, think about keeping in a consistent pattern and repeating as needed. If you’re sanding a wood surface, it’s easy to accidentally sand unevenly. However, the scary thing is this: you won’t notice until you stain it! 
  5. Progress through grits. Start with a rough grit, like 80 or even 120, and work your way toward 220. However, depending on the project, you may go even smoother. 

Hopefully, you now have a good understanding of the pros and cons of sanding. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and investigate how sanding compares to stripping. 

What are the Benefits of Stripping? 

Some folks are fed up with sanding and excited at the idea of another technique: stripping. Using paint or stain stripper is a common practice among professionals and hobbyists. 

Why do people like to strip instead of sand? Let’s find out. 

Reasons to strip wood: 

  • Less effort. If you can effectively apply the paint stripper, you can save many hours of sweat with the sander. Just apply the stripper and wait and scrape off the paint. 
  • Tight corners. Using a stain stripper in tight corners helps loosen the finish before scraping it off. This gives you an advantage over sanding, as you don’t need as many fine tools. 
  • You get raw wood. If you’re looking to refinish with a project with stain or polyurethane, then stripper helps you get down to the bare wood without damaging the actual grain of the wood. It takes longer to reach the grain with sanding, and it’s easier to damage the wood. 
  • Less dust. As we said, sanders can create a huge mess – especially with a large project. Using a stripper can still create a mess, but at least it isn’t dust.

In the next section, I’ll share why stripping wood can create problems. 

Where are the Downsides to Stripping? 

Those who have tried to strip a surface usually have one of two reactions: they love it or hate it. 

The only way to decide if this process will work for you is to give it a try. If you’re new to stripping wood, don’t become discouraged on the first attempt. Instead, try to figure out if you did something wrong. 

With that said, here are some downsides to stripping: 

  • Harsh chemicals. Depending on the type of paint stripper you use, it could release some sickening fumes, as well as be caustic if it touches your skin. There are non-toxic paint strippers. However, as you might expect, these don’t typically work as well as the more toxic stuff. 
  • Sticky. Yes, it doesn’t create the same amount of dust as sandpaper, but some people find that it becomes a sticky, nasty mess. 
  • You still must scrape and sand. Often, stripping helps remove the paint; however, you still need to go over the project with a putty knife. Some people even find that they still spend a significant amount of time sanding after they’ve stripped. 
  • Expensive. Once you’ve used the paint stripper, you have to buy more for the next project. While you certainly must buy more sandpaper occasionally, you could make an argument that sandpaper is more reusable than paint stripper – there are methods to restore your sandpaper. 
  • Multiple layers. If you have an old piece with multiple layers of paint, you’ll need to use multiple coats of paint stripper to remove it. 

Know that, like sandpaper, many of the negatives to stripper result from hasty or improper use. 

How to Strip Effectively 

Now, let’s talk about how to strip wood effectively. 

Steps to strip wood: 

  1. Safety. Try to use a safer form of paint stripper. Also, wear gloves and eye protection. You must have adequate ventilation with a paint stripper!
  2. Apply generously. Don’t skimp. Paint the stripping product all over the paint. It needs to touch every part of the surface. 
  3. Wait. Wait for the needed amount of time listed on your product. You can watch the paint and periodically test the looseness of the paint with your scraper. 
  4. Scrape. Using a metal putty knife, scrape the peeling paint from the project. This step can be tedious. Take your time and avoid damaging the wood. 
  5. Repeat. If needed, repeat the steps to remove all paint or stain. 

It’s always helpful to practice. Perhaps try the stripper on an inconspicuous area before using it on the whole project. Make sure you like how it works!