BY BOB LANG April 1, 2021 Updated April 1, 2021
I can develop a pretty smooth surface with a hand plane and/or a scraper, but before finishing I sand to ensure that all the surfaces of a project are consistent. Each hand tool leaves a slightly different texture that won’t be apparent until a stain, dye or topcoat is applied. Sanding may not be romantic but it’s an essential step. Although I own a number of power tools for sanding, I sand by hand to achieve better results and to minimize the dust. But I don’t sand by hand the way I used to, I’ve found a better abrasive material and a modern device to hold it.
Besides the dust the downside to power sanding the likelihood of swirl marks, and the tendency to degrade the flatness of surfaces and remove crisp edges. Those surfaces and edges are important to preserve in a nice piece of furniture and the easiest way to get rid of swirl marks is to not produce them. The Mirka Hand Sanding Block, used in conjunction with Abranet abrasive solves these issues. As shown, the block is 2-3/4” X 5” ( a longer block is also available) and it connects to my shop vac with a lightweight flexible hose. The surface of the block grips the back of the abrasive sheet like the familiar “hook and loop” fastener, but the interface remains firm. With conventional sandpaper the “hook and loop” system introduces a flexible layer between the block and the abrasive. The Mirka block, as well as Mirka’s power sanders, leaves flat surfaces flat and corners nice and crisp.
The abrasive itself is a fine mesh coated with abrasive particles. You can find technical details on the Mirka website https://www.mirka.com/abranet/. The advantage of the mesh over a standard sheet of sandpaper is that sanding dust isn’t trapped on the surface of the wood, it moves through the net. With a vacuum attached to the block the dust is removed, but Abranet is also effective when sanding at the lathe, or sanding curved surfaces by hand. When I sand moldings I back up the abrasive with an old Skotchbrite pad to help it conform to the curved surfaces. Abranet doesn’t clog up and it doesn’t shed particles the way conventional sandpaper can. While the initial cost is higher, Abranet lasts significantly longer than traditional sandpaper. It also seems to remove material more efficiently than sandpaper, so I start sanding with a finer grit than I would normally use.
The block fits comfortably in my hand and holes in the bottom allow air to move through the mesh to the shop vac. There is a valve at the connection of the hose and the block that controls the flow of air. With a powerful shop vac, it can be hard to push the block at full air flow. At the other end of the hose is a flexible cone shaped connector that pushes into the inlet of the shop vac. Abranet is available in pre-cut sheets and on rolls. Discs are also available for most random orbit sanders, as are adapters to replace the standard backing disc if needed.
Since I purchased my block a few years ago, the manufacturer has changed the color from black to yellow. The block and hose can be hard to find as most retailers would rather sell you a new powered sander, but here is an online source: https://mirka-online.com/tools-equipment/hand-sanding.html. The block and the hose are sold separately, at about $30-35 each. Rolls of abrasive are also about $30 each. I regularly use #120, #180 and #240, so my total cost was around $150. Coarser and finer grits are also available, but these three meet my needs. Pre-cut sheets are also available, but the rolls give me more flexibility if I need a small piece at an odd size. Sanding is still a chore, but this system makes it more pleasant, more efficient and it keeps me from working in a cloud of dust.
Editors Note: This article first appeared in the SAPFM Pins and Tails Magazine, Spring 2021