Heirloom Sanding Block Tutorial


heirloom sanding blockThis is my heirloom sanding block tutorial. In this post, I will show you how to make a 1/8 sheet, high end sanding block that you will be happy to have on your bench.

Homemade tools are a great way to broaden your woodworking skills, and make something that is useful to you at the same time. This heirloom sanding block can be made from any species of wood that you have in the shop, but I recommend using something great looking.

Anyone can make a sanding block, and no matter the species you use, the functionality will be the same. The thing that separates this sanding block from the others is the wood choice.

Select something exotic, nicely figured, or uniquely beautiful for your sanding block. Not only will the tool come out looking better, but it will be a pleasure to show people that come to your shop. You will enjoy using it too.

Selecting Wood for your Heirloom Sanding Block

heirloom sanding blockWood selection is the one thing that will set this sanding block apart. A trip to the local hardwood store should provide enough choices, and you may even find a deal.

Since such a small piece of wood is used for the heirloom sanding block, you may want to take a look in the scrap bin. Many woodworking stores have off-cut bins where they sell smaller pieces for a discount.

Dig around and see what you can find. The only difference between one sanding block and another is the look of the wood. For my sanding block, I used a piece of figured Walnut that I had in the shop for a long time. This is a perfect project for a nicely figured piece of wood.

Starting With A Rough Blank

heirloom sanding blockCut a piece from your selected block that measures 1-7/8 inches wide, by 3-1/2 inches long, and at least 3/4 inches thick. My figured walnut was closer to 1 inch thick, which I left at the full thickness.

Look for a nicer area of the wood to use for the block, and cut that section out using a table saw or band saw.

Do your best to minimize the tool marks from the saw, and make nice clean cuts. The better the cutting process goes, the less sanding and smoothing will have to be done later. If you plan on making several heirloom sanding blocks (these make great little gifts for woodworkers) then cut out a few blanks at this point.

Flattening the Sanding Block Face

heirloom sanding blockAfter you have cut your block, you need to flatten the face that will eventually be covered in cork. Select the best looking side for the visible surface, and use the other for the bottom.

In order to work well, the bottom face of the sanding block needs to be completely flat. If the surface is jagged, curved, or uneven, the whole purpose of using a block will be undermined.

Start this process on a belt sander if you have one, and rough out the bottom face. On my piece of wood, the cut was very rough. I used the sander to do the initial leveling, which made short work of the task. I then sanded by hand with paper on a flat surface.

heirloom sanding blockIf you do not have a belt sander, then use 100 grit sandpaper and a flat surface. I have a granite plate in the shop that is precision ground flat, but you do not need to go that far.

Find a piece of wood, counter top, or a piece of glass and lay your sandpaper with the grit facing up. Work the block flat against the sandpaper, and keep going until the entire face shows sanding scratches.

Once the scratches cover the entire face, you will know that you have sanded the whole face completely flat. Once you get to this point, the bottom face is complete, and you can move on to shaping the rest of the block.

Shaping the Heirloom Sanding Block

heirloom sanding blockNow it’s time to make the sanding block more comfortable to hold while in use. The best tool for the job is a belt sander or a power sander.

If you have a smaller handheld sander, just clamp the block to the bench or hold it in a vise for sanding. Round over all the corners on the top of the block, and blend them.

You can decide how much rounding you like, and go for very rounded corners or slightly sanded corners. The boxy look of a lighter rounding looks nice, and so does a more curved look. On this block, I went for a middle of the road shape that felt good in my hand.

heirloom sanding block

Make sure that you do not round over the edges that contact the bottom face. You can round over the four corners of the sanding block, but leave the bottom edges sharp.

Keep on working on the piece until you get a shape that you are happy with. Then, look at it from several angles to ensure that everything is even looking.

Working four corners and four edges one at a time, things can change from the first one to the last. Look over the corners and edges, and sand any areas that need additional work to blend smoothly with the rest. The wood itself will be the focal point, so spend a minute to make it look nice.

Final Sanding and Scratch Removal

heirloom sanding blockAfter you have rough sanded your heirloom sanding block, you can now switch to sandpaper by hand and remove the scratches.

The belt sander can leave some pretty deep scratches on the surface, especially if you are using an aggressive grit. Sanding by hand removes these.

Start with a finer grit than your sanding belt, with 100-150 being a good starting place for most. Work the block to remove all the major scratches. Then, switch to 220 and remove any scratches from the previous sanding. Your finish will reveal any scratches you miss, so spend a little time removing them all.

Covering the Handmade Sanding Block with Cork

heirloom sanding blockWith the block finely sanded, and the scratches removed, the cork layer can now be glued to the bottom.

Cork is a traditional material that has been used on fine sanding blocks for a long time. It’s easy to find in an office supply store or online, and one roll will last you a very long time. I use 1/8 inch thick fine cork for my sanding blocks.

Begin by cutting a piece of cork that measures about half an inch bigger than the bottom face of the sanding block on all sides. Depending on the final size of your block, this can vary. You want to make sure that you have some hang over on all sides after the cork is glued in place.

heirloom sanding blockNow, pick up the block and apply a thin layer of wood glue to the bottom face. This needs to be thinner than normal, but make sure to cover the entire surface.

Cork likes to absorb wood glue. If you hose the block with glue, it will seep into the cork, and you will have random hard spots. These spots will dig harder when you sand, and the block will perform poorly.

Apply a light layer from the bottle, and use a finger or glue spreader to spread it over the bottom surface. If you have excess, wipe it off with a finger. Once the whole surface is covered, you are ready to apply the cork.

heirloom sanding blockFind a surface in the shop that is very flat. For my block, I used the granite plate, but you can use anything that is good and flat.

Lay the cork on the surface first, and then carefully place the block on top. Make sure that there is a little cork sticking out on all four sides, as this will make it easier to trim later.

Press the block firmly to the cork, and hold it in place for several seconds. This will give the glue some time to penetrate, and adhere the two pieces together slightly. Leave the block face down on the flat surface, and grab something with a little weight to use as a clamp.

heirloom sanding blockIt does not take much to hold the block flat on the cork. You really do not need much pressure, you only need to ensure that the cork stays flat on the face of the block.

In this case, I had a couple boxes of nails that were handy, and I placed them on top of the block.

Leave the heirloom sanding block and stunt clamps in place for a couple hours, or even better overnight. This will give the glue the time it needs to completely dry. If you are making several blocks, you can glue them all to one large piece of cork sheet, and then cut them free after they all dry.

Trimming the Handmade Sanding Block

heirloom sanding blockAfter the glue dries, remove the weights and inspect the glue-up. Make sure that the cork remained flat, and that there are no lumps.

Once you are satisfied with the glue job, the ends need to be trimmed. This is a perfect job for a hobby knife or a razor blade.

Use the blade carefully, and try a couple methods for trimming the cork. I found that the corners worked better with a chopping motion, and the edges worked better with a slicing motion. Cut the cork as close to the edge of the wood as possible with the blade, and make sure to remove any glue residue that has squeezed out.

heirloom sanding blockThe final flushing of the cork ends needs to be done with sandpaper. Work the edges of the cork, and bring them completely flush with the block.

Bevel the cork layer inwards on the heirloom sanding block, but only slightly. You want to ensure that you have the most sanding area possible under the block. A few degree bevel is perfect.

Pay attention going around the corners, and take your time flushing these. It can be a little tough sanding the cork, because the temptation is to press really hard. The trick is to use lighter pressure, and let the sandpaper wear away the cork without pulling out chunks.

Heirloom Sanding Block Final Sanding

heirloom sanding blockTake one last opportunity to address any visible scratches on the sanding block. Go over the piece one last time, and address anything you need to before finishing.

If you really don’t care about the scratches, because you plan on using your sanding block pretty hard, you can skip the very fine sanding and go right to finishing.

I really wanted to see a nice looking heirloom sanding block for at least the first day it was in the shop, so I made sure to remove as many scratches as I could. I have been using it for several weeks in my shop now, so the day one look is gone, but it was nice to look at while it lasted.

Finishing the Sanding Block

heirloom sanding blockFinish the sanding block with the product of your choice. I recommend an oil, which will pop the grain and give the heirloom sanding block a natural look.

Tru-Oil is a great finish for your block, and I have full instructions here.

I have the Beall Buffing System, so I decided to buff the surface of the wood rather than applying a finish.

The gloss that you see on my sanding block is not a finish. It’s the result of being buffed with two different polishing compounds and finally a light coating of carnauba wax. The piece feels incredibly smooth, and the process only took me a few minutes. Also, you can handle the piece immediately after buffing, because there is no finish that needs to dry.

heirloom sanding blockIf you are making several of these sanding blocks, I recommend that you pick up the Beall system. It makes the finishing process extremely easy and fast.

The compounds actually sand the wood with the equivalent of a very fine sandpaper. This happens as the buffing wheels run over the wood rapidly, so a high gloss is achieved quickly.

Some woodworkers finish the wood with a light coating of Danish Oil before buffing, and it can help pop the grain a little more. On my heirloom sanding block, all I did was buff with the compounds and then apply a light wax coating. That is the standard process for the Beall system.

Leveling the Cork Face

heirloom sanding blockSometimes the cork face can end up a little lumpy if you did not hold it down well in the gluing step. If this happens, there is an easy solution.

Simply use some sandpaper, face up, on a flat surface and rub the cork against it. Do this until the entire cork face has sanding residue. Once that happens, you know it is completely flat.

Some woodworkers are very intense about flattening things, and I will confess that I have done this to all of my blocks. Even though all of my glue-ups have been very flat, I still do this to the cork.

As a last step, I also flatten the cork face, which only takes a few seconds on the sandpaper and the granite plate, which makes me feel better knowing the sanding block is absolutely flat.

How to Use Your New Sanding Block

heirloom sanding blockAfter you make yourself a nice sanding block like this one, it can be tempting to keep it nice and never use it. Ignore that thought right now.

The whole point of making this tool is to use it, and enjoy the fact that you created something beautiful for your shop. Use it, and enjoy it, because you can always make another one.

The way I use my heirloom sanding block is by wrapping a 1/8 sheet of sandpaper around half of the block. If you fold the sheet in half the long way, and then butt the fold up to one of the long sides of the block, the other end can be wrapped around and held with the thumb.

Once you sand for a while and notice that the paper is not working as well as it used to, flip the paper around so the fresh side is being used. You can also lay the sheet long ways and cover the entire bottom of the block. I like to do this when I am sanding a larger area.

For smaller areas, and for targeted sanding, using half the face of the block is perfect. It gives you control, and you minimize the area that you have to sand.

heirloom sanding blockThis heirloom sanding block has hundreds of uses. The more you have it around, the more useful it will be. You can also make a few more blocks of different sizes for other projects.

Once you have one of these on the bench, you will find more and more reasons to use it. I use mine all the time, because I am constantly needing to sand things level.

For inlay work, a block is an amazing tool. It targets the high spots, evening out the surface. For guitar making, and for other projects, being able to focus your sanding efforts on one small area helps out quite a bit.

If for some reason you damage the cork layer on the bottom, you can always remove it. The easiest way is to sand it off. Once the cork and glue are gone, simply apply a new cork layer just like you did the first one. Trim the edges, and you will be all set.

I hope you enjoyed my Heirloom Sanding Block Tutorial, and if you have any questions please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Also, please share my work with your friends online. It helps me share the joys of woodworking with more people. Happy building!

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