The "Joy" of Sanding

I have a love/hate relationship with sandpaper.

Before M&T, I spent better than a decade working on boats – mostly small, wooden sailboats, with the occasional lobster yacht or Nordic tug thrown into the mix. There was a beautiful Herreshoff Rozinante, built as finely as a violin, or that 1937 International One Design racing sailboat from Norway that had sunk three different times – each time, she was raised and repaired. I primarily did paint and varnish work, which meant that I spent winters sanding. A lot of sanding.

At the end of each season, all the removable brightwork– tillers, wheels, seats, dropboards, hatches – I pulled off the boat, cataloging and shelving it all in my heated varnish room. The boats themselves were often tucked into unheated buildings, much preferable to heated spaces for wooden hulls. As long as temperatures weren’t too unbearably cold, I would move from boat to boat, sanding, repairing damage, and preparing for build-up and final coating in the spring before launch. And those parts in the varnish room would be sanded, too, and all of it by hand. There are no machines that can adapt to the shapes and contours of marine brightwork while always going with the grain. I can’t begin to estimate how many feet of sticky-back, 2-3/4" 320-grit sandpaper I went through in those years. Sometimes it seemed like it might have stretched to the moon and back, but that’s probably an exaggeration. Maybe just one trip to the moon.

All that super-fine varnish dust was bad stuff. An N95 dust mask couldn’t keep out a day’s worth – I’d be able to taste it and feel it in my nose. P100 cartridges with a half- or full-face respirator could do the trick, but that was no fun at all after a couple hours. The best solution I found to the discomfort was breaking up the routine – sand for a couple hours, take a short walk outside, come back in and do some scraping, start a repair on a damaged sheer plank, then get back to sanding again. So monotonous and mindless was much of the work that I was often able to read a book as I went, sliding it ahead of me on the rail or deck as I progressed around the boat.

I really don’t miss all that sanding.

But I’ll admit this: Sometimes, sandpaper is the right tool for the job. Recently, Joshua and I were working on some tongue-and-groove pine flooring for the cottage that will be his family’s home during the 1810 Cape project (which we're thoroughly documenting over on the Daily Dispatch). This stuff still showed machine planer marks from the mill, so we initially planned on doing a quick pass of each board with our smoothing planes. But the boards were cupped and knotty, and it soon became obvious that a “quick pass” with the plane was going to be a lengthy operation. We went to plan B: hand-sanding with 180-grit sandpaper.

Each board only took a couple minutes, and we got the desired results with minimal mess (having dragged the boards outside for the task). And it was breezy enough that the dust wasn’t an issue at all. So in this instance, millions of teeny-tiny cutting edges glued to paper worked better than a single big, sharp iron fastened into a block of wood. But I’ll happily put the sanding block back on the shelf and grab the plane again.



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