Plywood is one of the best woods for furniture, cabinets, and other types of woodwork as it’s lightweight, solid, and easy to use. However, despite its numerous benefits, plywood can have rough edges that may cause splintering and make furniture difficult to polish. So how can you sand plywood edges and give it a neat, smooth finish?
To sand the edges of the plywood, you’ll have to clean the surface and sand along the grain with rough sandpaper. Clean the edges and sand it again with finer-grain sandpaper. You can also apply solid wood edging, edge banding, or a joint compound to the plywood before sanding it down.
There’s more to sanding plywood than working away with sandpaper. In this article, I’ll walk you through the detailed steps on how to create a smooth finish around plywood edges without compromising the wood.
1. Clean the Plywood Surface
You can’t sand plywood if you don’t have a clear picture of how rough the edges are. Use a wet cloth to remove excess sawdust from the plywood surface. A thick cloth is preferred since plywood surfaces can be rough, and you don’t want to get splinters.
If the plywood’s surface isn’t smooth after cleaning it with a wet cloth, you can use a vacuum to remove the loose hanging pieces of wood and sawdust. Once the surface is clean, you’ll have a better picture of how much sanding the edges need.
2. Choose the Right Sandpaper
Choosing the right sandpaper grit is essential for a smooth finish, as not all wood types require the same type of sandpaper. If you have smoother plywood, you can start with finer grit sandpaper, and if the plywood’s edges are rougher, you’ll need smaller grit sandpaper.
The best way to determine the type of sandpaper to use for the initial sanding is by inspecting the plywood grade. Grade A plywood may not need sanding at all, while Grade D is usually much rougher, and you’ll need to use heavy grit sandpaper to smooth out the edges.
If you aren’t sure what grade the plywood is, you should use 180 grit sandpaper for the initial sanding and then transition to a higher grit to smooth the edges out.
While there’s no harm in using 180 grit sandpaper if your plywood already has smooth edges, it’s much better to use finer sandpaper since you may damage the edges.
3. Sand the Plywood Edges
Once you have the right sandpaper, you can start sanding. Use the sandpaper to sand along the grain and avoid going against the grain as this may damage the plywood, and you won’t get a smooth finish.
Remember, plywood is made with a specific grain, and going against the grain may cause the wood to break.
Sand along a specific pattern and go slowly to avoid splintering. Depending on the plywood quality and roughness, you’ll only need to go over the edges 3-4 times to get a smooth finish. Always try to maintain a balanced finish, especially when sanding the edges of furniture.
If you sand inconsistently, some parts of the edges may be lower, and others will be higher, and you may need to use wood filler to smooth the edges out.
If you’re worried about getting splinters or you’re sanding rough plywood, you can use a sanding machine. These come in all sizes, but try to get a flexible one. The Black + Decker Mouse sanding machine (available on Amazon) is ideal for sanding all types of wood and can give you a more consistent finish. A sanding machine is also safer as it eliminates the risk of splinters.
Whether sanding with handheld sandpaper or a sanding machine, you’ll have to consider the difficulty of sanding different types of plywood edges. Sanding a rectangular board is easy, and you’ll have more room for error, but sanding circular edges can be difficult for beginners.
If you aren’t sure how to sand the edges of round wood furniture, check out this video:
Lastly, remember that you aren’t aiming for a completely smooth finish at this stage, so don’t look at minor imbalances. When sanding plywood with 180 grit sandpaper, you should aim to achieve a mostly smooth finish or as smooth as the sandpaper can provide.
4. Clean the Surface Again
Once you expose the defects in the plywood with 180 grit sandpaper, you can clean the wood’s surface again to remove the sawdust. This will also prepare the surface for sanding with finer sandpaper.
Avoid using higher grit sandpaper on a dirty surface as it may damage the wood and prevent you from getting the desired smooth finish. You won’t need to use a vacuum or blower to clean the surface after sanding it initially, and wiping the wood with a wet cloth should be enough.
5. Use Fine Grit Sandpaper for the Finishing Touches
After cleaning the surface for the second time, you can now use finer sandpaper for the finishing touches. Start with 200 grit sandpaper and go along the plywood’s grain 3-4 times to remove any defects and balance the wood.
Clean the surface again and then finish by sanding it with 220 grit sandpaper. Be careful not to sand too hard at this stage, even if you’re using smoother sandpaper, as small mistakes will be more pronounced when you’re sanding smoother surfaces.
6. Other Effective Methods to Finish Plywood Edges
While there’s no harm in sanding plywood directly for a smoother finish, it’s often difficult to do so properly, and you may not get a long-lasting finish. Plywood is made from thin layers of wood veneer glued together for cross-sectional strength.
While you can sand it down to get a relatively smooth finish, you won’t get the same type of smooth edges as you would with timber and other softwoods. Fortunately, there are several methods that carpenters use to get smoother plywood edges.
Let’s look at 3 effective methods to finish plywood furniture edges before sanding:
Apply a Joint Compound to Smooth Out the Edges
Plywood edges will usually have spaces in the wood, which gives them a distinct roughness. The best way to make the plywood edges smoother is to apply a joint filler to fill any gaps in the wood. When the filler dries up, you can sand it and smoothen it out as you would with other wood surfaces.
Follow these steps to get smooth edges on plywood with a joint compound:
- Clean the wood’s surface thoroughly and use a vacuum to remove sawdust if needed.
- Use a 180 grit sandpaper to smooth the plywood edges, and take care to sand along the grain.
- Apply the joint compound evenly over the plywood edges. Follow the specific application instructions for the wood filler or joint compound. Most are applied by making a paste, which is easy to mold and sets after some time.
- When the joint compound dries out, use 220 grit sandpaper to smoothen out the edges. The edges will be smoother than when you sand the plywood directly. It’s also easier to paint or polish a joint compound surface than a plywood one.
While there are various joint compound brands in the market, I recommend using DAP PlasticWood-X All Purpose Wood Filler (available on Amazon.com). It gives a smoother finish, is easy to apply, and matches the plywood’s texture making it ideal for furniture and cabinets.
Use Edge Banding for Smooth Plywood Edges
Most office and home furniture made from plywood have edge banding along the edges. Edge bands are thin veneer strips applied to plywood edges with a strong adhesive. Applying edge banding will add to the cost of finishing the plywood edges, but good quality strips can improve the wood’s quality.
Edge banding has its limitations and is usually used to create simple finishes. It also can’t be used on rounded edges. However, edge banding is a good alternative if you have rough plywood and can’t achieve the desired effect with sanding.
Follow these steps to make the plywood’s edges smooth with edge banding:
- Choose edge banding that suits your plywood finish. If you want to paint or polish the plywood, consider using unfinished edge banding.
- Place the edge banding along the plywood edges. It should fit well, and you should leave some space on the ends but make sure you place the strips perfectly along the wood’s width.
- Iron down the band edging to heat the adhesive, allowing the strips to grip perfectly on the plywood. Set the iron on its middle heat setting as overheating will damage the strips, and underheating it won’t help the adhesive stick properly.
- Wait a few minutes for the adhesive to set.
- When the adhesive sets, use an edge band trimming tool or scissors to cut the band edge to size. Try using smaller scissors for more accuracy.
Once you’ve applied the edge banding, you can sand it with 220 grit paper before polishing or painting it. However, avoid using prefinished edge banding if you are going to paint or polish the plywood product later.
Apply Wood Strips to the Plywood Edges
While joint compound and edge banding are easy ways to improve rough plywood edges, they don’t have the same effect as solid wood. If you want to get a natural feel on your wood furniture, try using solid wood strips to smooth out the plywood edges.
And although the wood strips are slightly harder to apply and require additional work, the final effect is well worth it. Solid wood gives a much smoother finish, and you can polish or paint the wood to match the plywood finish.
Here’s how to finish plywood edges with wood strips:
- Use strips of 1×2 or 1×3 wood to create a border around the plywood’s edges. Many hardware stores have these strips, or you cut them to size from a bigger plank.
- Cut the strips to size and nail them around the plywood’s edges. You can also use an adhesive along with the nails for a solid finish.
- Follow the same sanding method I’ve explained for plywood edges. Try to move along the grain and start with 180 grit sandpaper, finishing with 220 grit sandpaper.
- Paint or polish the plywood to get a consistent finish.
While you should try to use quality wood strips, avoid using excessively thick ones as they may affect the plywood’s balance, which translates to more time sanding the edges.
7. Apply Finishing Touches on the Plywood
Once you have smooth edges on your plywood, use different finishing methods to make it look great. Most experts recommend polishing sanded plywood, but staining or painting it will also give the desired effect.
Here are some ways to make plywood look great:
If you want a natural feel without compromising the wood quality, try polishing the plywood. If you’ve already sanded the plywood, you can polish it without applying wood filler. You can opt for a lighter polish if the plywood’s natural shade is lighter and vice versa.
While polishing plywood may not hide defects, painting it certainly will. Before painting plywood, however, make sure that the edges have been sanded with fine 220 grit sandpaper. You can also apply a coat of polish or varnish after painting the wood’s surface.
Staining plywood is another effective method to improve its aesthetic appeal. You can apply a wood stain solution after achieving a smooth surface through sanding. Ideally, you should apply at least 3 layers of stain to get the ideal effect.
You can also use a gloss finish or polyurethane solution for the final finishing touches, but these are rarely used on plywood.
Dealing with rough plywood edges can be challenging, but you can get a quality finish with proper sanding. When sanding plywood, always move along the grain to avoid splinters. Also, start with rough grit sandpaper and finish with 220 grit sandpaper.
Also, remember that the plywood’s quality will greatly affect how smooth the edges are, and getting high-quality plywood will make sanding much easier.