Top 4 Alternatives to Sandpaper to Smooth Out Wood

If you work on wood, the chances are that you stock up on sandpaper. But eventually, you’re prone to run out of supply. What to do in that scenario? Search for the alternatives of course. In this article, we will suggest to you the top 4 alternatives to sandpaper to smooth out the wood.

The 4 alternatives to sandpaper to smooth out the wood are: sand, steel wool, walnut shells, and pumice. In the past, people used sand and walnut shells to smoothen out wood. Steelwool is a great alternative to sandpaper and you can find it in various grits too. Pumice is a volcanic stone that you use to remove dead skin from your hands or feet, but it can also be used for wood.

Similarly, you can find many things lying around your house that can be used in place of sandpaper. But the above-mentioned alternatives provide the best results, especially steel wool. People often use that when fine-grit sandpaper is not available near them. 

Knowing what to use is only as an alternative to sandpaper is only half of the job done, to sand wood to the same standard as you would with sandpaper you also need to know how to use the alternatives, and the tricks to working with them. So don’t worry as we’ll not only go over all the alternatives but also, how exactly to get results out of them. 

Using Steel Wool for Smoothing Out Wood

Most people at home use steel wool to clean their dirty pans. But when it comes to industrial applications, it is used to smoothen out wood and metal. Normal household steel wool will not do though, you will need fine grit steel wool. The recommended grit is 0000, which is equal to the 400-grit on sandpaper.

Take a thick cloth or leather piece, since you don’t want to hold the abrasive sander with bare hands, and put it on top of the piece of wood. Slowly rub over it with the fine-grit steel wool. You will see that the wood will start to smooth out in a while.

Steel wool is by far the most common substitute for sandpaper. In fact, some carvers use it on a regular basis because they prefer it to sandpaper. Steel wool only goes for a couple of bucks for a 12-piece pack, we recommend you buy it on Amazon to ensure quality. Our recommendation is the HOMAX Steel Wool, check how much it currently goes for.

You will actually find this method much easier. It is less messy as well compared to using sand as an alternative to sandpaper. Some woodworkers say that using steel wool provides you with a different kind of smoothening. It is close to burnishing, which is also a process through which you can smoothen wood.

Apply even pressure throughout the whole surface. Once you are done, you can feel that it has given a much finer result. If you are working with rough wood, then you can use a less fine grit, for instance, 000 steel wood which is extra fine. It is a bit more abrasive and smooths rough wood better.

To conclude, steel wool is probably one of the best alternatives to sandpaper, and definitely our favorite. The finish is a little different to normal sandpaper, but it may even be for the better. We highly recommend you give it a try if you have not worked with it yet.

Using Sand As an Alternative to Sandpaper

The very first instance of sandpaper was discovered in China. It was made up of crushed seashells and sand, adhered to parchment with gum. So sand was used for smoothening wood out way before the modern sandpaper originated. We are going to take a lesson from the pages of history for this one. But you do not need to use crushed seashells, only sand will do.

You will need a few things for this method to work: A piece of leather or a piece of thick cloth that is not in use anymore and enough sand to cover the piece of wood you want to smoothen out. You don’t need a lot of it, a thin layer of it would be sufficient.

Now, place a thin layer of sand over the piece of wood you want to sand. Once you are done with that, use the piece of leather or cloth to rub the sand on the wood. A fair bit of warning, try to rub the sand in the direction of the grain. Moving against the grain might roughen it up even worse. If you are careful of that, you will have no trouble whatsoever. 

Keep in mind that this method can create a ton of mess. Hence, it’s suggested to do this in an isolated space, or you will have a lot of trouble clearing up later on. In fact, it may even take days before you get rid of the sand from your workshop. 

On the flip side, you will get really great results, almost as great as fine-grit sandpaper. But do not expect miracles, it will only do a little better than abrasive sandpaper.

Pro-tip: Apply equal pressure throughout to ensure an even finish, otherwise you might smoothen out one area more than the other

Using Pumice to Smoothen The Wood

Pumice is a volcanic rock that is formed when water is mixed with lava. This rock has an abrasive surface and is usually used to clean dead skin. You might have seen people use it on their heels to clean cracked skin and calluses.

This is another great way to smooth out wood, and one that you may have never heard of before.

There is different grit of pumice available in the market. A problem with pumice is that it is, it is hard to find for most people locally if you want to buy pumice online, you can get the Mohawk pumice that we personally tried and were satisfied with. It is unlikely you have some laying around in your garden, but you may already have some at home if your wife does her own manicure, ask her before you buy it online.

For this method, you need to dampen your workpiece a bit and then rub pumice on it, you do it with a brush for this. Rub along the wood grain and not against it. 4F grit pumice will give you smoother results. Take a look at this short video showing the process of using pumice to smooth out the surface of an antique piece of furniture, skip to 1:30 to get to the important part.

Key takeaways from the video:

  • Be gentle when rubbing pumice not to scratch the wood
  • Although highly recommended, you don’t always have to use water
  • When removing pumice off the sanded surface, stay gentle not to scratch it. You can also use a hairdried or blow some bits off the wood.

Crushed Walnut Shells as An Alternative

Crushed walnut shells are often sold at hardware stores as it is used in sandblasting applications. It has a much better result when used for sanding compared to normal sand. It even provides you with a polished finish at the end that is harder to find in most other alternatives.

Walnut shells are sold in large bags, so it can often be a waste to buy these just for sanding. If you already have them for your sandblasting machine though, then that is another story. Also, it creates a mess after you are done using it to sand wood.

To use it, spread an even thin layer of crushed walnut shells on the surface of the wood you are working on. Use a thick piece of clothing or leather again to rub it in the direction of the wood grain. After a short while, you will start to see that the wood is becoming smoother. Also, when you keep working wood with it, you will notice a polished finish at the end.

The polished finish is why walnut shells are one of the best alternatives to sandpaper. The only problem is the mess that is left after you are done using it. There is a lot of waste, and the whole place will end up covered in crushed walnut shells. Though one thing is for sure, it is a bit less problematic to clean compared to sand.

Substitute to 3000 Grit Sandpaper

Higher grit sandpaper provides you with the most polished and smooth finish as you work your way up to it of course, always start with more abrasive grit, otherwise, the higher grit sandpaper will have no effect. One problem with 3000-grit sandpaper is that it can be hard to come by. People go for 2500 grit sandpaper at most, after which they use polish paste. 

There are very few substitutes that provide you with results as fine as 3000 grit sandpaper. In our tests, the closest results we have had to 3000 grit sandpaper was from using rottenstone powder and rough horsetail. Rough Horsetail can be sourced naturally while rottenstone powder is difficult to find, but can be bought online.

Wondering how to produce the best results with sandpaper? You can read our article: How To Sandpaper Wood – 11 Answers To Sandpaper Questions.

With that said, let’s look at the substitutes to 3000 grit sandpaper in deeper detail: 

Rough Horsetail

In Japan, rough horsetail was used in the past for a polished finish. You have to boil it first though, after which you can use it for that purpose. The Japanese used it on wooden decorations and furniture if they ever wanted to give it a very smooth feel.

If you know a place where these grow, be sure to stock up on a few of them and boil them for future use (make sure collecting them is not breaking any local regulations). These are usually found areas that touch water closely. Ponds and marshes are ideally the locations where rough horsetail naturally grows.


Rottenstone powder is pretty expensive and rare to find in local hardware stores. It gives you finer results than pumice and is used for polishing metal and wood. You can find a very nice brand of it, J. E. Moser’s Rottenstone for Polish finish on Amazon, the price varies from time to time so check how much it currently goes for.

The grain of rottenstone is round in shape, thus less abrasive. So the polished result is due to the form of the grain of rottenstone. To use it you can rub it on the piece of wood using a thick cloth. Do it the same way you would with sand or crushed walnut shells.

After a while, you will start to see the results. It is hard work, but you get an amazing finish on the piece of wood.

How Did People Smoothen Out Wood Before Sandpaper

The earliest instance of sandpaper was found in China and that used sand and crushed seashells. But before that, people used various methods for smoothing out wood. One common method that was seen used by different cultures was using sharkskin. Sharkskin has an abrasive texture and was used for this purpose.

Another method as discussed above was using rough horsetail. This one is to be credited to the Japanese and is a way for polishing wood finer than sandpaper can. If you can still find some around your vicinity, you can still use it. But be sure to boil it first, otherwise, it will not give you the desired results.

The fish skin was also used by people living on islands. Coelacanth, a species of fish, is used to smoothen out wood. People living in such regions caught the fish and used its skin cover in scales as an abrasive.

Carpenters in the past also practiced using wood over wood for smoothening it. This was a method that was used not too long ago before the invention of modern-day sandpaper. The shavings of wood or a piece of wood can be rubbed over the piece you are trying to smoothen out. You would be surprised to see the good results it provides.

Using Polish Paste Instead of Higher-Grit Sandpaper

Some people would rather use polish paste compared to higher-grit sandpaper. By higher-grit, we are referring to 3000 and above. Polish paste contains fine particles that not only give you an ultra-smooth feel but also a mirror finish. 

As we stated above, some polish paste brands use rottenstone and similar grain structure substances in their products. The result is a smooth texture and glossy surface. You can actually make your own polish paste in the form of beeswax.

If you ever run out of fine-grit sandpaper, but have polish paste or such on hand, you can finish your DIY wood project with it.

Final Thoughts

Whenever you visit your hardware store, be sure to buy sandpaper in bulk. While these alternatives sure do the job, they might end up as extra work. For instance, using sand and crushed walnut shells will only increase the amount of work you have to put in and they make quite a mess. But if you need sandpaper urgently and have freshly run out of it, you can always try these methods

That you for reading the article, we hope you found it useful and that your wood is well sanded and has a beautiful finish. If you like what you read, be sure to surf our website a little more, and see if you find another interesting read.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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