What Did Woodworkers Use Before Sandpaper

Before the invention of sandpaper, woodworkers relied on various other tools and techniques to achieve a smooth finish on their projects. These ancient woodworking methods have roots dating back centuries and offer a fascinating glimpse into the ingenuity and resourcefulness of craftsmen in the past. In this article, we will explore the evolution of woodworking tools and techniques, tracing back to a time before sandpaper became commonplace.

Woodworking is an ancient craft that has evolved alongside human civilization. From rudimentary hand tools used by early humans to sophisticated power tools available today, each era has brought new advancements and innovations. One crucial aspect of woodworking is achieving a smooth finish on wood surfaces, which enhances both its appearance and durability.

In modern times, sandpaper has become the go-to tool for achieving this smooth finish. However, before the widespread use of sandpaper, woodworkers had to rely on alternative methods and natural abrasives to accomplish their goal. By delving into these historic techniques and examining the tools they employed, we can gain insight into how woodworkers tackled the challenges of achieving a polished result without sandpaper.

What is sandpaper and its modern usage in woodworking

Sandpaper is a common and essential tool in modern woodworking, used for smoothing surfaces, removing paint or stains, and preparing wood for finishes. It consists of abrasive particles adhered to a paper or cloth backing. The abrasive particles can be made from various materials such as aluminum oxide, silicon carbide, or garnet.

In woodworking, sandpaper is primarily used to achieve a smooth and uniform surface. When working with rough lumber, sanding helps to remove imperfections like knots or unevenness. It is also used to round sharp edges and corners, giving them a more polished appearance.

Additionally, sandpaper plays a crucial role in the process of applying finishes to wood. Before applying any kind of finish, it is necessary to first sand the surface to ensure that it is clean and free from blemishes. By smoothing out the wood fibers and creating an even surface, sanding allows finishes such as paint or varnish to adhere properly.

However, it is important to note that sandpaper should be used progressively starting with coarser grits and gradually moving towards finer ones. This helps avoid deep scratches and makes the final result smoother. Woodworkers typically start with lower grits (around 60-80) to remove larger imperfections before progressing through higher grits (such as 100-150) for fine finishing.

While sandpaper has become an indispensable tool in modern woodworking practices, ancient craftsmen had their own methods for achieving smooth surfaces without its use. Understanding these techniques provides us with insights into the ingenuity of our ancestors and highlights the development of woodworking tools over time.

Dusting off History


The art of woodworking has evolved greatly over time, with advancements in tools and techniques making the process more efficient and precise. With the aid of modern tools like sandpaper, woodworkers are able to achieve smooth finishes and refine their creations.

However, before the introduction of sandpaper, ancient woodworkers relied on a variety of other techniques to accomplish similar results. In this section, we will explore the fascinating world of ancient woodworking techniques and discover how woodworkers achieved smooth finishes without the use of sandpaper.

Ancient Woodworking Techniques

Woodworking dates back thousands of years, with evidence of early forms found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 3000 BCE. These early woodworkers did not have access to sandpaper or modern power tools but still managed to create intricate and smooth finishes on their wooden artifacts. They had a deep understanding of working with various types of wood and utilized different methods to achieve desired results.

The Art of Scraping

One common technique used by ancient woodworkers was scraping. They employed specially designed scrapers made from materials like flint, stone, or seashells to scrape away rough surfaces on the wood. By skillfully manipulating these scrapers across the surface at different angles, they were able to achieve a smooth finish.

Burnishing for Brilliance

Another technique used by ancient woodworkers was burnishing. Burnishing involves rubbing a polished object like bone or antler against the wood surface to create friction and heat, resulting in a smoother finish. This method was particularly effective for achieving high-gloss shine on wooden items such as bowls or furniture.

Planing Perfection

Wood planing was another popular method employed by ancient craftsmen. They used handheld planes made from dense hardwoods or even animal bones to carefully shave off thin layers of wood. The process required skill and precision to achieve a smooth, flat surface.

By examining these ancient woodworking techniques, we gain a deeper appreciation for the ingenuity and craftsmanship of our ancestors. While sandpaper has undoubtedly made the production process easier in the modern era, the skills and knowledge passed down from ancient woodworkers continue to inspire and shape the craft today.

Pre-sandpaper Era

In the pre-sandpaper era, wood finishers relied on various techniques and tools to achieve a smooth and polished surface on their woodworking projects. These ancient methods offer valuable insights into the ingenuity of early woodworkers.

One technique commonly used before the invention of sandpaper was burnishing. Burnishing involves rubbing a hard object against the wood surface to compress the fibers and create a smooth finish. Woodworkers would use materials such as bones, stones, or even metal objects like agate or jasper to achieve this effect. They would rub these objects firmly against the wood in a back-and-forth motion until the desired level of smoothness was achieved.

Another technique utilized by ancient wood finishers was scraping. Scraping involves using a sharp-edged tool to remove small shavings from the wood surface, resulting in a smoother finish. Woodworkers would use specialized scraping tools made from materials like bone or metal to scrape along the grain of the wood, gradually leveling it out and removing imperfections.

Planing was also widely used in the pre-sandpaper era as a means of achieving a smooth finish on wooden surfaces. Hand planes made from various materials such as stone, bronze, or iron were utilized to remove rough spots and create an even surface. Planing required skill and precision, as woodworkers had to carefully control their hand pressure and angle to ensure an even cut.

These techniques employed by ancient wood finishers demonstrate their resourcefulness and mastery of their craft. Though they lacked modern sandpaper, they were able to achieve remarkably smooth finishes using simple yet effective methods. The legacy of these ancient techniques continues today, with modern woodworkers incorporating them alongside sanding in their woodworking practices.

TechniqueMaterials Used
BurnishingBones, stones, metal objects like agate or jasper
ScrapingSpecialized scraping tools made from materials like bone or metal
PlaningHand planes made from various materials such as stone, bronze, or iron

The Groundbreaking Shellac Secret

One of the most revolutionary and impactful tools used by ancient woodworkers is believed to be shellac. Made from the secretions of the lac beetle, shellac has been utilized in woodworking for centuries. The discovery of this versatile material not only transformed the way wood was finished but also played a significant role in preserving it.

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Shellac became popular among ancient woodworkers primarily due to its natural adhesive properties. It could easily bond with various surfaces, including wood, creating a protective layer similar to varnish. Additionally, shellac had impressive insulation properties, making it ideal for electrical and heat-resistant applications.

In terms of its application in woodworking, shellac’s ability to create a glossy and smooth finish made it highly sought after. Ancient woodworkers would apply multiple coats of shellac onto their projects, allowing each layer to dry before adding another. This build-up method not only enhanced the durability and appearance of the wood but also provided unique depth and vibrancy to the finished surface.

Furthermore, one key advantage of using shellac was its ability to highlight and accentuate the natural grain patterns in wood. By applying thin layers of shellac and buffing them carefully, woodworkers could achieve a stunning level of clarity that showcased the inherent beauty of their creations. Even today, many craftsmen continue to utilize shellac for its versatility and timeless appeal.

Despite the advent of modern sandpaper and other abrasives, the groundbreaking secret of shellac remains an integral part of woodworking history. Its effects can still be seen on antique furniture pieces preserved through generations. Though techniques may have evolved over time, ancient woodworkers left behind a lasting legacy by harnessing this remarkable material that enhanced their craft in unimaginable ways.

Smooth Operator

Polishing wood is a crucial step in woodworking to achieve a smooth and lustrous finish. While modern woodworkers rely heavily on sandpaper for this task, ancient craftsmen had their own ingenious methods of achieving a polished surface. In this section, we will explore the various polishing techniques used by ancient woodworkers.

Buffing with Natural Materials

One common technique used by ancient woodworkers to achieve a polished surface was buffing. Instead of using sandpaper, they would use natural materials such as wool, leather, or plant fibers to rub the wood’s surface until it became smooth and shiny. They understood that these materials had natural oils that could enhance the appearance of the wood without scratching or damaging it.


  • Wool: Wool fibers were often used for buffing wooden surfaces due to their softness and ability to hold polishing compounds.
  • Leather: Scraps of leather were also popularly used for polishing as they provided just the right amount of friction to smoothen uneven surfaces.
  • Plant Fibers: Natural fibers from plants like coir, flax, or cotton were sometimes twisted into ropes or made into pads and used for polishing. These fibers not only helped in removing imperfections but also added an extra shine to the wood.

Oil Polishing

Ancient woodworkers also mastered the art of oil polishing, which involved applying various oils onto the wooden surface to both nourish and polish it. Oils such as linseed oil, tung oil, walnut oil, or even animal fats were used for this purpose.

Once applied, the woodworker would vigorously buff and rub the oil into the wood using a cloth or brush. This method not only gave the wood a glossy appearance but also provided protection against moisture and other environmental factors.


  • Linseed Oil: Derived from the flax plant, linseed oil was a popular choice for polishing wood due to its ability to penetrate and enhance the natural beauty of the grain.
  • Tung Oil: Extracted from the seeds of the tung tree, this oil was known for its durability and resistance to water, making it ideal for outdoor wooden structures or furniture.
  • Animal Fats: In some ancient cultures, animal fats like lard were used as a simple yet effective polish. These fats were heated and applied onto the wood, creating a protective layer while also giving it a shine.

Ancient woodworkers were truly masters of their craft, employing innovative techniques and using natural materials to achieve remarkable results. While sandpaper has become an indispensable tool in modern woodworking, it is fascinating to learn about these age-old methods that laid the foundation for our understanding of wood finishing today.

Embracing the Nature

Before the invention of sandpaper, woodworkers had to get creative in finding natural materials to smooth and polish their workpieces. This section will explore some of the natural abrasives that were used by ancient woodworkers.

One of the earliest natural abrasives used by woodworkers was pumice. Pumice is a volcanic rock that is lightweight and porous. It can be crushed into a powder and used as an abrasive on wood surfaces. Due to its soft nature, pumice is particularly effective for smoothing out irregularities and leveling the surface before applying finishes.

Another natural abrasive that was commonly used before sandpaper was rottenstone. Rottenstone is a fine-grained limestone that is easily crumbled into a powder. It has excellent polishing properties and is often used as a final abrasive for achieving a smooth and glossy finish on wood.

In addition to pumice and rottenstone, various other natural materials were also utilized as abrasives in woodworking. These included powdered marble, silica sand, powdered glass, and even fine sand from riverbeds. Woodworkers would often mix these abrasives with oils or water to create a paste or slurry that could be applied to the wooden surface for smoothing or polishing.

Natural AbrasiveDescription
PumiceA lightweight volcanic rock that can be crushed into a powder for leveling surfaces.
Rottenstone A fine-grained limestone known for its excellent polishing properties.
Powdered MarbleGives a smooth finish when applied to wood surfaces.
Silica SandA coarse sand used for initial smoothing and leveling.
Powdered GlassProvides a fine abrasive for achieving a glossy finish on wood.
Fine Sand from RiverbedsUsed as a natural abrasive that could be easily sourced.

These natural abrasives required more effort and time compared to the convenience of sandpaper. Woodworkers would carefully select and prepare these materials, often experimenting with different combinations to achieve their desired results. While the use of natural abrasives has become less common in modern woodworking, they played a crucial role in the evolution of the craft and still hold value for those seeking traditional techniques or restoration work.

Innovative Techniques


One of the innovative techniques used in the pre-sandpaper era was burnishing. Burnishing is a process where woodworkers use a hard object to rub against the surface of the wood, creating a smooth and polished finish. This technique was often done using bone or smooth stones as the burnisher. By exerting pressure and friction, woodworkers could achieve a level of smoothness on their woodworking projects comparable to that of sandpaper.


Another common technique utilized in the pre-sandpaper era was scraping. Scraping involved using a sharp edge or scraper tool to remove unwanted material and level out surfaces. Woodworkers would employ various types of scrapers, such as card scrapers, cabinet scrapers, or scratch stocks, depending on their specific needs. With careful control and skillful manipulation, scraping could achieve a fine finish without relying on sandpaper.


Planing is an ancient woodworking technique that predates sandpaper by centuries. It involves using a hand plane to shape and smooth wood surfaces. Woodworkers would carefully guide the plane along the grain of the wood, taking light shavings with each pass until they achieved the desired result.

Planes were available in different sizes and shapes for specific tasks, such as smoothing planes, jack planes, or jointer planes. This technique required considerable skill to ensure evenness and avoid tear-out but provided craftsmen with an effective alternative to sandpaper.

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These innovative techniques employed by woodworkers in the pre-sandpaper era showcase their ingenuity and resourcefulness in finding ways to achieve beautifully finished wooden objects without modern tools. By utilizing burnishing, scraping, and planing techniques, these craftsmen were able to create intricate designs and smooth finishes that are still admired today. Although sandpaper has become an indispensable tool in modern woodworking practices, it is worth appreciating and learning from the ancient methods that paved the way for our current techniques.

Revisiting Historic Tools

Woodworking is an ancient craft that has evolved over time, with woodworkers constantly seeking new ways to achieve smooth and polished finishes on their creations. Before the invention of sandpaper, woodworkers relied on a variety of tools to shape and smooth their workpieces. Some of the most commonly used tools were rasps, files, and scrapers.

Rasps are coarse cutting tools that have sharp teeth or ridges along their surface. They are typically made from metal and are used to remove large amounts of material quickly. Woodworkers would use rasps to shape wood into rough forms before refining them further with other tools. Rasps come in various shapes and sizes, allowing woodworkers to create different textures and patterns on their workpieces.

Files, on the other hand, are similar to rasps but have finer teeth or ridges. They are used for removing smaller amounts of material and refining the shape of a workpiece. Files come in different shapes and grades (coarseness), making them versatile tools that can be used for both shaping and smoothing wood.

Scrapers, as the name suggests, are tools used for scraping away thin layers of wood from a workpiece’s surface. They can be handheld or mounted in a handle or plane body. Scrapers create a smooth finish by shaving off very thin layers of wood fibers rather than cutting them like other woodworking tools. By carefully controlling the angle at which they scrape the surface, woodworkers could achieve a glass-like smoothness that is difficult to replicate with sandpaper alone.

The Legacy Continues

In the modern era, sandpaper has become synonymous with woodworking and is widely used for smoothing surfaces and refining woodwork. However, as technology advances, so do the alternatives to sandpaper. Woodworkers have discovered various methods and tools that can achieve similar or even better results than traditional sanding techniques. These modern alternatives not only provide efficiency but also offer unique benefits to woodworkers.

One popular alternative to sandpaper is the use of power tools such as rotary sanders, belt sanders, and orbital sanders. These tools are equipped with different types of abrasive discs or belts that can quickly remove material and achieve a smooth finish. Compared to traditional hand sanding with sandpaper, power tools save time and effort, allowing woodworkers to complete their projects more efficiently. Additionally, power tools provide more consistent results and ensure evenness in the surface being worked on.

Another increasingly popular alternative to sandpaper is the use of abrasive blasting techniques. Abrasive blasting involves projecting particles at high speeds onto the wooden surface, removing paint, rust, or any unwanted material effectively. This technique is particularly useful for restoring old wooden furniture or cleaning large wooden structures such as decks or fences. By using abrasive materials like crushed glass or aluminum oxide instead of sandpaper, woodworkers can accomplish tasks quickly while maintaining the integrity of the underlying wood.

Additionally, chemical stripping agents have emerged as another modern alternative to traditional sanding methods. These agents are applied to the surface of woodwork and react with finishes such as varnish or paint, loosening them from the substrate. Once loosened, they can be easily scraped away without damaging the wood beneath. Chemical stripping agents not only save time but also reduce the risk of damaging intricate details or delicate surfaces during sanding.

As technology continues to evolve in woodworking, new alternatives to traditional sandpaper will likely arise. Woodworkers should embrace these advancements as they offer an opportunity for increased efficiency and improved results in their craft. Whether it’s power tools, abrasive blasting, or chemical stripping agents, modern alternatives to sandpaper present exciting possibilities for the future of woodworking.


In conclusion, exploring the history of woodworking has revealed fascinating insights into ancient solutions to sandpaper. Before the invention of this modern abrasive tool, woodworkers used various techniques and materials to achieve smooth finishes on their woodwork. Through the use of shellac as a protective coating, natural abrasives like pumice and powdered marble, and innovative techniques such as burnishing, scraping, and planing, ancient craftsmen were able to create beautiful and polished surfaces.

While sandpaper may be the go-to tool for modern woodworkers, it is clear that these early artisans were able to achieve impressive results with their alternative methods. In fact, some traditional techniques are still used today, with rasps, files, and scrapers remaining important tools in woodworking.

This exploration of woodworking’s ancient solutions serves as a reminder that innovation doesn’t always mean reinventing the wheel. There is value in understanding and revisiting historic techniques that have stood the test of time. By embracing these age-old practices alongside modern technology, woodworkers can truly honor the legacy of their craft while also achieving exceptional results.

Frequently Asked Questions

What did they use to sand wood before sandpaper?

Before the invention of sandpaper, people used different methods to sand wood. One common technique involved using primitive tools such as scrapers or rasps made from bone, antler, or rocks. These tools were manually rubbed against the wooden surface to smooth it out or remove imperfections.

Another method included rubbing the wood with abrasives like pumice stone or powdered shells mixed with oil or water. These gritty substances acted as a rudimentary form of sandpaper and helped in achieving a smoother finish on wood surfaces.

What did ancient people use for sandpaper?

Ancient people developed various materials to serve as early forms of sandpaper. In ancient Egypt, people used crushed quartz mixed with animal fat or resin to create an abrasive substance for smoothing wooden surfaces.

This mixture was applied onto a flat wooden board or leather piece, which was then rubbed against the wood to achieve desired smoothing effects. In ancient China, craftsmen used sharkskin and shells with rough textures to polish and refine different materials, including wood.

What did Vikings use for sandpaper?

Vikings used a variety of natural materials for their woodworking processes but did not have access to modern-day sandpaper as we know it today. Instead, they often relied on natural resources to achieve smoother finishes on their woodwork pieces.

For instance, they would employ fragments of shark skin or similar textured materials as abrasives during the finishing stages of their projects. The coarse texture of shark skin allowed them to effectively smooth away rough edges or imperfections present in the wood surfaces while providing some level of control over the roughness and softness required for specific applications.

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