Plywood Sanding

How To Make Plywood Smooth and Shiny

As I was recently sitting down for dinner with my family at a nice restaurant, I took notice of the smoothness and shine of the table.  It brought me back to building a nightstand with my dad a few years back that had a smooth and shiny plywood top, so I wanted to write up a quick guide on how to make plywood smooth and shiny. 

Here is an easy to follow step by step:

  1. Vacuum and wipe down the plywood with a damp cloth.
  2. Sand the plywood lightly with a 220 grit sandpaper
  3. Apply a good quality wood grain filler and allow to dry.
  4. Sand plywood lightly again with 220 grit sandpaper.
  5. Using a high quality floor finish polyurethane, apply light coats with a foam brush and allow to dry.
  6. Sand polyurethane coat with 220 grit sandpaper and wipe clean.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you have a smooth surface. (At least 3 coats)
  8. Lightly sand with 400 grit sandpaper.
  9. Lightly sand with 600 grit sandpaper.
  10. Buff the plywood with a good quality carnauba wood floor wax.

There are many variations of getting the smooth shiny finish on plywood, but I’ve found the above method to work best.  I have experimented with other variations and included some additional products that are worth noting, like epoxy resins, that when cured give a hard shiny finish as well.

Read below to find out the details what affects shine and smoothness, various products that can assist in giving you the finish you desire, and other more cost-friendly products you can use.

Plywood

Plywood comes in grades “A” through “D” with “A” being high quality, sandable, and paintable wood, free of knots while “D” grade can have knots up to 2 ½” with the possibility of splits.  Plywood is made from thin layers of wood veneer that are called “piles”. These “piles” are glued together with adjacent layers having their wood grain rotated 90 degrees to each previous layer.

If you are using a plywood that is grade “A” then the above step by step method will work just fine for you.  If you are using plywood that is anything less that grade “A” quality, you should first sand the plywood with a 90 grit sandpaper and clean.  Once clean, follow the above step by step method.

Goes without saying, but the higher the grade plywood, the easier time you are going to have with preparing the plywood for its finish.  

Sanding

Sanding in each of the steps in critical.  Take you time as each step that includes sanding serves a purpose.  The better you sand, the better the finished product is going to turn out.  

An orbital sander with vacuum bag works great through the whole process.  I like to do a final pass with a hand sander at the end though. Make sure when sanding that you sand evenly throughout the entire piece of wood being careful not to over sand in any areas.

There are a variety of different grits of sandpaper from 40 grit to 600.  Sandpaper with a grit of 40 is the roughest sandpaper out there and is used with plywood that is in terrible shape. The higher number grit, the finer and less abrasive the sandpaper.

Wood Grain Filler

A wood grain filler will fill in the pores of wood grain.  If you are going to use wood grain filler, follow the manufacturer’s directions for applications. There are plenty of wood grain fillers out there, but I am preferable to MinWax. You can find it on Amazon or your local hardware store

Most wood grain fillers are applied to any gaps or small imperfections in the plywood and scraped smooth with a plastic putty knife.  Once dry sand smooth and the finish should be very smooth.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane is what is going to give you the hard smooth texture and shine that you are looking for.  Stressing this again, sanding and smoothing between each coat is key.  My favorite polyurethane can also be found on Amazon.

It is also a good idea to put at least a single coat on the underside of the wood you are working with.  Wood absorbs moisture and humidity which will cause the wood to swell and shrink. Polyurethane will slow the absorption rate so better to have all sides being equal when expanding and contracting versus opposite side absorbing moisture differently.  Absorbing moisture different on opposite sides will cause your wood to warp. Even a single coat of polyurethane will mediate this reaction.

Additional Method

Another possible avenue that has been used for things like bar tops is a product called Envirotex. Envirotex is an epoxy resin that cures in about 8 hours with have thick, hard, shiny resin at room temperature and will reach it maximum hardness at the 48 hour mark.  It does not require any polishing to reach it’s full shine either so definitely a product that is worth mentioning.

For application, it would be same step by step procedure to prepare the plywood for polyurethane application, except you’d be replacing polyurethane with Envirotex.

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