To Sand or Not to Sand…

Returned to school last week with so much to do and catch up on (I did make it to Boston and missed a long day full of meetings and schedule-making).  I had several gorgeous “woodworking-as-the-way” moments, only one of which I’ll share.  One of my neurologically different students asked to meet the teacher he was making a clock-face for. A huge step for a young man that struggles to hold simple conversations for longer than 5 minutes and finds connecting to others very, very stressful.  Anyways, finished the construction/assembly of these two benches this week:

These are made from recycled lumber, including a black-painted, red oak-esque, plastic deck material (I think!).  Over winter break I created a pattern for the legs (two 2×6′s stacked next to each other) involving a scoop at the bottom and a notch for the apron piece of 1x you can barely see.

Teacher-to-Teacher question:  How important is sanding in this building process?  Sanding is an interesting step in woodworking.  Often necessary, fraught with peril, boring as a smooth-actioned brace.  I find my students lose interest in the zen-like back-and-forth of hand sanding, I burn-out a child’s ears with the power tools and I create pack-a-day-smokers out of eleven year-olds with the dust.  Of course, all this can be mitigated with strong safety practices (which we use) and waiting for a good windy day.

But is all that worth it?  Will the student learn a skill, a philosophical lesson, a metaphor, a connection with the world by engaging in the act of sanding?

I try to engage in as little sanding as possible, to be honest.  I have access to several working hand planes.  We use those to prep stock for finishing (most stuff then needs a quick rub-down at like 220 or 320 grit for me to consider it ready to be finished).  I find the process quicker, more interactive (whole body movement rather than fingers or hands) and finally, safer and cleaner on dust. I have yet to see a student truly gain an appreciation for beauty, or practice their relationship skills or do anything other than make dust while sanding.  So I try to avoid it as much as possible.

But sometimes the project demands a touch of the sandpaper, like these benches.  Then I ask myself: should I do the benches (20-40 min of my weekend) or should the students sand (2-3 days to complete if I’m lucky).  They will be painted, not stained or poly-ed, so I will sand to a rough (80-grit or 100-grit) texture and paint with left-over paint.

Am I on the wrong tack here?  Should I let the students sand?