One of the biggest problems I have with dollhouse building is that I’m new at it. Not just the miniature scene, but the technical details. Like, painting, sanding, working with wood, and everything else that goes along with this hobby.
Take, for example, identifying wood grain. I’ve always heard that you’re supposed to “sand with the grain.” Sure, but I suck at identifying “grain.” Doesn’t matter if it’s wood, fabric, or meat, I don’t know what I’m looking for.
I take that back. I kind of do, but kind of don’t. I decided to look into this a little more and learned a few interesting things about what wood grain is, how it’s formed, and why it matters to your dollhouse project.
What Is Wood Grain?
You’re going to hate this answer, but it depends on who you ask!
I always thought that wood grain was the lines you see in the wood. Specifically, the pattern you see in the wood.
Sometimes staining wood helps bring those patterns out, and sometimes it covers it. Paint usually covers it (though not always).
Technically, I’m not wrong. But I’m also not exactly right.
Here’s what I found:
“…wood grain refers to the orientation of wood-cell fibers. That’s quite different from figure, which describes the distinctive pattern that frequently results from various grain orientations.”Wood Magazine
Ah. Of course!
Let me try to break this down a little more.
How wood grain is made
When a tree grows, it grows in rings. You probably knew that. What you may not have known was that the different rings are made of different materials that serve different purposes. For example, the middlemost ring (what I call “the pole”) is the pith. It’s soft, and I don’t know what it does.
The next layer of rings is called heartwood. It’s made up of dead cells that help support the tree. I find it oddly comforting that something dead provides support for something living.
There are a bunch of other rings, too, but I’m not going to get into those. The point is, there are different layers to a tree.
The layer we’re talking about is called cambium. Cambium is the ring just under the bark. It’s made of living cells, and as those cells grow, they create more wood that makes two kinds of wood cells, longitudinal and ray.
The longitudinal cells are what constitute wood grain. They are long, narrow cells that grow parallel along the length of the tree (the trunk or the limb).
Hardwoods and softwoods have different looking grains. This is thanks to the size, shape, and number of longitudinal cells.
In hardwoods, you can find a wide variety of grains. This is partly because there is an array of longitudinal cells that grow in hardwood trees. What it really comes down to, though, is that the grain in a hardwood tree varies depending on where the cells end up in the growth rings. This is impacted by when the tree grows (summer or spring) and how quickly it grows.
Softwoods have grain, but it’s not as dense as hardwoods simply because there are less longitudinal cells than in hardwoods.
And that’s how wood grain is made.
Why Is Wood Grain Important?
I sew a lot. I make this point for a reason. When I start a new project, the directions usually say something like “lay the pattern with the grain.” Sometimes, but not often, the instructions say “against the grain.”
I’m sure there’s a reason for this. I don’t know what it is.
And I know that when you’re carving meat, you’re supposed to cut “with the grain.” Or, maybe it’s against. I can’t remember (which is why I don’t carve a lot of meat).
However, I do know that when you carve meat the wrong way in terms of the grain, it’s really hard to cut the meat when it’s on your plate. It’s also hard to chew.
For wood, I figured the wood grain was just something that looked pretty. And, that’s a big part of it. However, wood grain is important not just for looks, but also for function.
Wood grain impacts your project
The way the wood is cut impacts how much or how little of the grain shows on the wood. And, the amount of grain can impact how your wood project dries and absorbs stain.
No matter what kind of wood stain (or wood dye, I suppose) you use, you’ll always end up with a uniquely finished product. I won’t go deep into the differences, but the reasons for this have to do with how wood stains and dye work, and how porous your wood is. To learn more, read:
What it comes down to is the more porous your wood, the more wood stain or dye it soaks up. That, in turn, affects how long it takes the stain or dye to cure. Humidity and temperature play a role, too. But, in the end, more stain or dye means more dry time.
It also means a darker or deeper finish. This is neither good nor bad, just something to keep in mind as you’re picking out woods and woods stains.
How to Identify Wood Grain
Identifying wood grain is pretty simple. Look at your wood and find the long lines. That’s your grain. And, that’s pretty much it. If you see knots in the wood, ignore them. You’re only looking for and at the long lines. Sometimes the lines are difficult to identify. I find this is especially true on light woods and wood with fine grains. Here’s a good example:
Once you’ve identified the grain, you need to look at it a little closer to figure out how to sand and treat your wood project.
Earlier, I talked about hardwood and softwood grains and how they’re formed. What I didn’t talk about was that when we discuss wood grain and how to find it, we’re also talking about the texture of the wood grain.
There are three wood grain textures, coarse, medium, and fine. The larger the longitudinal cells, the more coarse and porous the wood. The more coarse-grained a wood, the more likely it is to absorb stain and dyes, so you may want to consider using a wood filler to combat that.
Some people like to use wood filler on coarse wood to help ensure a smooth finish. That’s something to think about, too, but I don’t think it’s so necessary in the context of a miniature dollhouse.
However, what is important is identifying the grain and the grain direction, so you sand it properly.
How to Sand With the Grain
In most woodworking projects, you should sand the wood before you use it. In the case of a miniature dollhouse, do that before you assemble the project. Sometimes it’s necessary to sand, and sometimes it’s not. I’m still experimenting with all of this, so don’t ask me!
But, I will say that having gone both routes, I do prefer sanding first. It helps create a smooth surface to work with, gets rid of wood fuzz, and helps the paint stick a little better. That last point is just my opinion.
In general, though, the reason you sand the wood is to get rid of any imperfections, scratches, or marks that might be on the wood. This can be from the cutting process or even the transporting it home process. Anything is possible.
To sand the wood, identify the direction of the grain then grab your sandpaper. This can be a sheet or a sanding tool depending on what you’re doing and how long it might take you to sand. Then sand in the direction of the grain — meaning along the longitudinal cells, not across.
You’re better off with a medium to coarse grit to start, then working your way up toward a finer grit sandpaper. Don’t start with a fine grit. You’ll just waste your time and sandpaper!
Keep in mind that the more you sand off the wood, the more you sand off the the wood’s ability to absorb stain or dye. I will say my experience has been that not a lot of sanding is necessary for dollhouses. The exception I’ve found — so far — is when I cut balsa wood strips. Then I need to sand the heck out of the cut ends. (Also, when I screw up painting, but that’s another story!)
However, when it comes to miniature dollhouses, you probably should skip the coarse grit and start with the medium. Coarse grits are great for totally unfinished wood pieces. Most of the wood that comes with dollhouses is mostly finished. Read more about sandpaper grits and how to choose them:
What happens if you sand against the grain?
Truthfully, nothing bad. But, you will create marks on the wood that you may not want. If that’s the look you’re going for, great. Otherwise, sanding against the grain defeats the whole purpose of sanding wood.
With the Grain, Please
While I think going against the grain has its place (often), sanding wood is one place it does not. Sanding with the grain creates a smooth surface for painting and staining and is easier than going against the grain.
Identifying wood grain is the tricky part with some woods, but not all. When in doubt, the grain probably runs the long way on your wood project.
Any other tricks for identifying wood grain? Or how to sand it? Or what sandpaper to use? Sound off in the comments!