Can You Sand an Oil Painting?

When you read the headline, the first thought is probably why the hell on Earth would someone want to do that. The thing is that there are many reasons why an artist decides to scrape an old oil painting.

It can be because they don’t like some particular part of the texture or have an old painting laying down in their basement, taking up space. Either way, they will be looking for the most effective way to do it.

An oil painting can be sanded with a power sanderOpens in a new tab., a razor blade, or sandpaper (fine sandpaper or fine grit sandpaper, lately with a sand block). Regardless of the technique, the person should be wearing some protective equipment and learn how to apply the right amount of pressure so that the canvas can stay undamaged.

Further in the article, you will find all three techniques explained in more detail, so you can decide which one is the best for your needs. Each painting is a unique case, and it should be treated that way. What worked best for one small painting may not work for another painting of the same size but with a different type of paint.

Further in the article, you will find all three techniques explained in more detail, so you can decide which one is the best for your needs. Each painting is a unique case, and it should be treated that way. What worked best for one small painting may not work for another painting of the same size but with a different type of paint. So, Can You Sand an Oil Painting? Let’s find out.

Sanding an Oil Painting

Why Would You Need to Sand an Oil Painting?

Sanding a painting is a technique artists use when they are not happy with how some part of the painting turned out or they have some old panels and canvases they would like to reuse, as already mentioned.

When you are just entering this world, you might find it hard to find inspiration for a painting, and later on, you may have difficulties finishing it. This happens mostly due to the lack of time, and numerous ideas that may pop up in the process, that require your attention to shift. 

Having numerous unfinished paintings may not sound like a big deal to everyone else, but you as an artist know the cost of those paintings. Sometimes the panels and canvases can be costly, and throwing them for nothing would not be acceptable. 

In this case, the best thing to do is to recycle an old canvas, and the way to do that is to scrape the old picture and prepare the canvas for the new one. Depending on the quality and type of paint, whether it is acrylic or oil based paint, that has been used, you will be able to remove more or less paint from the stretched canvas.

What Is the Ultimate Goal When Sanding a Painting?

When you decide to sand down a painting, you must first decide your ultimate goal – what you want to achieve and what type of results you want to see in front of this process is. 

Sometimes, artists are not satisfied with how some colors turned out on the canvas, for example, and they would like to find a way to change that. Sanding the parts they are not happy with is a good way to solve this issue. Their main goal is to remove paint only from the affected area they dislike, perhaps just a thin layer.

On the other hand, some artists would like to reuse the canvas completely, aiming for a different goal – to remove as much old paint as possible. When reusing the canvas is your goal, you must be extra careful not to damage it to the point where you cannot use it at all. 

If you exaggerate with sanding, you may risk damaging the canvas fibers, breaking and creating holes in the canvas itself. This will make the canvas not suitable for further use, and practically you can throw it away. You can always try to reuse the wood for other crafts.

Scraping Techniques

There are two ways you can scrape the painting – either by hand or by using a power sander. If you choose the latter, you can expect to finish very quickly without any trouble.

Once you finish with the scraping, you can use a towel that has been dumped in any solvent of your choice to remove the excess oil paint and dust that is remaining on the canvas. This way, the canvas is all done and prepped for future endeavors. 

Using a Power Sander

Using a power sander requires a gentle hand. To remove the paint from the picture, lay down the picture on a flat surface and start scraping by applying very little pressure. When you get confident with using the machine, proceed to bigger strokes. 

If you choose to remove it bit by bit, the surface of the canvas will be smooth even once you finish. If you are in a rush and don’t care how much paint you are removing and from which part, you can have some issues with the canvas later. 

Once you start using the sander, you will notice that a lot of dust is being created. This dust comes from the hardened paint, so every time you make a stroke, make sure to wipe off the dust so that you can see the results of your work.

It’s crucial to check regularly if the paint is coming off evenly and see if you’re applying the right amount of pressure. If you fail to do this, you will end up with a destroyed canvas. 

One remark has to be made here – if you are scraping off a freshly painted painting, make sure to remove the excess paint that is still wet before you start using the sander. This will ease the process since the fresh paint can get stuck to the sander, and you will have a bigger issue. 

However, not so many people have a power sander just in case, so the second-best option, in this case, is to use sandpaper. Of course, this will work only on smaller paintings. A power sander is a must for larger surfaces since it will save you a lot of precious time. I will talk more about sandpaper later on. 

Old-fashioned Scraping by Hand

If you don’t have a power sander, then a good suitable replacement would be a razor. This item is something everyone for sure has in their house. Just like using sandpaper, this will take you considerably more time, but on the other hand, it can provide better results.

The thing is that with a razor, you will have total control over the process, and you will be able to remove even the smallest details. A razor blade can be used on any surface size – from small paintings to the largest ones. However, bear in mind that it can be very time-consuming. 

When you are using a razor blade, you must be extra careful not to hurt yourself in the process. Because the razor has two sharp edges, injuries are not something that is not common. The best thing you can do to prevent and avoid this is to alter one of the razor edges by rounding the edge or placing any protection on top. 

Always make sure to start scraping with a new razor blade – never with the already-used one. With a new blade, you know what to expect and how the blade will behave. If you are using an old one, the blade itself is likely very dull, and you can never anticipate how this blade will behave and how you will be able to control it over the painting. 

The proper way to use a razor blade is to hold it anywhere between 45 and 90 degrees angle. The key is to find an angle that suits you the most. Always start from the areas where the paint appears to be the thickest since these areas will be the easiest to scrape down. 

The areas where the paint is the thinnest need extra attention to detail and more time to be scraped off. Beware that these areas may not be able to be sanded completely to the base. It is impossible to ease the paint the canvas has already soaked in. 

If your main goal is to get the smoothest surface possible, the correct way to use the razor is to move it in different strokes across the canvas. By doing this, you ensure that the paint will be removed to provide an almost eggshell appearance. 

Go for Sandpaper

The best way to use sandpaper is to extend it to any of these two aforementioned techniques. When you are using a power sander, you can never leave the painting 100% finished. Some of the areas request fine detailing, and this can be done by using sandpaper. 

Even though it is not its primary role, sandpaper can be a good replacement if you don’t have a power sander. 

Also, if you’ve chosen to go for the old-fashioned style and scrape the painting with a razor blade, sandpaper may come in very handy to create the extra smoothness you are aiming for. The goal is to remove as much paint as possible with the razor and then use sandpaper to smooth out the details. 

In some better-equipped stores, you will find sand blocks that are generally easier to use than sandpaper. However, they require you to apply more pressure on the canvas, so make sure that you are very gentle with it in the beginning until you get used to it. 

To eliminate any lines from previous strokes, use sandpaper (or sand block) in a circular motion. This will smooth out the surface, remove a little bit of painting, and remove the traces from previous strokes, leaving the canvas nice and smooth. 

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Sanding and Oil Paint – The Specifics

For example, everything aforementioned can be applied to oil paint and other paint types like acrylic gesso paint. However, since every type of paint is actually a mixture of different ingredients, oil paint has its own specifics. 

The first one is that oil paint takes considerably more time to dry than the average paint on the market the majority is using. Because of this, you need to allow the painting to be arid before you start the scraping process. 

If you fail to do this, the wet paint on the paint will be smudged all across the canvas, creating a mess that will be very hard to clear. If you do this, you will need to allow the painting to dry again before starting the process.

Usually, the paint is dry after 24 hours, but make sure to double-check that. If only small areas of the canvas are still wet, you can use a razor or any other tool to remove these bits from the canvas and then proceed with the sanding. 

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Final Words – Beware of the Dust

You really need to have in mind and be extra careful about the dust inevitably created during the process; you cannot avoid the paint turning into dust when you apply pressure with the sander, for example.

The trick here is that many old types of oil paint contain solvents like turpentine, which is known for its negative effect on human health (dry skin, for example). The negative effect of turpentine can be noticed only if you directly inhale or digest it, and when you are scraping a picture, there is a risk of that. 

To avoid inhaling dust, make sure that you have the right protection, so always wear a mask when sanding a painting. Not to mention that inhaling any dust, with or without turpentine particles, can be very bad for your overall health condition, so make sure to take the necessary precautions. 

Also, make sure to wear gloves and goggles when possible to avoid the paint dust reaching your mouth or eyes. It can cause eye irritation, so if it does end up in your eyes, make sure to rinse them with water straight away. 


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Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

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