I love the process of cutting with sharp tools. It is not because of sandpaper that I am a woodcarver. However,I also use abrasives because of the effects that can be produced. A bit of sandpaper lends the hand of time to a sculpture. It exposes the growth of wood, within the shape of the idea. It allows contrast with unsanded wood, and can produce a variety of effects.
While I disagree with those who don't approve of abrasives,I want it clear that I am not criticizing those carvers who avoid sandpaper. This is a matter of style and choice. I often leave wood unsanded.
Because woods respond differently, I can only say that the following techniques serve some purposes with some woods.
Where a very smooth appearance is wanted, I like to use scrapers and abrasives in combination. I save the use of sandpaper until a piece is almost complete, because the grit gets in the wood and dulls tools quickly. Scrapers remove wood much more quickly than sanding by hand. They may run more smoothly on sanded wood than on a rougher surface and are excellent for removing sanding scratches or rasp marks. In red oak, scraping and sanding can achieve a beautiful rippling in the grain effect because the different colors have different hardness. In birch, an odd lumpy effect can develop, which I often remove. I do sometimes retain the effect, which might be ideal in representing fat body parts.
Thoughtful sanding can achieve an organic rounding of forms that suggests the growth and shapes of nature. With a touch of sandpaper, sharp angular cuts, particularly slanting into the grain, can sometimes( depending on the cuts) become almost magically evocative of weathered bedrock. Sanding with the grain and using a fine grit minimise scratching. In these cases I complete the forms cleanly with sharp tools. Sanding, when I choose to do it, removes a last veil of the process,revealing the idea as if it were grown in the wood. Light sanding on the sharp ridges between gouge cuts makes the lines of these ridges much more visible, forming patterns that suggest - for instance - network, branches, the air around a wing. One can deliberately draw with these lines, or pick up an accidental pattern. It is also possible to accentuate the ridges with a gouge or chisel; the effect is different.
Sometimes I add to the random, natural feeling and complete the composition with a few strokes from my impossible gouge, which changes its curvature in the course of a stroke. I form the shape of the cut with smaller gouges and then sand carefully to remove toolmarks within the cut.
Sanding is not a substitute for clean tool work. In most cases, it is much more efficient to remove wood by cutting than by sanding.
Tool cuts lend an expressiveness of their own to apiece of work. A face, for instance, with a sanded finish, may require much more toolwork, much more shaping, to achieve a subtlety of expression comparable to that achieved by sharp tools alone.
Sanding can remove toolmarks, or when done lightly, simply touch them with the hand of time. Even light sanding may cause a profound change in appearance. Sandpaper is a shaping tool, suitable for removing small amounts of wood, when one wants the effect it produces.
Woodcarving and sculpture tutorials
Sculpture in Wood, Caril Chasens