How do you use steel wool for sanding?

Metal scourer for clean on white background, close-up
If you swap steel wool for sandpaper, make sure you pick the right grade of steel wool suitable for the job. Blanchi Costela/Moment/Getty Images

Steel wool can be used instead of fine sandpaper for many sanding jobs. The very fine strands of steel gently cut into the surface being sanded, removing an ultra-thin layer. The main advantage of using steel wool rather than sandpaper is that the steel wool can compress to almost any shape, so it can be used much more easily in hard-to-reach places, as well as on complex shapes such as beveled edges or moldings.

There are a number of different grades of steel wool, from the coarsest, number 5, to the finest, 0000. The coarsest grades can be used to remove paint, varnish or finish from wood to prepare the article for further work. The finer grades are particularly useful for the delicate work of sanding between finishes (cutting back). If you wish to "rub out" a final coat at the end of the finishing process, the finest steel wool is good for this job, too. The wool leaves a particularly satiny feel because it cuts rather than abrading or tearing the surface. Use short rubs around the edges of the work, and long strokes with the grain on large flat surfaces.


The disadvantage of steel wool is that it can rust when it gets wet. This means it's not suitable for use between layers of water-based finishes or paint. Small pieces of the wool often break off during the sanding or rubbing process, and any that are left behind could leave rust stains. Likewise, it's not recommended to use steel wool on plaster, since the pieces may become stuck in the plaster and rust there. This problem can be overcome in some cases by careful cleaning with a soft cloth or by running a strong magnet over the surface to pick up the remaining pieces of steel wool.

Steel Wool FAQs

Is steel wool flammable?
Most people know that iron is highly flammable and its surface area guarantees self-sustaining heat like most flammable substances. However, steel wool strands are so thin that they do not have enough surface area to produce self-sustaining heat.
What is steel wool used for?
Steel wool is typically used by jewelers, metal craftsmen, and woodworkers as an abrasive for cleaning or smoothening out their working surfaces or giving them a shiny finish. It's also used for cleaning pots.
Does steel wool deter rats?
The best method of keeping rodents out is with the help of some steel wool because they find it impossible to chew through the material. You can put it at entry points where mice enter your house. If they ingest it, they are likely to get ill or die.
What can I clean with steel wool?
Steel wool can be used to clean stubborn or cooked-on stains off metal pans and steel cookware. Ideally, you should soak your cookware before scrubbing it with steel wool.
Can steel wool hurt you?
Make sure to always wear gloves while working with steel wool because, with enough force, the fibers can pierce your skin and cause pain.