Tutorial – Using a Handheld Sander for Wet Felting

This is a tutorial that I did for my personal blog and because it is so popular, I thought I would re-post it here in case some of you don’t follow my blog. If you already know how to wet felt and would like to speed up the process, you should try out the sander method. If you are just learning to wet felt, I would suggest holding off using the sander until you have practiced felting by hand. It’s better to learn the basics first before you try to go faster. If you don’t like loud noise, this method won’t be for you. But you can use ear plugs and it really does speed up the felting. (Warning – This is a very long post with lots of photos.)

I have had numerous requests to make a tutorial for using a hand-held palm sander to wet felt. This is the way that I do it. There are many ways to felt and I’m sure there are many ways to use a sander while felting. I will give some other options as I go along. You should try following the tutorial and see how you like using the sander. If you don’t have the specific type of plastic or equipment that I use, don’t let that stop you. Use what you have and give it a go. This is the equipment that I use. I will talk about each piece of equipment as it comes into use in the tutorial.

 This is the sander that I use. Any palm type sander will work or you can use a bigger sander as long as it doesn’t have rotating or spinning parts that do the sanding.

You don’t need to use any sandpaper. I have heard that some people have a plastic piece that they put on the bottom of their sander. I haven’t tried that. I have tried using a plastic bag wrapped around the sander but the bag keeps moving and has a tendency to rip. Also, it covers the exhaust on the sander and the sander then gets too hot if you’re not careful.

 Just a word about water and electricity. You need to be careful. Plug into a grounded plug when you’re using your sander. This is what ours look like. They are usually found in the kitchen and the bathroom in the USA. My sander never touches water but you should still be careful.

I work on the kitchen table usually. I put down a piece of plastic just to keep any water off the table. You can see that I have painted etc. on this plastic. But it never touches the wool so it doesn’t matter.

I then put down this small braided rug. It is made with a natural fiber but I don’t remember exactly what it was called. Anything with some texture would do. I haven’t tried bubble wrap but it might work if it is the really stiff kind with thick plastic.

This is the foam layer that I use. It is a type of packing foam and I recycle it from my store as some things I receive are packed in it. It is very thin. You could use any kind of plastic that you wanted to use. (This was written several years ago, I now just use a thin layer of painter’s plastic.)

o I put down a layer of foam on the rug. Today I am making a flat piece of felt that I will use to make some book covers. I will be cutting the felt out of the flat piece but I still need to make sure that I make enough felt to be the right size for two book covers. I need at least 6 inches wide by 18″ long. I usually  make much more than I need and I can always use the leftovers for something else. I am planning on making a piece almost as big as my foam so the layout will be 19″ wide by 26″ long. This will assure that I have plenty of felt with a shrinkage rate of about 40% with the Falkland wool I am using. I tested a sample of my wool before to figure out the shrinkage rate.

 This is how you pull pieces of wool off for layout. Make sure that you have your hands far enough apart so that you’re not trying to pull on the same fibers. Notice how I have my right hand? That is the easiest way to hold the wool you are pulling away from the roving. If you use prefelt or batting, you would just lay out the wool as usually do.

 Here is a piece of wool pulled off. You then lay the wool down on the foam. You can see a row I’ve already laid out. To get an even piece of felt, you need to be careful with your layout and take time to place your wool evenly. Try to pull off about the same amount each time.

 Here is my first layer of wool laid out. I am using natural wool but will dye this later for my book covers. Notice how all the fibers are going in the same direction?

 Now, take your hand and put it down on the wool. Move your hand from place to place. Close your eyes and feel the thickness. If you feel thin spots, put a little more wool on that area.

 Next, layout another layer of wool going in the opposite direction as your first layer. Here, I have laid about half of the second layer.

Keep in mind the size you need for layout. I just keep my yardstick handy so I know what size I am laying out.

 Here’s the two layers. If you were doing a thicker piece you may need to add more layers. Most people do three layers of wool at least. I am only doing two layers as I need it to be thin enough to put under the sewing machine and to add a backing for stiffness. So I am only doing two layers. But you can do as many layers as you would like. The more layers, the stiffer and thicker your finished felt will be.

Again, take your hand and feel for the thin spots. This is the easiest way to prevent holes and thin spots. Check all over your wool and add where it feels thin. I also like to get a little bit of air out at this point. I take both hands and gently press down on the wool to try to flatten it a bit and get rid of some of the air. This helps later when you’re adding water.Just press down all over the laid out wool.

I am adding silk noil to the top of my felt. It is to give more texture for my book cover. If you were adding a design or extra embellishments to your felt, this is the step that you would add those.

This silk noil has a lot of vegetable matter (VM) in it. I am going to leave it in. Normally I would take it out but these book covers are supposed to resemble bark so I don’t think it will matter if the VM stays. It will just add more texture. I split apart the silk noil like the photo above shows.

 Then I lay it out over the top of the laid out wool.

Here I am finished laying out the silk noil. If you use a lot of silk or any other embellishment that doesn’t felt, you’ll need to add another very thin layer of wool over top.

Just little wisps of wool is all it takes.

This is about how much I put down in one spot. I spread it very thin and just lay it on the silk noil all over the piece. I then press out the air again.

 When I finished laying out, I noticed that my wool was going over the edge of the bottom layer of foam, so I added a bit more to prevent my felt touching the rug directly.

Fill a spray bottle or ball brauser sprayer with cool water and soap. I usually use dish soap but you can use any kind of soap. Olive oil soap is good as it isn’t so hard on your hands. Now, take your spray bottle and spray down the wool. I actually no longer use this kind of sprayer as it tends to shift the wool layout. An empty vitamin bottle with holes cut in the lid works really well.

Here is the wool after being sprayed. See the soap bubbles?

 I then spray a little soapy water on my hand and then start pressing down. Many people use a baggy over their hand or netting over the wool to do this part. It just bugs me so I just use my hand. If you press with one hand and spray water with the other, I find that works well. Just keep moving along your wool, spraying and pressing to get all the air out and get the wool wet.

If water is starting to run off the edge, just use a towel to mop it up. You really don’t need a whole lot of water when you felt. You can lift the edge of the foam/plastic to let the water drain on down further into the wool. You can keep doing this as you move along wetting down your felt.

 I also take my hands and work from the wetted down side towards the dry to force water over to the dry side.

Sometimes, if you move your hands into different directions when pressing down the wool, you’ll get a wrinkle. Just use your fingers to smooth it out. If you go in one direction, this isn’t as much of an issue.

Here is the wool after is has been wet down completely.

 At this point, you need to assess your edges. If you want a smooth edge, this is the time to work on that.  You can fold under a tiny bit to get a straight edge.  Since I will be cutting out my book covers, the edges don’t matter. I also like the look of a natural edge so you can make a straight edge or not, it’s your choice.

At this point, I try to soak up a bit of the water in the felt. You will find that it is already starting to felt. Carefully place your towel on the felt and push down to soak up some water. Move over the felt soaking up water, just lift your towel and place down carefully each time you move it. If the upper layer starts pulling up then stop.

Now put another piece of foam on top of the felt. Or if you’re using plastic, put another piece of plastic on top. You should have a sandwich of foam/plastic, felt and foam/plastic.

Now plug your sander into a grounded plug, turn it on and place it gently on one corner of your sandwich over the felt. You don’t need to push down to start. Just move the sander from place to place by picking it up each time.

 See? I have it picked all the way up off the foam. You don’t have to lift this high but don’t drag it across the foam.

Then put it back down and hold it there for a few seconds. I usually work in rows starting from one end of the felt and moving to the other end systematically so that I don’t miss “sanding” any portion. Keep lifting and placing it down each time. This keeps your design from moving and migrating. Once you’ve finished the bottom row, move the sander up a bit but overlap the row you were one and do the same along the next row. Keep doing each row, overlapping the last row so you cover all your felt. I usually do this several times over the whole felt.

Here it is after I’ve sanded over it several passes. you can see the grooves from the foam.  When you pull back the foam/plastic, use your towel to get excess water off the foam/plastic.

Now grip all layers of the sandwich with both hands (one at each end) and turn your sandwich over.

Now sand the other side just as you did the first. Remember to pick up and move the sander, placing it back down each time. After you have sanded this side going over it at least twice, you can start moving your sander over the foam/plastic as you would if you were sanding wood. I usually turn the piece two more times and sand for a total of about 15-20 minutes. Or until I get tired.

Then you need to do the pinch test. Pinch your felt and see if the fibers pull apart. If they hold together, you are finished sanding. If they pull apart, sand some more.

Here is the felt after sanding. This is pre-felt. Now you can full the felt however you would like. I will show you how I full mine.

The first thing I do is get more dish soap and get the felt a bit wetter with warm water. Your felt is fragile at this stage so don’t be too rough with it. Then I do what is called palming. I put the felt between my hands and vibrate and push my hands together. I do this over the entire surface of the felt.

After I finished palming, I put it under very hot water and “knead” it in my hands. I keep going with the hot water until it is too hot on my hands and then I switch to cold water. This shocks the wool and causes it to really start shrinking down. You can feel it happening. I keep switching between the cold and hot water. If you have water conservation issues, use two buckets to hold your hot and cold water.

 Then I throw the felt into the sink. You’ll want to get a little of the water out first unless you like a face full of water.

Here it is after I’ve thrown it. Just pick it back up and throw it again. Throw it hard! Get out all your frustrations. You can also keep putting it in cold and hot water as you’d like.

Another way to full is to use a washboard. This is an old glass one that I have. I don’t usually use it for flat pieces of felt. Usually I use it for slippers, bags or vases. It helps with the shaping process. If you have embellishments, be careful that you don’t catch an edge and pull anything off.  You just push it back and forth across the ridges. If you want to shrink it one way more than the other, than rub in the direction you want to shrink.

Your felt is finished when it starts to get nubby looking on the surface. You don’t have to felt it this hard but pieces that will be used such as bags or shoes should be fulled to a very hard felt. So how did I do on my shrinkage? The piece now measures 13″ x 19″ (if you’ve already forgotten, it started out as 19″ x 26″

Next you need to get some white vinegar.  Put some water in the sink or a bucket. Add some vinegar. I don’t measure, I just pour some in. Put in your felt and let it soak for about 5 minutes. This is bringing the wool back to a more natural acidic pH. The soap changed the pH of the wool so this returns it to normal. Then rinse it out. Wring out the water or roll it in a dry towel.

 I pop mine into a lingerie bag. Throw it in the washing machine. Put the washer on Drain/Spin. This takes nearly all the water out of the felt and it dries much more quickly. If it’s a small piece you can use a salad spinner for the same effect.

Here’s the finished piece of felt. If you wanted it completely flat and even, you could block it. That means to stretch it and pin it into place in the shape that you want. If you try using your sander, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear how you did and see your felt. You can use a sander for almost any type of wet felting. I have used it with nuno felting, using a resist, thicker felt etc. When you nuno felt with a sander, sand first from the silk side as opposed to the wool side. That helps the wool to migrate through the silk instead of felting to itself. Once the wool starts to migrate through, then you can turn over and sand the wool side. Any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer your question.

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21 Responses to Tutorial – Using a Handheld Sander for Wet Felting

  1. Lyn says:

    A lovely tutorial Ruth – the photos make it very easy to understand the text.

  2. koffipot says:

    It’s a great tutorial Ruth and one I used some time ago, so I speak with the experience of finding it comprehensive, very easy to follow and the results were good.

    However, it’s horses for courses, and good results or not, I don’t like the noise ;)

    • ruthlane says:

      Thanks! The noise is a definite issue, isn’t it? I actually don’t use it as much as I used to, I’m not sure why. Perhaps the noise.

  3. That’s a great tutorial very easy to follow. For me it is the noise that is the problem. I like to listen to the radio while I work.

  4. zedster66 says:

    That’s a great tutorial, Ruth, I love the look of the silk noil :)
    I did buy a palm sander to try this, but just trying it out on a drawer, made my hand ache, I don’t think it was a great shape.

    • ruthlane says:

      Thanks Zed – I love the silk noil as well. Sorry about your head aching. I guess there are always drawbacks to going faster.

  5. Thank you Ruth, really good tutorial. I also have a sander, although a different model and smaller. I do use it once in a while, however I do prefer working in silence or with the radio set on CBC.

  6. kipamela says:

    A great tutorial Ruth and the first I’ve actually seen on felting with a sander.. I watched my friend Liz do this and couldn’t wait to try it myself. It’s not as physically taxing as rolling and rubbing and was really handy for me when I had a recent hip replacement. However I can’t seem to get past the feeling of cheating whenever I do it…but it works well, is faster and is great for heavier felt making. I do lots of nuno but haven’t yet done as you suggested and sand on the fabric side first, so will try that. Congratulations girls on your dedication to this site, I enjoy reading all your posts, hints, exercises etc.

    • ruthlane says:

      It isn’t cheating – just another method of felting. I am glad you are enjoying the site.

    • zedster66 says:

      I don’t think you can call it ‘cheating’ either.
      Maybe when you get an idea and have an assistant do all the work (laying out, rubbing, rolling etc) like some so-called artists do (Damien Hirst springs to mind), then it’s cheating :)
      I’m glad you enjoy the site, too.

  7. Paula says:

    I’ve been searching for a tutorial on using a sander for wet felting, I don’t think it’s cheating and we all love to be able to create something, I have prolapsed discs and spondilosis in my neck, so rolling is so painful to do, so sanding is my answer! Thanks for the great step by step guide, it’s very comprehensive to follow :)

  8. Hola Ruth, un gusto desde Argentina, me encanto el tutorial, quisiera saber cual seria estimativamente la reduccion del paño como para emprender un chaleco, desde ya agradecidisima.

    • ruthlane says:

      My Spanish is a little rusty but I think you are asking how much time the sander saves? I would say it reduces your time spent felting by 30% perhaps.

  9. dye4more says:

    Really good tutorial thank you I just want to say for those of you that haven’t raided your husbands tool box or bought one for yourself they have battery operated ones which greatly lessen the chance of getting a shock the one I have is a RYOBI Corner CatTM .You can see a picture of one at http://www.hatshapers.com/Product%20Pages/Quickview.htm#Felt Finishing Shoe. It looks a lot like an iron and at this site you can also get a plastic boot that fits right on the bottom of it eliminating the need for sandpaper

    • ruthlane says:

      Thanks! I’ve never had a problem with the sander and “getting a shock”. You don’t need the plastic boot really either as it works fine without it.

  10. Julie says:

    This is a wonderful tutorial – thank you!

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