“A finish should invite you, it should ask to be rubbed and touched and it should feel like warm butter.”
Of any single thing that has been the definitive selling point for my furniture through the years, it has been the finish.
Proper equipment, skill and environment can produce this, but often, for the average guy, it just doesn’t happen to his satisfaction. The simple solution is to rub the finish, but here again, there are many different means of doing that. Some simply are a ‘Witch’s Brew’ that are not successful. Some are very labor intensive and some are so antiquated they just don’t perform. Times have changed. Let’s understand how to effectively finish the finish.
Let’s cut to the chase, with products like pumice, rottenstone, steel wool, polishing compound and so forth, they work but the issue at least for me, has always been inconsistency in sheen. I personally prefer a crisp, clean sheen, I don’t want scratches or dulled, muted sheens. Meaning, even if it is a matte sheen, I want it clear and crisp. My experience and what I teach is that when you use abrasives – products like Micro Mesh - to achieve that it allows us to sand to a consistent sheen.
Compounds like auto body polishing compound are designed to go to one sheen -- gloss -- so being able to rub to a different sheen is very difficult. If you rub two strokes here, three there, you have changed the sheen, additionally, without proper pads and so forth, it’s all by hand.
Micro Mesh and related products simply put ‘sand’ just like sanding wood, but the consistent grit affords for a consistent sheen, no matter how much you sand, a 1200 grit scratch is a 1200 grit scratch, no matter what, so the sheen is consistent. Additionally, being able to use a 5” random orbit sander is a huge plus, not only from a labor
standpoint, but we also get the random orbit scratch pattern that is far less discernible by the eye, a much improved method.
How To Do It
The first thing you need is something to rub, meaning a good cured finish. Remember you are sanding. Any rubbing product is an abrasive and therefore it’s removing finish, so you have to have enough build-up of finish to allow rubbing. While an oil finish can be improved if needed with a light rubbing, typically a well applied lacquer, shellac, or waterborne finish, often referred to as a film finish, needs nothing more, but any finish can be dramatically improved.
My standard rule of thumb is if I’m going to rub a finish, I apply an extra coat in the case
of an oil finish, or two extra with waterborne. When I apply what would be the regular final coat, as soon as it is dry enough to lightly touch, I apply another.
Because waterborne doesn’t burn into the previous coat as well as a solvent base, if we rub through one coat into the next, we can get what is called ‘Ghosting” or ‘Witness Marks’ which allows you to see the various coats, so if the extra coat is done “back to back” it allows the two coats to better burn in and form one heavy coat, much less likely to cut through.
One quick note, do not rely on rubbing to correct poor prep. If you’re planning to rub a porous wood like oak, mahogany, ash or similar wood, remember the sanding dust and
‘sludge’ can get trapped in deep grain and can produce a white film and if allowed to dry can be very difficult to remove. Keep your surface clean as you go or grain fill it so you have a level surface. You want to have a level finish before you apply the final ‘rub coat’ this insures you’re going to get a nice, flawless finish.
A well cured finish is critical, most finishes 10 to 14 days, you can rub it quicker but the
‘sludge’ from sanding can adhere much easier.
I prefer to ‘dry’ rub when I can, meaning the finish is well cured, and to dust up when sanded, otherwise I use some mild dish soap and water as a lubricant, but again, clean the surface before it dries, the soapy water helps lubricate and prevent clogging of the paper.
Always finish with the sheen you want to end with, meaning use a gloss for gloss, satin for satin and so forth. Shellac, while it can be controlled with sheen altering additives, is always a gloss, but it can be rubbed to any sheen. The issue on a coarse grained wood
is that it is impossible to rub into the grain so a satin sheen with gloss in deep grains doesn’t look so good.
Begin with the finest paper you can, like a 1200 grit or 1500 grit grade or equivalent for simple dust nibs and so forth, if you need to go to a 600 or 800 for more grain leveling, that’s fine, then move through the grits, you can jump grits, no issue. I can go from a 600 to 1000, then to 2000 and so forth. Using Micro Mesh, 1500 is a matte finish and good for leveling, 3200 is a nice satin, 6000 is a nice semi-gloss and 8000 is a super nice gloss. The grits in between allow for control to customize the sheen to your taste so getting a
few extra grits and experimenting is a good idea.
In the ‘P’ grades, 1000 is a matte, 2000 a satin, 3000 semi-gloss and 4000 gloss. Runs, drips and so forth need to be leveled separately using a coarser grit. Super fine
grits like this will float over and not cut it flat. You can take a coarser grit like 320 and a block and level the run or drip prior to using the finer grits. Remember you’re sanding, so be careful on edges and moldings. A quick rub with the grain will usually suffice.
Without question, most rubbed surfaces will have a cloudy or hazy look, not what we want and while waxing helps it will usually streak and smear some. Often this is a result of solvent still in the finish not allowing the wax to fully harden. As well, vigorous
rubbing can melt the wax and cause it to be streaked, using cold water to final rub the wax can help.
Here is where we can borrow from the auto body industry, where rubbing new finishes is a daily thing. Check out the local auto body supply store for some ‘swirl’ remover or
‘glaze’. They can direct you, it’s basically a cleaner/wax product designed to use over fresh finish and a little goes a long way. Apply a light coat and buff it off and your done, you will have a finish that will be a thing of beauty.
If you have questions, please email me at email@example.com