213 – Rubbing Out a High Gloss Finish

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One of the biggest challenges woodworkers face is getting a nice smooth blemish-free finish. Let’s face it, very few of us have spray booths and our shops are far from ideal finishing environments. It’s to be expected that our finish will nearly always have dust and other pieces of debris residing within it. Fortunately, there is a way that just about ANY finish can be improved and it happens well after the final coat is applied. That process is called rubbing out.

Rubbing out is nothing more than abrading the surface until it’s nice and smooth. Take it to a high enough grit and you’ll be polishing the surface to a super high gloss. Stop sooner at a lower grit and you can achieve the perfect semi-gloss, satin, or matte finish.

The key to this process is letting the finish cure. Even after a finish dries to the touch, there is an additional period of time before the finish is up to full hardness. The harder the finish, the better it responds to rubbing out. Yes, this terminology is very hard to discuss with a straight face. Anyway, here’s a general guideline for wait times.

Lacquer, Shellac, Water-Based Finishes: 1 week
Oil-Based Varnish: 2 weeks

If you want to play it safe, wait 3-4 weeks for all finishes. Since finishes can differ dramatically from brand to brand and formulation to formulation and environmental conditions also play a role, you’ll want to err on the side of caution giving the finish plenty of time to cure for best results.

Rubbing out is a three-step process (not including pore-filling) that does require some specialized tools and materials. There are also lots of options and alternatives in this arena, so don’t be afraid to experiment a bit after doing some additional research on your own.

Fill the Pores

If you have an open-pored wood or one with deep grain lines, you should definitely do a pore-filling process. This can be done in a number of ways using a variety of materials, but I really like using Timbermate water-based filler. Once the pores are filled and the surface is flat and smooth, we can begin applying finish.

Stage One: Leveling

stage-oneNo matter how good a finish looks, it will always have surface imperfections. To level things out, I like to sand by hand using a piece of plywood faced with cork. I use 320 grit wet/dry paper and a bit of soapy water as a lubricant. The soapy water helps prevent sandpaper clogging.

Stage Two: Smoothing

stage-twoOnce the surface is leveled, we can proceed with abrading the surface with increasingly higher and higher grits. I like to use Festool Platin Abrasives, 500, 1000, and 2000. Unfortunately, it seems you can only get these pads in the large 15-packs which are quite expensive. As an alternative, try Mirka Abralon pads in 500, 1000, and 2000 grit.

These pads work with standard hook & loop random orbit sanders and do the work of smoothing the surface quickly and efficiently. Once again, soapy water serves as a lubricant.

Stage Three: Polishing

stage-threeThe final steps of the process bring the surface to a super deep gloss. White there are traditional abrasive powders that you can use for this purpose, like rottenstone and pumice, the newest formulations in automotive rubbing compounds work like a charm. You might want to experiment with various brands but the one I decided on was Menzerna, primarily based on Jeff Jewitt’s endorsement of the product. I use two formulations: IP 2000 and SF 4000.

To apply the polishing compounds, I use Surbuf pads. These soft foam pads fit right onto standard hook & loop sanders. It’s a good idea to dedicate a pad for each specific compound so as to not end up with grit contamination.

finishedAfter the surface is fully polished, you should be left with a deep rich gloss that has no equal!

Interesting in learning more about the Humidor shown in the video? Join the Guild today!

Category: Finishing

Comments

  1. not sure if this makes any senseā€¦.but would this technique work with painted wood surfaces? If you painted a piece of wood with a latex paint, could you finish it with a water based top coat, then rub out that finish for a super smooth/level painted surface? I’m assuming you wouldn’t have to fill any pores because the paint would take care of that, but how much longer you should let the piece sit following the paint stage for the paint to fully cure, before moving on to the finish coat?

    •  

      Yes that would work. Bottom line is you’re buffing the topcoat, not the material under it. So if the latex paint provides a nice flat surface with no visible pores or grain lines, you can simply topcoat it with your finish of choice and proceed with this process.

      As for the paint itself, I’m not much of a “paint guy.” I imagine giving the paint a few days to cure up would be adequate before applying your water-based topcoat.

  2. David January 3, 2014

    Marc, you simply do an amazing job of sharing your skills. That is a great video with tons of helpful information. Thank you and well done!

    David

  3. David Metallo January 3, 2014

    Do you sand between every coat of the lacquer after the first 3 coats.
    i.e.
    3 coats lacq
    Sand
    1 coat lacq
    Sand
    1 coat lacq…..

  4. ben i. January 3, 2014

    quick question, lacquer is one of those finishes that melts into the previous finish like shellac right? this process can be done with other finished like shellac I’m assuming (which is the finish i have the most experience with) but can this be done with a finish that causes layering issues such as the polyurethanes and (correct me if I’m wrong) varnishes? just wondering not finishes i have much experience in but i love the results and will have to try on the curly cherry jewelry box I’m finishing for my wife.

  5. Dave January 3, 2014

    Marc,
    I watched this during the Guild so I bought some Lacquer and thinner to try it out but one of the workers at Woodcraft said Lacquer is going away due to the chemicals in it; and sure enough the can of thinner read it is not being sold in CA. Since CA normally starts removing chemicals before any other state, is this true and is there something else water based which can be worked to this high gloss finish?
    thanks again…

    •  

      Yes, CA has been getting tough on finishes for years now. Hasn’t yet happened in many other states though. Fortunately, this process works with just about any film finish. Always good to make a test board though when trying a new finish.

    • Hi Dave,

      I thought I would add to Marc’s reply. I finish my guitars with a water-based lacquer from Grafted Coatings called KTM-9. It is self cross-linking, dries hard and can be buffed to a high gloss. My shooting schedule is usually shoot three coats in a day, let dry overnight. Wet sand level the next day (600) and shoot three more coats. Let cure a week, wet sand through the grits (up to 3600) and buff. Hope that helps in your search.

  6. Darryl Yin January 3, 2014

    So I’m a relative beginner at this, and I’ve just applied shellac for the first time, on a cherry bookcase. I rubbed out a test board with paste was and steel wool, and was very pleased with the results. However, the shellac on the test board had cured for a couple of weeks at the time, and I realized when attempting to apply the same technique to a shelf that had only just been shellacked, the results were as I’d not applied wax and steel wool at all.

    At this point, is it safe to try again after some more time? Or do I need to find a way to remove the residual wax and reapply a layer of shellac before starting again?

  7. Charles Wood January 4, 2014

    As an alternative to wet sanding in the leveling process, I’ve had good results with Norton 3x. For leveling I sand by hand dry with a cork sanding block using either 320 or 400 grit. Norton 3x is Stearated and it resists clogging well. A brush clears the work of dust which for me is easier than wiping liquid away. Since brushing dry dust is easier than wiping away a liquid, I can monitor the shiny low spots more often and decrease my risk of sanding through. Leveling takes the most time for me and its nice to be able to do that process dry. I do wet sand through the higher grits in the smoothing stage, but overall smoothing involves less time since each higher grit takes only a little time since in smoothing, the work is already level and it’s a matter of replacing larger scratches with smaller ones.

  8. Mark P. January 4, 2014

    Nope. Can’t say it without giggling…

  9. Robert Worth January 4, 2014

    Marc,

    Thank you so much for all the useful advise, you have answered so many of my finishing questions. Just one quick question: Which Festool polisher are you using in this video? I’m thinking about purchasing one and they have a vast array of polishers to choose from.

    Thank you,
    Robert

  10. JimE January 4, 2014

    Marc,

    How does the bag of M&M peanuts fit into the process(3:18)?

    JimE

  11. Paul January 4, 2014

    Have you tried the rubbing compound? Steve at woodworking for mere mortals used some for his chess board build? Just wondering what advantages/disadvantages or doing with or without the compound?

    •  

      What specific product are you referring to? There are lots of rubbing compounds on the market. Ultimately, they all do the same thing: abrade the surface at a particular grit. Some are higher quality than others but whether or not you use a particular material depends on what else you’re using and what your sheen goals are. Many automotive polish brands will provide a rubbing compound and a final polish as a two-step procedure. That’s essentially what I did here.

  12. Jay January 5, 2014

    Marc,

    It’s cool that you shared some of the latest Guild build on the free site. I heard your plan on the WTOR podcast to balance these two sites in the coming year and I think this is a great start.

    Jay

  13. David A January 7, 2014

    I use a similar process for a project I make from time to time. I use a poly finish and after the first 3 – 4 coats, I start to sand between coats. Once I don’t see the shiny spots after sanding, I put one more coat of finish on and then go to work with 600, 1000, and 2000 grit wet sand paper. I do those by hand though. Then I use my random orbital sander for the automotive rubbing compound. I finish it off with turtle wax. The wax is not necessary, but for what I build, it is needed. It comes out great.
    I am glad to see others doing this too. It is a great way to get that high gloss to really shine.

  14. Robert Worth January 10, 2014

    Hello again,

    Just one quick question. I’m looking to achieve a high-gloss finish. Will this rubbing process work if I use arm-r-seal in place of the acrylic lacquer that you used in the video but kept the rest of the process the same?

    If not, is there any replacement for the acrylic lacquer because I have no ability to spray in my shop?

    Thank you,
    Robert

  15. Keith January 13, 2014

    Looks good, Marc! Makes me want to rub one out myself!

  16. Beni January 14, 2014

    Great video!
    Why don’t you use a 4000 grit pad?

  17. Wow those are amazing results! The end result looks incredibly professional.

  18. D Sampey February 2, 2014

    Where would stain fit in the process if one wanted to stain the wood? I assume you would stain the wood before the sealer coat is applied and then continue as shown in the video? Thanks in advance!

  19. Skip February 14, 2014

    Hi Marc,

    Very informative video that I want to try…but have a couple questions
    Can an interior varnish be placed over General’s Arm-R-Seal oil & urethane topcoat?
    If using varnish how many coats do you suggest for this process? I currently spray, using 25% thinner with the varnish, should I drop that down a bit for the last coat? Lastly is figured cherry considered a porous wood?

    Thanks in advance!

    •  

      Well, Arm R Seal actually is an interior varnish so there wouldn’t be much reason to use another brand on top of the Arm R Seal. Since Arm R Seal is already thinned for wiping, I don’t know that I’d recommend it for a surface that will be rubbed out. You really want that final layer of finish to be thick enough to withstand the rubbing out process. Thin coats will result in you burning through the top layer. So brushed-on coats of a standard varnish would do the trick nicely. I’d go with about 5 coats. As for figured cherry, there should be no reason to pore-fill.

      • Skip February 15, 2014

        Thanks Marc – the main reason for going on top of the Arm-R-Seal is that I like the way the sprayed varnish looks better. Maybe I did a better leveling with the spray.

  20. Hi Marc:
    Amazing videos – great stuff. You are a very good presenter. Questions about ‘rubbing out’ the high gloss finish.
    1) I assume we need different shades of wood filler from Timbermate. Is that right? Is it difficult to see these supposed imperfections that need filling, because I work with lots of different types of wood but have not noticed much of this type of thing. Am I not looking close enough? I’m not doing high gloss finishes but some staining & several coats of Urethane.
    2) Can you use these same techniques on small jewelry boxes (ie: 2x3x4″), or is it difficult to use the Festool sander on such small items?
    3) Will these videos always be there for us to refer to or should we capture some of the text you so expertly include below the video?

    •  

      Hey David. You either want to match the Timbermate to the color of the wood or use something different for intentional contrast. Also, you can use a clear wood filler as a generic option that should work in all woods. Some species have open grain and some don’t. So if you haven’t noticed it, then you might just be using species that don’t require pore filling.

      You can probably do this on smaller pieces too but it does become a little trickier using a powered solution like this. For a small box, I might just go with a hand application to avoid issues.

      These videos will always be here for you to enjoy. But we also allow you to download them for safe keeping too.

  21. absoluterock March 30, 2014

    I recently had to start over while finishing a large slab. I had hoped to use a layer of west systems epoxy as a top coat on a large (40″x99″x8/4) live edge slab. It fell apart at the leveling phase as I kept sanding through the thin spots (using a block).

    I decided to go with a more traditional finish…thinking that a tung oil coat (50/50 tung and denatured alcohol) would be a good start since I’m going to be out of the shop for a full week and have 8 chairs to build so the base coat can cure for weeks.

    Now the tricky part. I sanded/polished to Platin 2000…then tried to apply the ring oil solution. Even with considerable wiping the finish seemed to just bead up on the surface. I removed it with a dry cloth…tried again this time using mineral spirits as the thinner and got some minimal penetration.

    The bottom of the slab was only sanded to 320 grit and got the mineral spirit tung oil solution. The bottom darkened considerably. Before I go on vacation should I sand the top to 320 to “roughen” it and open the grain? The top looks ok now but with the finish not sinking in I don’t think it will provide any real protection.

    The “last resort” is just to leave it as is, let it cure, and shoot it with dewaxed shellac, followed by fine wool and wax.

    PLEASE HELP!
    Thanks

    • absoluterock March 30, 2014

      p.s.
      One last option is to try the epoxy again…this will be our family dinner table (hopefully for a ling time) so I would like a tough finish and if a polished surface is a bad idea…I’m open to adjusting.

      Also, the wood is bubinga.

  22. Hi again Marc:
    You mentioned a possible clear wood filler in your initial answer to my questions above but Timbermate doesn’t make such a creature. Do you have any suggestions?

  23. Vinnyjojo April 30, 2014

    Marc – Finally got to try this last night, although I bought the SF4000 in lieu of the SF4500 by accident.

    It was, in fact on top of Arm R Seal gloss – about 5 coats worth and I had let it cure for about 3 weeks. For final smoothing, I used 600, 1200, 2000 for the smoothing process, but was extremely careful not to burn through. IP2000 and SF4000 with surbuf pads for the polish, like in your video.

    It was weird to essentially take all the shine and gloss off, and then put it back on, but my piece now looks glass smooth – better than before. It’s a subtle difference, but hard to explain. More importantly, and what surprised me about the process, is that it FEELS glass smooth, which it didn’t before with the just the arm-r-seal (little teeny nips and sags). The top of the box that I applied it to is Ambrosia Maple, and it literally feels like a slab of marble. Before it felt like, well, wood with a gloss varnish. Now it feels like a Ferrari.

    Also lesson learned. Polish goes EVERYWHERE. Messier process than I thought. Mostly my shirt, shorts, my eyeballs, and top of my tablesaw (which actually stained the steel top). Safety glasses for now on.

  24. Jr May 5, 2014

    Which festool sander did you use? It looks like the ets150/3. But when I go on rockler, it says it’s a 5in sander but the platin pads are 6in. Is there a mistake somewhere?

  25. Mark (http://na) May 21, 2014

    I can use some help, I asked for matte finish, I got a satin finish. way to shinny. Can you tell me what I need to do to to make this a Matte finish, we have applied one coat of varnish with the satin label. Thank.

  26. David/Dark June 7, 2014

    A fellow woodworker who is also a fellow World of Warcraft player! Great to see all two of us!

  27. Chris Peterson June 18, 2014

    Is there any way to get a shiny or glossy finish without use of a shellac type of coating? I am trying to finish a piece of “raw” wood, with some bark, etc on parts. Sanded and have oiled the selected areas, but what I eyeball want is a shiny finish. Is there a wax or oil or similar medium, and/or a technique I can use to get at least a semi- shiny finish? Thanks! (Clearly I’m a novice. Loving my work so far, however! Just can’t figure how to finish the darn thing!)

    •  

      You can get a little bit of sheen from buffing with wax. But it will likely be short-lived and will need to be renewed periodically.If you truly want a shiny finish, you’ll need a film of some sort.

  28. John Foulger July 9, 2014

    Thank you for all of your past information from your web site and the comments from other readers. However, now I need some advice. I have recently applied a Trantstint dye to some cherry wood. I followed all of your directions in your video concerning using dyes. Prior to dying the wood, I raised the grain with water and then sanded off the fuzzy grain with 400 grit. Everything has gone well up to this point. After allowing the dye to completely dry for 24 hours, the wood has a slight fussy feel to the touch. (less than the grain raising , but not as smooth as a 220 grit sanding. I cannot tell if the fuzzy feeling is a result of residue from the application of the dye or a slight raising of the wood grain. Should I lightly sand the wood with a high grit (i.e. 1000,1500, or 2000 grit) prior to applying the first coats of lacquer, or should I simple ignore the slight fuzziness and apply the lacquer without sanding. I will be thankful for any advice.

  29. John Foulger July 11, 2014

    Marc

    Is it necessary to remove all of the shiny areas after the first three coats have been applied? Or only after all coats of lacquer have been applied?

  30. Joel H July 13, 2014

    Hi Marc, I’ve been watching all your vids on finishing an am a bit confused on what grit sand paper to use to sand between coats. For instance, on this project you used 320 and on the contemplation bench you used platin 1000. I’m working on refinishing a table top and ran into a problem. I’m doing stain and topping with arm r seal. After the first coat of the varnish, I went to lightly sand with 320 and sanded through both the varnish and some of the stain. I felt I needed to sand because the surface was rough in some areas after the first coat. It appears this table is commermcily made because the top is constructed a lot of small stips, and the grain orientation varies a lot throughout. Now I’m not sure what to do. Should I do a few more coats of varnish before I start to sand or was I just using to low of grit to begin with? Thanks!

    •  

      Joel. Kind of depends on the project, the finish, and the wood. I never sand finish below 320. But I might use various higher grits depending on the situation. Generally speaking, when staining, you don’t want to sand until you have at least two coats over the stain. Otherwise you run the risk of sanding through. Even after two coats you’ll still be able to sand it smooth but you still want to take it easy. A light touch is really all that’s needed.

  31. Mark July 19, 2014

    Hi Marc. You got a very nice result there using the ETS 150/3 (or 5?). Fo you think that is a good sander for general finish sanding, doing a satin finish and the occasional high gloss? My budget doesn’t stretch to a Rotex or polisher and usually I want a satin finish.

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