Regardless of how you have applied your coatings, be it by a spray gun, an expensive brush, or by wiping it on with a cloth, you will never achieve a finer finish then the classic hand rubbed or highly polished hand finishes. For many years coating manufacturers have produced various degrees of sheens for their coatings trying to duplicate the old world ‘hand finishes’ by adding and adjusting different amounts of flatting agents to create all kinds of sheens; dead flat, flat, egg shell, matte, satin, semi gloss, gloss, high gloss, and super high gloss. Today, in most fine woodworking shops, and furniture and kitchen manufacturers, we know that all of their finishes come off the spray guns; in many cases these sprayed coatings are done in one day. After the last coat is applied, and allowed to air or heat dry, or cure by exposure to UV rays, then the finished furniture is ready for shipping.
None of the above sheens can be compared to the old world hand rubbed and high polished finishes. To do hand rubbing and polishing you need to allow the coatings to thoroughly dry, which can takes a few days or even a week depending upon the coating.
Hand Rubbing & Polishing
Although hand rubbing and polishing is time consuming and labor intensive, it is certainly worth knowing how to do it. These classic finishes are still being used in some custom finishing shops, and especially by fine furniture restorers and conservators who do not change the appearance of the original finish on the pieces they work on. Hand rubbing and polishing are not difficult to do and will make a mediocre finish end up looking like it was done by a true professional. Nor are the materials costly to purchase; with a little practice, and some trial and error, you will want to rub out or polish up all your work.
Your personal protection equipment should be a dust mask, and gloves to protect hands when you’re sanding, rubbing, or polishing. All of the materials needed for rubbing and polishing can be obtained from your finishing suppliers, most paint stores, home improvement centers, and some arts and crafts shops.
It All Starts with a Fine Sanding
If you’re going to rub out or polish up your work, several extra coats should be applied; these coats are needed because of all your sanding, rubbing, and polishing will most likely remove some of these coats. After the last coat has been applied you will allow the coatings to thoroughly dry. The drying times will depend on the type of coating you have used, and the number of coats you applied. In some cases, the finger print test maybe used as your guide, and depending on the coating the “sniff” test may also be used as a reference to the cure time of the coating. Once you have determined that the coating is ready for sanding, it is very important to finely sand the dry coating using a sanding block. Using the higher grit sandpapers will make it easier for you to rub out, and then to polish up, the finely sanded coatings. After you have finished sanding and have thoroughly cleaned the sanding dust off the surface, then you are ready to start rubbing out.
You will need some pumice powders (which are different grades of volcanic ash), a light rubbing oil, fine steel wool 4/0, a rubbing brush, and some cloths for rubbing and cleaning. Pumice powders come in grades of FFFF, FFF, FF, F; the FFFF grade is the coarsest grade while the F is the finest powder. Since you will be finely sanding the coating, I would suggest you buy the F or FF grades of pumice. A lemon oil polish will work very well as your rubbing lubricant, or you can use clean water. The 4/0 steel wool, which is the finest grade, does leave fine steel wool lines in your finish; if this is unacceptable, then use the rubbing brush or the cloth.
Rubbing Out/Polishing Up
Apply a liberal amount of oil to the surface, and then sprinkle the pumice powder on the piece. Begin rubbing the oil and pumice together with one of the following: steel wool, rubbing brush, or a cloth. As you begin rubbing the oil and pumice, it will turn into a mixture that is referred to as slurry. It is this slurry that smooths out and makes the appearance of the coating uniform. If the slurry mixture starts to dry and harden, add more lubricant to make the slurry more workable and effective.
It is extremely important to be sure you are rubbing the surface with an equal number of rubbing strokes with the grains of the woods. From time to time, wipe the surface clean to check the coating appearance for uniformity and for the patina appearance. Once you achieved this uniform appearance on the entire surface of the coating, you will have attained an old world, classic hand rubbed finish.
Author’s Note: Remember the 4/0 steel wool will leave very fine scratches in the coating; some finishers want this kind of finish, but you may want to try another way by using the rubbing brush or the soft cloth. The pumice powder will leave a low to med sheen finish.
Going for the Higher Gloss
If you wanted a highly polished finish, then use either the rubbing brush or the cloth with the rottenstone powder, which is actually is decomposed siliceous limestone. You can use rottenstone powder with water or rubbing oil. I prefer the water for the final polishing; but you can try it both ways. Wet the surface with water using a plastic pump bottle, then sprinkle on some rottenstone powder, always rubbing with the grain of the woods. As you continue rubbing you will work up the slurry. Continue rubbing, using uniform strokes back and forth straight across the surface of the coating. As the slurry begins to dry and harden, spray it with the water and then continue buffing and polishing. After several minutes, wash off the slurry with clean water, and check the gloss for uniformity. When the entire surface has a uniform, high polished surface you will first see, and then you will know, why only hand rubbing can produce such a beautiful, attractive finish. The compliments you will get from people who look at your finished work will be well worth all the extra time it may take you to rub out and polish up your finishes. I know that after you try these “old world finishes” that you will want to do many more of these rubbed out /polished up finishes in the future.
As they say, practice makes perfect, and perfect takes lots of practice.
THINK TWICE & FINISH ONCE