Woodsmith last issue Woodsmith current issue

Keep up to date with


Sign Up for Our FREE Newsletter

Give a Gift FREE Issue
URL:
https://www.woodsmith.com/article/rubbing-out-a-high-gloss-finish/
Share Page:

Rubbing Out A High-Gloss Finish

By: Dennis Perkins
Getting a professional-quality, mirror finish is just a matter of using the right fi nishing products, techniques, and a little elbow grease.

A high-gloss finish has long been the popular choice for tabletops and other flat surfaces. In addition to protecting the surface, a glossy finish also brings out the subtle beauty of the wood.

But getting a high-gloss finish presents a special challenge. The problem is achieving the "smooth-as-glass" surface. Straight from the can, glossy finishes are very reflective. But they often impart a "plastic" look to the surface. For the most part, that look is the result of the layers of finish not being completely flat.

No matter how much care you take when applying the finish, whether brushed on or sprayed, the surface will still not dry smooth. To get a professional-looking result, you'll need to level and then polish it. This two-stage process of leveling the surface and then polishing it to a mirror gloss begins where your normal finishing regimen leaves off.

The good news is, achieving a mirror shine doesn't require any special equipment, just a little extra time and patience. It begins with proper preparation of the workpiece.

SURFACE PREPARATION. A high-gloss finish will reveal any imperfections in the surface, so you'll need to start by making sure the piece is flat and smooth. A random-orbit sander is a good start for the initial rounds of sanding a tabletop. But it can leave swirl marks and ridges where the strokes overlap, even if you're careful with the finer grits. These marks are often visible on a flat surface.

To make sure the surface is flat and free of dips and ridges, I turn to an extra-long sanding block for the final few rounds of sanding. The long, wide block shown in the photo rides over the low spots and levels the surface nicely. I use this block to sand the surface through 220-grit.

INSPECT THE SURFACE. When you've flattened the workpiece, remove the sanding dust and give the surface a careful inspection. I use a shop vacuum with a brush attachment to take care of the dust. Then, wipe down the surface with mineral spirits and examine it for sanding marks. Placing a light behind and just above the surface (called a raking light) will help identify any dips or ridges. Once you're satisfied that the surface is flat, you're ready to move on to the next step.

GRAIN FILLING. If the wood is an open-grained variety like oak, walnut, or mahogany, you'll probably need to fill the pores of the wood with a paste wood filler before you go any further.

Commercial paste wood fillers use a bulking agent suspended in a finish and a solvent to fill the pores. Most fillers rely on silica as the bulking agent since it's very stable. It won't swell or shrink with seasonal changes.

Paste wood fillers will help you get fast and predictable results. They're available in different shades to match most commonly used types of wood. I prefer oilbased rather than water-based fillers because they give you more time to work. Water-based fillers dry a little too quickly for me, but they're the right choice if you prefer to use a water-based finish.

APPLYING GRAIN FILLERS. Filling the grain can be messy. So the first step is to cover your worksurface. I'll warn you also, that stirring the filler is actually the hardest part of the process. Chances are the filler has settled in the can and is quite hard to mix. Yo'll need a sturdy stirring stick and a lot of patience. The filler is ready to use when it's about the same consistency as cake frosting.

The key to applying the filler is to push it into the pores and then remove the excess without pulling it out. While some finishers prefer to use a stiff brush, I find a plastic putty knife works well. You'll quickly get the feel for applying the filler. Work across, rather than with the grain, to cover the surface and to avoid pulling the filler out of the pores. The box below explains the technique.

CLEANING UP THE SURFACE. After allowing the filler to dry for a few minutes, I use the tip of the putty knife to scrape away the excess. Then, let the surface dry for a while longer, usually about half an hour. Finally, use a selection of non-woven abrasive pads like the ones you see below to rub the surface with the grain to remove the remainder of the filler. Even here, be mindful not to pull it out of the pores.

FINAL INSPECTION. Now use the raking light again to examine the surface. It's not uncommon to need a second coat of filler to get a perfectly smooth surface. Once you've achieved that result, let the workpiece dry completely for a day. Then you can move on to applying the finish.

How-To: Apply a Paste Wood Filler

Apply Across the Grain. Keep the blade of the putty knife flat and pull the filler across the grain.

Excess. Using the tip of the putty knife, work diagonally to scrape the excess filler from the surface.

Final Cleanup. Using a non-woven abrasive pad, lightly rub with the grain to remove the final residue from the surface, making sure not to pull it out of the pores.

Apply the Finish

You can use any of your favorite high-gloss finishes and get great results. Brushing lacquer and varnish are the most common choices and both work very well. Regardless of your choice, the goal is the same - to build up a film thick enough to flatten and polish without rubbing through to the wood.

There are a few differences in the technique for applying each one. The biggest difference is the time required between coats. Lacquer dries quickly, usually fast enough to avoid problems of dust settling on the surface. This allows you to apply several coats in a day with little effort. Lacquer also has the advantage of "melting" into the previous coat.

For varnish, you'll need to scuff sand between each coat to remove dust particles and prepare the surface for the next coat. One coat per day is the practical limit. Varnish, however, builds faster and will require fewer coats to achieve a film thick enough to rub out.

I usually apply four coats of varnish or eight coats of lacquer before beginning to rub out the surface. But the most important step is to allow the finish to properly cure before rubbing it out. The time for this can depend on the temperature and humidity in your shop, but it's a good idea to give it at least a week.

Build It Up: Finish & Flatten

Brush On the Finish. Use a good quality brush to apply several coats of finish on the surface.

Flatten the Surface. Wrap wetdry sandpaper around a cork block and use a lubricant on the surface.

Dull but Dead Flat. After filling the grain and building up several coats of finish, wetsanding produces a flat surface. Although the finish is dull and almost non-reflective, it is now ready to buff to a high-gloss shine using even finer abrasives.

WET SANDING. It may seem counterintuitive, but for the next step you need to dull the finish before working it back to a final high-gloss shine. Once again, the goal here is to make sure the surface is perfectly flat and has an even scratch pattern in the varnish or lacquer. In this step, I wet-sand the surface to smooth it and remove any remaining surface imperfections.

I start with 800-grit, wet-dry sandpaper from a paint or auto parts store (photo above). Wrap the sandpaper around a flat cork block and use a lubricant to speed the process (mineral spirits for a lacquer finish, water for varnish). The lubricant creates a slurry and floats the dust away.

Working in a circular motion and using light pressure, you'll quickly level the surface and bring it to a uniformly dull sheen. Use plenty of lubricant to keep the surface wet as you work. The drawing shows the technique and a magnified view of what's happening.

When the surface looks flat and consistent, clean it with a cloth and inspect it. If there are no shiny spots left, move to 1200-grit and repeat the process through 1500 grit. After you've achieved a flat, uniform sheen, you're ready to rub the surface to a high gloss.

PUMICE & ROTTENSTONE. Now it's time to bring the dull surface to a mirror gloss. Although there are several ways to achieve this goal, the traditional method is to use two powdered abrasives - pumice and rottenstone. Once again, you'll need a lubricant. In this case, paraffin oil lubricates the surface and forms a slurry. A felt block is the perfect tool for this step.

Felt Block. Use a felt block to rub the surface with the pumice (or rottenstone) to an oil slurry. You don't need to apply much pressure, just work in small sections using a circular motion.

Pumice is available in different grades (particle sizes) with 4F the finest. Since you already sanded through 1500-grit paper, you can move directly to 4F pumice.

Start by pouring out a small puddle of paraffin oil in the center of the workpiece and sprinkling in a small amount of pumice. Less is better.

The consistency of the slurry should be a little bit like motor oil. Now rub the mixture into the surface with only moderate pressure, again using small circles. The important thing here is to make sure to cover the whole surface with roughly a consistent number of strokes. If the paste gets too thick, simply add a few more drops of paraffin oil to the mixture. When you have a semi-gloss sheen, clean the surface and inspect it for uniformity.

ROTTENSTONE. Rottenstone is an even finer abrasive than pumice. And this is where the surface will really begin to shine. The technique is exactly like rubbing with pumice. But there's one note of caution: make sure you've completely cleaned the surface before you begin and make sure to switch to a fresh felt block. Any of the larger pumice particles will contaminate the surface and leave noticeable scratches in the finish.

At this point, the biggest temptation is to rush. Take your time and make sure to keep the pressure light and the amount of time spent on each section consistent. To check your progress, simply wipe the surface with a clean cloth and inspect the results. In the end, you'll find a mirror finish that makes all the effort worthwhile.

Rubbing Alternatives: Micro-Mesh & Swirl Remover

The key to a mirror finish is to use a series of ever-finer abrasives to flatten the surface of a thick film finish. And there’s more than one way to achieve this result.

MICROMESH. Micro-Mesh Abrasives look like sandpaper, but the abrasive material is mixed into a rubber coating, designed to continually expose fresh abrasive to the work. Available from 1200 - 12,000 grit, you can rub out a high-gloss finish either wet or dry.

5349991 snip 1548391013184 new

AUTOMOTIVE PRODUCTS. There are also several products sold as swirl removers for auto finishes that will work on wood finishes. In these products, the fine abrasives are suspended in solution. You can apply these by hand with a cloth or with a powered polisher.

Published: June, 21 2019
Topics: None
Share Page:

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

WSM Sidebar Ad_PlansHalloween2020

WSM_zone58_PopWoodSubPromo_300x250

Related Articles

Reviews

The Best Electric Brad Nailer For Healthy Nails

The Best Respirators to Keep you Safe!

The Best Pocket Hole Jigs to Create Joints that Last

Take Your Sanding Projects To The Next Level With The Best Belt Sanders Of 2021

Smoothen Numerous Surfaces With The Best Palm Sanders Of 2021

Best Socket Sets For Day-To-Day Needs

Create Strong And Robust Interlocking Dovetail Joints With The Best Dovetail Jigs

Best Carpenters Tool Belts For Easy Storage Of Essential Equipment

The Best Dewalt Wrenches To Topple Every Project

Add the Best Vise Jaws to Your Workshop for Added Workpiece Stability

The Best Sawzalls; Cut Through Anything. Anywhere

Best Dewalt Tool Kits For DIY Home Project

Make Stapling A Breeze With The Best Pneumatic Staple Gun

Add The Best Dewalt Impact Drivers To Your Tool Kit

Effortlessly Thread Neat Screws With The Best Die Sets

Measure with Accuracy: Best Angle Finder

No More Cracks: Best Wood Filler

Enhance Your Woodworking Projects With The Best Plate Joiners Of 2021

Make Your Sanding Jobs Easier With The Best Spindle Sanders Of 2021

Best Scroll Saw For The Finest Cutting Results

See Through Walls With The Best Stud Finders

The Best DeWalt Drills and More For Your DIY Needs

The Best Drill Press Of 2021

The Best Wood Planer To Complete Your Woodshop

Make Every Cut Ideal: Best Router Table Fence

The Best Router Base For Furniture Manufacturing

The Best Allen Wrench to Get the Job Done!

Make Your Projects Effortless With The Best Ball Peen Hammer

Brushless Drills: An Incredible Addition to your Toolbox

Keep Your Cuts Clean With The Best Radial Arm Saw

Best Tap Sets For Your Workshop

The Smoothest Experience With The Best Random Orbital Sander

Carve and Create With The Best CNC Router

Upgrade Your Workshop With The Best Benchtop Jointer

Deal with Logs with the Best Wood Chipper

Blast the Tunes with the Best Woodshop Radio

Best Compact Bandsaws For Easy Cutting

Best Finishing Nailers For Durability

Best Mini Air Compressors To Buy

Our Team’s Review of the Best Propane Torches

Best Wood Carving Sets For Hobbyists

Best Wood Lathe For Beginner

Use The Best Edge Sanders To Smoothen Any Wooden Surface

Seamlessly Cut And Chop Wood With The Best Hatchets

Woodturning Essentials: The Best Roughing Gouges

Best Shop Fans: Top 7 High-Velocity Heavy-Duty Fans for Garages, Worksites and Workshops

Preserve Your Valuables With The Best Linseed Oil

Best Rubber Mallets For Woodworking

Best Wrench Sets That Makes Work Easy

The Best Wrench Racks To Organize Your Tools

The 7 Best Calipers For Accurate Measurements

Best Marking Gauges For Professional And DIY Woodworkers

Best Folding Stools To Fit into Compact Spaces

Get The Perfect Flush Cuts Every time With The Best Edge Banding Trimmers

Best Deck Screws For Pressure Treated Woods To Make A Perfect Deck

Best Miter Saw Stands To Mount Your Cutting Tools On The Go

Increase Your Sanding Efficiency With Zero Effort Using The Best File Belt Sanders

Best Table Saw Fence 2021 for Smooth Cuts and Shapes

Sharpen And Shape With The Best Bench Grinders

Best Metal Clamps for Your Craftsmen Needs

Best Cordless Impact Wrenches for All of Your Mechanical Needs

Best Biscuit Joiners to Help Easing Your Woodwork

Best Estwing Hammers For Your DIY Needs

Use The Best Wood Moisture Meters To Separate Healthy And Damaged Wood Pieces

The Best Rail And Stile Router Bits: The Staple Of Hassle-Free Woodworking

Best Adjustable Wrench For Hassle-Free Work

Best CNC Router Bits For A Hassle-Free Woodworking Project

Achieve Precision with the Best Glass Cutter

Keep Things Sharp With The Best Sharpening Stones

The Best Sandblaster To Get Your Job Started Strong

Best Forstner Bits To Add To Your Woodworking Tool Kit

The Best Jointer For Every Type Of Woodworking

The Best Track Saw of 2021

Our Team’s Review Of The Best Spring Clamps

Best Rasp Files – A Versatile Woodcarving Solution

The Best Veneer Edge Banding: A Perfect Finish To Your Furniture

Catch The Dust Before It Catches You With The Best Dust Hoods

Best Depth-Gauges: A Staple For Woodworking Enthusiasts

Construct Your Projects On The Best Workbenches Available

Smooth Out Your Work Using the Best Sanding Discs

Best Caster Wheels 2021

The Best Furniture Levelers: Bid Farewell to your Furniture Woes

7 Best Flush Cut Saw That Could Change the Wood Cutting Game

Level-Up Your Portals With the Best Door Hinges

Organize Your Lifestyle With the Best Pegboard Hooks

The Best Magnetic Toolbars For Easy Storage And Organization

The Best Vise: A Staple In Every Workshop

Our Team’s Review of the Best Rolling Tool Chest

Organize With Ease: Best Pegboards

Make Better Cuts With The Best Table Saw Push Block

Cut And Shape With Ease: Best Router Table

The Best Plywood Jigs For Every Need

Reviewing The Best Taper Jigs This Year

Hit The Nail On The Head With The Best Hammers

Make Every Cut: Best Angle Grinder

The Best Wood Stain For Every Project

The Best Overhead Storage Rack For Convenient, Safe Storage

The Best Double Sided Tapes That Won’t Damage Surfaces

The Best Saw Dust Catchers For Shop Safety

Toolbox Essentials: The Best Sandpaper

Start Your Next Carving Project With The Best Scorp

Seal, Coat, and Craft With the Best Epoxy

Finding the Best Circular Saw in 2021

Reviewing the Best Drill Bits of 2021

Best Ratchet Wrench for Quick and Easy Repair

The Best Table Saw For The Everyday Handyman

Reviewing the Best Router Leveling Jigs

Tackle Screws Effectively With The Best Screwdriver Sets

Best Shop Vac For Those Heavy-Duty Cleaning Tasks

Best Tape Measures For Professionals and DIYers

The Best Handscrew Clamp For Gluing, Painting, and Building

The Best Wood Mallet For Your Next Carpentry Project

Revamp Your Outdoor Space With The Best Deck Stain

Smooth Out Edges With The Best Spokeshaves

The Best Carpentry Square For Precise Measuring

Protect Your Outdoor Entertainment Space With The Best Firepit Cover

Get The Right Measurements With The Best Framing Square

Best Wood Chisels For Impactful Wood Crafting

The Best Bird House Kits For First-Time Builders

The Best Wood Glue To Complete Your DIY Projects

Our Top Picks Of The Best Wood Burning Kits This Year

Reviewing The Best Moving Dollies This Year

Best Wooden Box Puzzles For Challenging Fun

Get Organized With The Best Racks For Firewood

The Best Landscape Edgers To Beautify Your Space

Endless Fun With The Best Wooden Puzzles

Our Top Picks Of The Best Blueprints This Year

Reviewing The Best Benches This Year

Never Lose Out On Warmth: Best Water Heaters

Make Cutting Easier With The Best Band Saws

Easy to Use and Efficient: Best Sanding Blocks Reviewed

Reviewing The Best Axes Right Now

Cordless Precision Possible: Best Compact Routers

Work Smarter with the Best Canvas Aprons

Convenience And Reliability: Best Tankless Water Heater

Create Clean Slices using the Best Low Angle Block Planes

Craft Wood Effortlessly with the Best Carving Chisels

Make Storage Seamless With The Best Extension Cord Reel

Review: The Best Cordless Drills

Don’t Let Handtools Slow You Down: Best Drills

Get Your Home Looking Sharp With The Best Wall Paints

The Best Table Saw Stand For Easy And Clean Cuts

Keep Your Tools Running Smoothly With The Best Lubricant Oil

Review Of The Best Hacksaws Right Now

Strong and Soft: Best Shop Towels

Stay Sharp With The Best Electric Pole Saws

Get Up-Top With the Best Step Ladders

The Best Deep Toolbox For Maximizing Your Space And Time

The Best Porch Swing Will Sweep You Off Your Feet

Tackle Any Project with the Best Chop Saws

Review of the Best Portable Generators

Secure Woodworking with the Best Bench Vise

Precise and Durable: Best Measuring Tape

Enhance Your Cuts Using The Best Miter Saw

Keep Your Work Organized: Best Toolboxes

The Best Electric Log Splitter For Great Cuts