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Three quick steps for a silky smooth finish.
Brushed finishes like paint, they provide superior protection, but they dry so slowly that airborne dust and disowned hair will almost certainly settle on the wet surface. Fortunately, the process I use to remove these small imperfections is both quick and simple – the tabletop shown here took less than 10 minutes to complete – and leaves the finish look and feel as if it were no one’s business. The trick is to apply a low-gloss finish, let it dry well and then use a delicate and appropriate touch fine abrasives a delete it.
Rubbed versus rubbed by hand
Although the terms are similar, a “honed” finish and a “hand polished” finish are distinctly different. Abrasive scrubbing methods are typically used on film building finishes that are susceptible to debris getting stuck in the film as it dries. A hand sanded finish usually refers to an erasing / removal process that does not involve building a film over the surface of the wood.
Scrubbing a film finish with fine abrasives allows you to subtly control the way light is reflected, for a warmer, more inviting and refined look. Using fine abrasives to remove small imperfections in the finish will also give your project a sleek look that makes it difficult for people to keep their hands off.
Most elimination methods include difficult and laborious processes with a fairly high level of risk of problems occurring. For example, the first step in many of these methods is to “level the finish” to remove all of the wood texture. This step is risky because it is so aggressive. For anyone, even an experienced finisher, rubbing through the top finish layer or even down to the wood is a distinctive possibility.
My method of elimination carries almost no risk, because it is not necessary to level the surface. Leveling is only really necessary when the goal is a glossy sheen, such as in a “piano finish”. My method produces a satin sheen.
Start with satin paint
It is important to start with a satin or matte varnish, so that pores and low stains in the texture of the wood do not appear shiny after the finish is erased. The table shown here is crafted from figured cherry which has been finished with General Finishes Arm-R-Seal satin polyurethane, applied with a foam brush (see Sources, page 66). This product flows well due to its thinner viscosity, so there are no visible brush marks to remove.
If the satin paint is thick enough to leave brush marks, try diluting it by at least 25%.
I applied three coats everywhere except the top, which has a fourth coat because it will be subject to more wear. Unfortunately, my dog stopped to check things while the last hand was still wet (Photo 1).
Before scrubbing the finish, you need to let it dry for at least three days in optimal conditions (above 60 F with 50% relative humidity), but it’s best to wait a week. Allow even more time when the relative humidity remains above 80%.
Smooth as silk in three steps
This erasing technique has only three steps. There is no reason to worry about the confusing range of sanding sheets, pads, powders and compounds used in more complex processes. All you need is satin Arm-R-Seal, 400 grit sandpaper or finer, a felt sanding block, good quality steel wool (made by Liberon or Briwax) and a few drops of dish soap . These products are available online or in specialist woodworking stores (see Sources).
Step 1: Remove dust, hair and small imperfections from the surface. Very fine sandpaper is the most effective tool for cutting these bastards, because it is important not to remove the carefully applied finish more than necessary. Use 400-grit or finer sandpaper cut to a quarter sheet (not torn with rough, scratchy edges). For a consistent cutting action, wrap sandpaper around a soft, flexible sanding block. The best blocks for this job are made from felt or neoprene rubber. (Neoprene blocks of assorted density and flexibility are available from automotive suppliers.)
Sand very lightly with the grit to remove dust and hair (Photo 2). This process requires very little pressure, perhaps as much as the weight of your hand. It feels more like gentle dusting or cleaning than smoothing. It doesn’t even take much. Two or three hits often do the trick.
Applying the least amount of sanding pressure keeps sanding scratches as small as possible. Pushing down more than necessary creates larger, deeper scratches that require more work to be removed in the following steps. Feel the surface as you go and stop sanding as soon as it becomes smooth. This step on an average-sized dining table should take five to ten minutes to complete.
In all three steps of this process, it’s best to work carefully within about 1/2 “of the edges to avoid cutting (Photo 3). Then finish the work around the edges separately and carefully (Photos 4 and 5). Consistency is very important for an even shine. Clean the surface with a damp cloth. You should see a consistent visible scratch pattern that is seen at the high points of the wood texture.
Step 2: Remove visible scratches from sanding and replace them with smaller scratches. For this step you need to have good quality # 0000 steel wool specially made for rubbing finishes.
It is important to carefully cut and fold the steel wool to create a good consistently abrasive surface (Photo 6). An 18 “to 20” length of wool folds into an effective four-layer pad. Use your felt or neoprene block to support the steel wool. As with sandpaper, this provides a much smoother and more delicate cutting surface. Work the surface carefully and consistently to create a uniform appearance (Photo 7). As with the first step, this step requires very little pressure. Again, save the edges last. Clean with a damp cloth. This step should take 10 to 20 minutes.
To scrub turned legs or molded moldings, use sandpaper only on straight parts. On the shaped portions, skip the sanding and go directly to the steel wool (Photo 8).
Step 3: Remove scratches caused by dry steel wool and replace them with scratches not visible to the human eye. Easily visible scratches create a hazy appearance. Going from these scratches to scratches so small that they are undetectable is what makes this step different from the first two.
Start with fresh steel wool prepared as in the previous step, with the soft felt block to support it. Mix a couple of drops of mild dish soap or hand soap in a small dish of water. Use just enough to get some foam. Dip the steel wool into the soapy water or sprinkle drops on the surface. Work the wool in a circular pattern using the same gentle approach of the first two steps (Photo 9). Add a drop of soap to the surface whenever you need more lather. Move over the surface in an overlapping fashion. After a complete pass over the entire surface, repeat the design two more times, then dry with soft and clean absorbent paper. Let the water evaporate and carefully evaluate your progress. Repeat this last step as needed to create an even satin sheen. This step should take 10 to 20 minutes.
Types of steel wool
Good quality steel wool fibers are long and very firm. This makes it far better for rubbing finishes than regular steel wool, because it provides consistent cutting action and produces a consistent scratch pattern. It also lasts longer. Good quality steel wool is more expensive than ordinary wool and harder to find (see Sources, above).
Normal steel wool has shorter fibers which are visibly inconsistent. It often feels greasy with the leftover oil from the manufacturing process and has a tendency to crumble.
A quick glance at the cut surface of a nylon abrasive pad shows that it is significantly different from good quality # 0000 steel wool. While a useful finishing tool, a nylon sanding pad is not appropriate for the process shown here, as it does not cut the same way it cuts good quality steel wool.
General Finishes Satin Arm-R-Seal, Norton 3X Sandpaper, 400 Grit, Felt, Liberon # 0000 Steel Wool
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