Burnishing – Complete Guide On Burnishing In Wood Carving

Burnishing is the process of creating a smooth, high-gloss finish on wood surfaces after the application of the final coat of lacquer. This is done by using rotations of rollers on the wood surface and is usually done by hand.

A popular technique used by old-world craftsmen, burnishing is less common these days. It is the process of bending and blending wood fibers together in order to create a smooth, high-gloss finish. 

This process is applied to wood furniture after the final coat of lacquer is applied and allowed to dry, or after the wood has been finished using a penetrating oil. 

The reason behind its relative lack of popularity is because of its time-consuming nature. It must be done by hand and is thus also known as a hand-rubbed finished. The finish that it yields is smooth, shiny, and lustrous. If you have the time, it provides your projects with an incomparable look. 

What Materials Can I Use To Burnish Wood

There are a variety of ways in which you can burnish a piece of wood. Burnishing can be done with various materials, including sandpaper, wood, steel wool, wood shavings, and even a bit of old denim fabric.

  • Denim: Denim is one of the most popular materials to use when it comes to burnishing wood. For the most effective results, use a 4-inch piece of denim fabric. Fold it in half and, using it as a small pad, use it to rub the wood’s surface.

Rub in small, circular shapes, no larger than 6 inches in diameter. Continue to rub hard until the wood starts to feel warm. This means that the finish is blending into the pores of the wood. Check the wood to see if it is shiny. If not, continue to rub in a circle.

Once the area is sufficiently shiny, start polishing another circle, making sure that it overlaps the first area by about 1 inch.

  • Steel Wool: Using steel wool on wood can seem counterintuitive. However, if done properly, it can create a silky, smooth, burnished finish. Steel wool is often used on higher-end pieces of furniture.

In order to burnish wood with steel wool, you will have to use a fine wool pad – 0000 or 4/0 – and wood wax. Apply some wood wax to the pad, and rub the steel wool into the wood in a circular motion. Make sure to go against the grain when doing so.

Use just enough wood wax to lightly coat the surface. Make sure to work into hard to reach areas. Continue to rub until the surface feels satiny smooth, as opposed to slick.

Once the wood wax has set, buff the piece with a dry cloth or a furniture brush, working in circles once more. Repeat the entire process up to two more times for the best possible finish.

  • Wood: When using another piece of wood to burnish a wooden project, it is best to ensure that the burnisher is one or two steps harder than the item to be burnished.

Use a small piece of wood to rub over the surface of the wood to be burnished. Use medium pressure to rub circular patterns into the surface of the wood. You should feel the push against the wood. However, if your fingers and hand start to cramp, you are using too much pressure.

Rub over the entire item several times until you have an even, smooth-feeling, shiny finish on the wood.

An easy and cost-effective way to use wood as a burnisher is to use the back of a wooden spoon or the knife’s handle.

  • Wood Shavings: Wood shavings are most often used when creating a project on a lathe. Once you have sanded down your project to 220 grit, you can switch to rubbing in wood shavings while continuing to turn your project.

You can do this by firmly pressing handfuls of wood shavings against the spinning wood. This helps create a smooth surface. As this is being done while the wood is still turning, the burnishing will be completed relatively quickly and easily.

  • Sandpaper: Sandpaper can be used to burnish wood once the lacquer has been applied. In order to do so, use sandpaper that is a coarser grit than the grain on the wood being burnished.

Rub in circular patterns. Make sure to work section by section and check to see if the light reflects off the lacquer’s surface. Once it does so, you can move on to the next area.

  • Burnishing Cream: Burnishing cream is designed to help clean and rejuvenate wood projects – especially furniture – with finishes such French Polish, lacquers, and varnishes.

In order to use it, you will first need to make sure that the surface of the wood is clean and contains no wax or polish remover. Once you do so, soak a cloth with the burnishing cream, and rub onto the wood in circular patterns.

Ensure that you are rubbing with the grain where possible and paying more attention to problem areas. Once you have completed working the cream into the wood, let it dry for a few minutes, and buff the wood using a clean, dry cloth.

Once you are done applying the burnishing cream, you should be left with a smooth, shiny, and clean finish wood. Some people may also choose to protect this new finish by applying a coating of candle wax.

What are the drawbacks of burnishing wood

While burnishing creates an attractive finish, you should be aware that the resultant finish’s smoothness can inhibit its absorption. This means that the durability of the finish can be affected. 

This happens because the wood heats up when being burnished. The heating of the wood results in the oxidation of the wood surface. This can make it resistant to the adhesion of finishes.

Related Questions

Below are some related quesiton that peope frequently ask about burnishing

Are there other ways to polish wood?

You can polish wood in a variety of ways aside from burnishing, including by hand-rubbing with linseed oil, using mineral or lemon oil, and polishing compounds that can be used on special lacquers.

Hand-rubbing with linseed oil should only be done on bare, unfinished wood. It creates a deep, polished look, but can take up to six months to complete. This is because the oil must be rubbed into the wood at regular intervals over a period of time, making sure to do so at least once a week.

Mineral oil and lemon oil can be used on various different finishes, including modern polyurethanes and shellac. However, it should not be used for penetrating oil/paste wax finishes.  

This type of polishing softens and reactivates old lacquers and varnishes, making them glow again. The oil can be reapplied at any point in time.

Polishing compounds are used on modern lacquers that do not respond to standard polishing techniques. These lacquers include nitrocellulose. Polishing compounds contain small particles that scrub these lacquers to create a high gloss.

How do I get a mirror finish on wood?

The most common way to get a mirror finish on wood is by a method called French Polish. It essentially consists of applying several thin layers of shellac to the wood.

In order to apply French Polish, you first have to sand down your wood to remove any dents or scratches. Once you have done so, you will need to use a finishing pad soaked in shellac to polish the wood’s surface.

Once you start polishing, never stop in the middle of the wood. You will also need to sand between layers in order to make sure that the shellac builds up evenly. The most effective finishes can take 30 or more layers of shellac finish, making the process a time-consuming one.

Can I burnish wooden flooring?

Yes. Unlike wooden furniture and smaller wood items, you will need to use a floor burnisher when it comes to burnishing wooden flooring. This is an electric tool that will quicken the burnishing process.

You will first need to clear the floor of any debris. After that, spray a layer of floor cleaner over the wood and mop the surface to thoroughly remove dirt. Once the floor is dry, use a floor burnisher with a rotation of between 1500 to 3000 RPMs on the floor for best effect.

You will need to burnish the floor completely two to three times in order to achieve a glossy, ‘wet’ look. Once done, wipe the newly burnished floor with a mop in order to remove any lingering dirt.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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