What Is a Hand-Rubbed Finish and 3 Ways To Apply It On Wood

The finish is an important part of woodworking, as it protects the piece you have spent hours working on. But protection is not the only thing it is applied for, it also brings out the innate beauty of wood. The problem is, not everyone knows how to bring out the best from wood using finishes. A hand-rubbed finish can go a long way in terms of not only protection but pleasing aesthetics as well.

A hand-rubbed finish is basically using superfine abrasives after the initial finish has cured. This makes the finish glossy and almost reflective, providing you with amazing results. The three best ways to apply this finish are by hand rubbing polyurethane, oil, and lacquer.

Usually, when people are applying a finish, they are doing it for the sake of protecting wood from moisture. Some finishes, like stains, shellac, and oils make the wood color pop out. But it does not make the texture of the wood as smooth as you would get by hand, rubbing a hard film finish but it does take a fair amount of time to get it done. Let us further explain the fundamentals of this finish and the three best ways to apply it to wood.

Fundamentals of Hand Rubbed Finish

When you apply a finish, like polyurethane or lacquer, you always apply it in layers. It takes about 3-4 layers for you to get the kind of protection that will last a long time. While you are applying these finishes, you can use an abrasive to buff it after it is cured.

In the case of oil you sand the surface right when you apply the finish, it mixes with the sawdust and makes a paste or slurry. This fills in the pores and penetrates in the wood beneath the fibers. Once it becomes hard, it makes the surface of the wood really smooth. Which as a result, gives the wood almost a mirror shine, close to a reflective surface.

But since you are sanding the layers, it takes more than the usual 3-4 layers of coating. And you also have to scuff the finish after it has dried with a rubbing pad to knock off and dust nibs. With almost 6-8 layers, the drying time is almost doubled than usual. Also, the time required to sand and scuff in between, the whole process is lengthy.

With polyurethane or lacquer though, you do it after it has cured, which can be 10 days for lacquer and 30 days for polyurethane. After the curing period, you sand it, scuff it, and then buff it using polishing compounds.

Hand-Rubbed Polyurethane Finish

Polyurethane is a hard film finish that is a wipe-on. It requires multiple coats and has a drying time of 24-48 hours per coat. This means that you leave it for a full day for it to dry off, and it takes even longer to cure. A water-based polyurethane finish always requires you to sand the first coat.

That is because the wood fibers get raised slightly when the water in them is absorbed by the wood. You have to knock down that grain using 220 grit sandpaper.

After you apply 2-3 coats of your polyurethane, you will start to feel that the surface isn’t exactly smooth. The issue is that whether you wipe it on or spray it, the finish is never perfect. You have to hand rub a finish to make it smooth and glossy.

So now after your first few coats have cured, you will go straight for 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper. Start sanding with it while applying some water to the wood to reduce friction. This will create a slurry of polyurethane and sawdust. You don’t have to sand too much, just a bit, then wipe it off with a clean rag. After that, you apply a little more polyurethane on top of that to finish the job.

Once that coat is dry, which will take about 24-hours, take a clean rubbing pad and scuff the surface. Then reapply another coat of polyurethane and repeat the process for the remainder of 6-8 coats. Once that dries, use an extremely fine wool pad to buff the surface and you will be able to get an almost reflective finish.

Additionally, use a polishing compound with wax to finalize the project. The more you buff the more sheen your wooden surface will achieve.

Oil Rubbed Finish

With an oil-rubbed finish, you sand it right from the first coat and keep sanding between the coats. This process usually takes a longer time, but the results are amazing. The best part, the only thing you are using is natural oils for the process.

As soon as you apply the first coat of oil, you will use high grit sandpaper on it. This will create a paste made of oil and sawdust that will fill in the pores of the wood. After that you wipe it off, let it dry and use a fine rubbing pad to knock off dust particles.

Repeat the process at least 6-8 times and you will end up with a really smooth and almost reflective surface. Take it a step further and use a polishing compound to buff out the final sheen you require.

If you want to learn more about a hand-rubbed oil finish, check out our article in which this is covered in more detail.

Hand-Rubbed Lacquer Finish

This is similar to working with polyurethane, but the good part is that lacquer takes a shorter time to dry and cure. This is why it is a great finish to work with, especially in this process.

First, you spray on a few coats of polyurethane and let them cure for at least 8-10 days. When it is cured for that long, you can start by sanding the surface. Use soapy water and a high-grit dry/wet sandpaper around 500 grits at least to smoothen it out. Don’t sand in too deep or you might remove the previous coats of lacquer.

After that run your hand on the surface to see if you have any bumps or rough spots, sand that area down a bit further. Once done, wipe it off with a clean cloth rag and let it dry for a while. Take some polishing compound on an ultra-fine wool pad and buff it out. The more you buff it the more it will shine, it will give a glossy and reflective look by the end.

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between curing and drying a finish?

When you say drying time of a finish, it is the time you give to it before applying another coat or layer. It is often 24-48 hours but could be less depending on the finish you are using. Like lacquer requires a few hours at most before drying. However, curing is the time that the finish requires before you can put the wooden object into daily use. It is the optimal time in which the finish becomes completely hard and strong.

How high grit of sandpaper should you use for a hand-rubbed finish?

You can use either 400 or 500 grits of sandpaper for the task. You can go even higher, but it is not necessary since you are going to use a polishing compound at the end. But don’t use anything lower than 400 since the coarse abrasiveness of anything below will ruin the cured finish. Besides you just want to sand it lightly and nothing too much.

What oils are suitable for a hand-rubbed finish?

Tung oil and Danish oil are the most preferred choice when it comes to giving wood a hand-rubbed oil finish. These oils dry fast and they don’t end up with a sticky feeling to them like linseed or flax oil.

Can you get a hand-rubbed finish with stain or shellac?

In case of stain and shellac, these don’t dry as a hard film on the wood. Besides these are mostly used for darkening the color of the wood compared to protection.

Final Thoughts

With just a bit of elbow grease and patience, you can turn a normal woodworking project into a marvelous piece of art using a hand-rubbed finish. The above-mentioned methods and finishes will give you the results you desire and more. After the in-detail explanation in each section, we hope that you understood everything you wanted to know about a hand-rubbed finish.

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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