Creating a Hand-Rubbed Lacquer Finish

Tips for giving a mirror-like shine to your woodworking project

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There are numerous advantages to a lacquer finish. A properly completed lacquer finish is clear, durable and dries very quickly. By hand-rubbing your lacquer finish, you can take it one step further and give it a mirror-like shine. The steps to creating this glossy finish are relatively simple:

Sand your raw woodworking project using progressively finer grits of sandpaper, and then remove all of the sawdust to prepare for finishing. Begin by first applying a pre-stain conditioner. You can also create your own type of pre-stain conditioner by mixing one part shellac with five parts denatured alcohol. Either of these products will seal the wood and give the stain a more even color. If you choose to use the shellac sealer, sand the project lightly with 400-grit sandpaper to remove any ridges or high spots that may have been left behind. Wipe the project with a tack cloth to remove any dust that may remain.

Next, apply your stain of choice, following the instructions on the stain container. Allow the stain to dry for 24 hours. If another coat or any other staining is required, take those steps before moving on.

With the staining completed, apply a light coat of lacquer to the entire project. Spraying is the traditional method of applying lacquer, although modern brushable lacquers are acceptable options, (they can be a bit more temperamental than spray lacquers). Let the first coat of lacquer dry completely before adding the second coat. Typically the new coat will dissolve a bit of the previous coat, allowing the two coats to mix and even out any over-spray areas. After the lacquer dries, should you find any spots that have excessive lacquer (drips, runs, orange peel, etc.), you can lightly spot-sand with 400-grit sandpaper followed by ​tack cloth.

Add several more thin coats of lacquer. Always remember that with lacquer, less is more (so to speak). Avoid the temptation to over-apply the lacquer, as more problems are created by too much than not enough lacquer.

After you have applied as many coats as you feel necessary, allow the final coat to dry for at least 24 hours. Then, lightly wet the surface and sand the entire finish with 400-grit sandpaper. This step will dull the finish, but it is a necessary step.

Follow this dulling step by buffing the surface with 0000-steel wool (which will dull the surface even more).

Next, lightly wet the surface with some soapy water, then sprinkle on some pumice powder and, with some cloth (such as an old T-shirt) wrapped around a sanding block, rub the finish thoroughly. Use a clean, damp cloth to wipe down a section after rubbing with the pumice mixture to check your progress. After properly rubbing with pumice, you should have the equivalent of a semi-gloss finish.

For an even glossier final look after completing the pumice step, rub down the project using some rottenstone with a little bit of butcher block oil for a lubricant. The rottenstone is a much finer abrasive than the pumice and is a perfect compliment to the pumice finish (be sure not to skip the pumice step, as rottenstone won't give the same results alone).

As a final step, apply a thin coat of paste wax. Buff the wax to a mirror shine.