How To Get A Handrubbed Satin Sheen

Here's the goal: finish a table top to a rich, lustrous, hand-rubbed, satin sheen — the kind of finish you want to touch with your fingertips just to make sure it's real. It can be done in a home shop, but it takes a lot of work, ami even more (»alienee.

The first step in producing that kind of finish is to get the table top as smooth a» possible. There are two approaches: with power tools or with hand tools.

The power tool approach Involves using a belt sander to get the surface roughed down. I would recommend an 80-grit belt to start with. Hold the sander at a slight angle to the grain and smooth down any difference between the edges of the boards. Then sand with the grain, moving the sander up and back being careful not to tip it on edge.

After the top is roughed down with the 80-grit belt, switch to a 100 or 120-grit belt. Then final sanding can be done with a Rockwell Sped Bloc sander. < I use lOO-grit Garnet paper.) Any swirl marks should then be sanded out by hand.

It may seem like a contradiction, but a good jack plane (14* long) will do the job faster and easier. The one I use is a Record corrugated bottom jack plane. It costs about $65. and it's worth every penny. After planing, the top can be smoothed to perfection with a hand scraper blade.


TV table top is smooth and ready for the finish. Now all you have to do is make one choice . . . between 100 ways to go.

What follows is just one of those ways. It's the finishing technique we used on the Pembroke ami Butler's tables shown in this Issue. The basic procedure is to apply stain (if you want to), then several coat« of sealer, and finally the varnish.

All of these things are chemicals and are. to one degree or another, not compatable with each other. It's best to choose one family (brand) for all three steps. This time I chose Pratt 4 Lambert products. They offer a wide range of finishing products: paste filler, sealer filler, sealer, stains, varnish, spar varnish, polyurethane. etc.

If the top is made up of boards of •dightly different colore, you'll probably >*ant to apply a stain to even things out. We derided to apply stain to the Pembroke table, but leave the Butler's table natural.

Before proceeding any farther, sweep the shop clean of all sawdust. Then wait a <lay for the dust to settle before applying the sealer. Set up a finishing area with good ventilation, but free of drafts.


Both of the tables we finished are walnut. It'* usually recommended that you apply a paste filler to open grained woo<is like walnut. To be honest. I'm not particularly fond of working with paste fillers. They're a mess. Besides, three coats of sanding sealer does the job nicely.

Most sanding sealers are formulated for use with lacquer finishes. The Pratt Iximbrrt Sanding Sealer H40 is formulated for use with varnish. This is where sticking with the same brand is important.

To apply the sanding sealer. I used one of those new-fangled foam polybrushes, brushing it on as with any other finish. I know you're supposed to spend a lot of money on natural bristle brushes. But these little things seem to do a better job. and they only cost about 40c. I think they're a good deal.

As you apply the sanding sealer, watch for drips and runs. If there's a run. dip the brush in some mineral spirits and brush it out

It will take several hours for the sealer •¿o dry. depending on how thick the coat is. the temperature, and the humidity. When it is dry, use 400-grit silicon carbide paper to sand out the roughness. As you start to sand, you should get a very fine white powder. If, instead, the sealer gum» up on the paper, it means it's not dry yet.

Apply another coat of sealer. After this coat is dry hold the table top at an angle under a fluorescent light. Look closely at the surface. If you see little pockets (pores), it means the grain isn't filled yet. and one more coat is needed.


When all the grain pores are filled, you can apply the varnish. Before you start, make sure the surface is clean of all dust — go over it thoroughly with a tack rag. The biggest problem with varnish is that it takes so long to dry. In order to dry properly. you need a good environment: room temperature between 70* and 80*. low humidity, good ventilation but no drafts.

During the drying time, the varnish is very susceptible to dust from the air. So. the finishing area must be dust-free. It's best to protect the table top with a piece of plywood right after you've applied the varnish.

Besides dust, the biggest enemy you have to face is bubbles. Do not shake the can of varnish, stir it gently. I«oad the brush with varnish (fairly full, but not drip ping) and spread it across the grain. Continue until the entire top is covered. Then lip ofr any brush marks by pulling the brush with the grain.

This coat of varnish will lake forever to dry. Allow at least a day, maybe more. Test it by pressing your thumb on the surface. If a thumb print appears in the finish, it's not dry-

Before applying the second coat. the surface must be sanded smooth. Again, use 400-grit silicon carbide paper. Be very-careful not to sand through the varnish, just take out the bumps.


After the final coat of varnish is dry. the surface will probably look quite glossy, but uneven with some bumps of dust particles. What you want, of course, is a smooth, hand-rubbed satin sheen.

To get a hand rubbed finish you need three things: pumice stone, rubbing oil and a felt pad. Pumice stone is a very fine abrasive powder. It used to be available in a range of grits, but now is usually sold in one grit only: "FF" the medium grit.

Rubbing oil is a light oil that suspends the pumice stone so it can be worked over the surface of the finish. (Sources for these products are listed below.)

Soak the felt pad with some rubbing oil. Pour a tittle pumice stone in a small (an and dip the felt pad into it. or pour a little oil on the surface and sprinkle the pumice stone on top. Then start rubbing.

Rub with the grain in long even strokes. Don't try' to overdo it, just rub with medium pressure until you feel the pumice »tone start to cut. The more you rub. the shinier the finish becomes. (You don't want to rub too much or youll go through the varnish.)

Every once in a while clean off the oil and pumice with a soft cloth to see what you've got. You can stop whenever you get the sheen you want. If you want more of a shine, switch to rottenstone and go through the same process.

When you're done, wipe off all the oil and abrasive powder. There will be a thin layer of oil left on the surface: it will dry out in a day or so. You can buff the top with a lamb's wool pad and leave it that way. or apply a paste wax.

Finally, run your finger tips across the top, just to make sure it's real. Sources: Pumice stone, rubbing oil and rubbing felt is available from: The Woodworker.»' storr Catalog ($1). 21801 Industrial Blvd.. Rogers. MN 55374.

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