"Hand Rubbed" Finishes for Furniture

"Hand rubbed" means different things to different finishers not to mention the customers. October 14, 2010

I do kitchen cabinets, and I spray lacquer. Two coats and I'm done. It's the only finish I do. Recently a client asked me to finish a kitchen table and wants "that hand rubbed look." I stood there not knowing what to say. So I told her I had another job I already started and I'll call her Thursday. Now what? What's a decent finish for a kitchen table, for a hand rubbed look? I only know how to spray.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor T:
A hand rubbed finish is all about the sheen. You can acquire this with what is called an off the gun finish. I would make a sample for the client with a dull sheen and hope that it is approved. If not, I would hand rub the topcoat (after cured) with fine steel wool.

From contributor D:
I guess it depends on what's meant by "hand rubbed." Not even we finishers agree. However, if your customer is familiar with retail furniture and is requesting hand rubbed, there's no way it means off-the-gun, as these two finishes are perfect opposites.

Hand rubbed means that the finish is not a scoot-n-shoot, spray-and-go, spray-and-show no-rub sheen. It means that the final coat is rubbed, i.e., abraded and burnished with steel wool or scotchbrites, or polished with rubbing compounds.

Most customers are thinking of the soft steel wool sheen they see on Steinway pianos. These sheens are often done using dual pad, in-line rubbing machines.

But you can also do it by hand (using a Stuhr or a National Detroit rubbing machine is still considered hand done). You spray, wet sand with 320, 500, 800, 1200 and steel wool or scotchbrite lubed with Murphy's Oil Soap and water or 3M Microfinishing Compound or Super Duty Compound or Finesse-It II or mineral oil. Each lube material leaves you with a different looking sheen.

The sanding and rubbing are done in successively finer steps and it's all called a "cutting sequence." The 3M materials are called "rubbing" or "polishing" compounds because they are used to help you get a rubbed (same as the word polished in this context) look from your burnishing steps.

From the original questioner:
A Stuhr? I haven't a clue what that is. I was hoping for an oil brand to use. Is a wipe-on wiped off too? Or is it wiped on and left to dry? I think she wants successive coats of hand rubbed finishing. I was thinking oil based since it is a kitchen table. She wants a clear protective finish. Am I nuts to buy a can of off-the-shelf oil based finish? Maybe dilute is by 40% with spirits and then a second coat with 25% cut, third coat 10% cut? Can someone toss me a lifeline?

From contributor L:
Re-read contributor D's post - he gave you the lifeline and a new boat to go with it. The best advice I can offer is: samples - sign off.

From contributor J:
The general public sometimes uses the term "hand rubbed" to mean a bare wood look and feel. They don't want to see the film build you're going to get with most pro spray coatings, including lacquer. Most of these customers will listen to reason and be content with a standard spray coating, but maybe in a very dull sheen, say 10 to 15 degree or "dead flat."

There is a ton of wipe on oil/varnish and even wax products that are popular with the general public for the bare wood look. Of course many of these products are in fact film forming finishes, as are the professional's spray coatings, but the Formby-Minwax wipe-on stuff is thinned out to such a degree that you don't see the film on the surface unless you put several coats on.

I'd probe the customer as to what they really want, and explain what I use professionally. If they still tell me they want the exact look of Betty's table next door, and she used Homer Formby, I tell them to go for it on their own. I only use products that I am willing to stand behind, and besides that, they don't need me to wipe liquid on wood with a rag.

Mostly I don't want them calling me in 6 months asking what to do about the damaged finish that I didn't want to use in the first place.

From contributor C:
Rubbing out a finish as I do it involves:
1) Waiting for the finish to cure.
2) Lightly rubbing with 4 odd steel wool and paste wax.
3) Buffing out with a clean rag after about 30 minutes.

You can sand with consecutively finer grits and then rub it down too. It all depends on the sheen you're after (and how thick your finish is). You can rub aggressively or lightly, but most important is consistency in your pressure over the entire surface. Check out the video by Charles Neil; it might be a help to understand the process.

From contributor W:
A hand rubbed finish is a simple process. You can do your normal finishing process, and let the finish dry. Then rub the finish with steel wool. After that you can apply a kind of wax to your finish.

From contributor S:
I think you need to get clarification from the buyer on what exactly they mean. I tend to agree that "hand rubbed" as used by the public means a "close to the wood" finish (not film finish), such as a Danish oil, BLO, tung oil, etc. The customer must be made aware of the shortcomings of such a finish for a kitchen table application, and with any luck they will revert to a film finish as mentioned.

From the original questioner:
What finish can I recommend that she can do herself? The table will see its share of liquids. I'm not going to get involved.

From contributor C:
Wipe on poly. Rub down with steel wool and paste wax after it cures. Buff out with a soft cotton cloth. Done!

From contributor S:
Nothing's going to protect like a modern post cat product, so I would simply explain that to her and tell her what the options are. It comes down to film or not, and if not, that means boiled linseed/tung/Danish oil. None of which will approach the protection of even a couple coats of what you're spraying.

The best she can do is likely a number of coats of BLO, then possibly wax the top, although wax will not help against moisture. The oil will help some and it will need to be re-applied occasionally. If she goes with oil, then advise that water/spills must be wiped up immediately, glasses on coasters, etc.

From contributor K:
As the owner of an unfinished furniture store, I recommend using an oil based polyurethane of the sheen she wants. Most people prefer a satin finish. There are lots of products out there; I prefer the Zar brand poly. Very durable and water won't hurt the cured finish. Make sure she sands between all coats.

From contributor S:
If she would consider poly (film finish), she would end up with a much nicer finish just letting the questioner spray it with his normal post cat lacquer. Hand applied poly will never come out looking or feeling like a quality spray applied lacquer. Any sheen imaginable is also available in professional lacquer products; not so with off the shelf brush on poly.

From the original questioner:
Lacquer has that plastic look the client is trying to stay away from. It sounds more like she wants a film finish done by hand so when you touch the wood it won't feel like you're touching something made by Dupont.

From contributor S:
I fail to see how a hand applied film finish will differ from a spray applied film finish? Even a wipe on poly will only offer protection from water/stains, etc. once enough coats are applied to build a film, again, plastic.

The way I have learned it there are only two options, film or not. There must be a tradeoff, so look for protection in this case - you can't have it both ways.

It is still not clear what the client means by "hand rubbed" either so there is no way to really know what they want or how to arrive at it. I've seen furniture stores advertising hand rubbed when they really mean distressed, as in rub-through in the finish. Hand rubbed is indeed a very loosely applied term these days.

From the original questioner:
My interpretation was that she wanted the hand rubbed look, not necessarily that it had to be done by hand. I don't think 3 coats of a wipe-on/wipe-off poly will give a plastic look or feel. 5 or 6 maybe, but 3 or 4 won't.

From contributor S:
True, but the problem is that with wipe on poly, it takes 6+ coats to equal one applied by spray/brush. 2-3 coats will not offer much more protection than an oil only finish.

From contributor W:
Thin vinyl sealer 50% and spray 1 coat. Scuff smooth. Thin dull rubbed top coat 50% and spray and be done with it.

From contributor T:
Hand rubbed from a consumer usually means a rubbing oil. They generally are unaware of complex buffing and polishing techniques sequentially done to a film upon drying and curing.

Her best bet is probably to hand rub Bio Poly NT, a couple coats, with some Looking Glass Beeswax Polish for a topcoat and for maintenance. These will be gorgeous, simple and mild enough for her to do herself. It can get wet for a while with no maintenance but not if left overnight. I did a nice cherry center island in a kitchen like this (below). It gets high use every day. It's been five years and it's still in great condition. The homeowners say they put the beeswax on it once or twice a year.

If she decides she doesn't want to do maintenance, she could use Aqualine Satin. This looks like a hand rubbed finish, but is actually a super fine high density film. (No poly, isocyanates, etc.) It can be wiped or sprayed on and would give water/chemical protection that most tables require. She doesn't need to buff it or polish it. It just looks hand rubbed due to the formula.

And the best thing of all is she wouldn't be introducing any toxic solvents into her home and if you do the work, you won't get poisoned to make a buck!

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all who responded. She ended up going with Minwax fast drying polyurethane. She spoke to Minwax and was told it can be wiped on even though the can says brush on.
Any predictions?

From contributor S:
Yuck! "Hand rubbed" finish boils down to Minwax poly? Ugh! By this I am positive she would have been very happy with your standard finish schedule and it would almost assuredly have been a superior finish. Predict she will be tickled pink with it mostly because she did it herself!