Rubbing out wood furniture brings out its natural beauty and luster. Proper rubbing techniques allow the wood’s grain and texture to shine while providing protection. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about creating stunning hand-rubbed finishes on wood furniture.
What Is Rubbing Wood Furniture
Rubbing wood furniture involves gently massaging an oil or wax finish into the wood using a soft cloth in a circular polishing motion. This process nourishes the wood while building up layers of protection.
The main steps for rubbing out wood furniture are:
- Prep the wood by sanding up to 220 or 320 grit to ensure an ultra-smooth surface. Start with a coarser grit sandpaper to remove any existing finish or defects, then work up to the finer grit for an even, smooth texture.
- Apply a thin coat of oil, wax, or oil/wax blend using a clean cotton or microfiber cloth. Less is more here—you want to rub the finish into the grain, not create a thick layer on top.
- Gently rub the finish into the grain using small circular motions, like giving the wood a soothing massage. Remove any excess.
- Allow the finish to cure following the product directions. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
- Apply additional thin coats in the same manner, rubbing each one well and allowing proper curing time between coats. 3-5 coats is typical for an oil finish.
- Give the final coat a more vigorous rubbing to create an even, consistent sheen. A polishing compound can enhance the luster further.
The finished product will have a softly glowing luster accentuating the wood’s natural pattern and color. Frequent re-application will be needed to maintain the rubbed look over time. But it’s a small price for wood that looks like a master craftsman spent hours hand-rubbing it with tender loving care.
Prepping and Sanding the Wood
They say every masterpiece starts with a blank canvas. The same goes for rubbing out wood furniture. Before reaching for that first can of oil or tub of wax, it’s essential to start with properly prepped and sanded wood. Here are some tips:
- Sand with progressively finer grits, starting around 80 grit to remove existing finishes/scratches and working up to 220 or 320 grit for an ultra-smooth surface.
- Always sand in the direction of the wood grain. Going against the grain can leave unsightly scratch marks.
- Pay extra attention to rounded edges or crevices where sandpaper may not easily reach.
- Finish sanding by hand in the direction of the grain using a sanding block or by rubbing the wood with ultra-fine steel wool.
- Dust off the wood thoroughly before moving to the next step. Tack cloths grab dust that evades normal rags or brushes.
- Fill any deeper holes or imperfections with colored wood filler before finishing. Allow proper drying/curing time before sanding flush.
The goal is silky-smooth wood that gives oil or wax finishes something to grip. A proper sanding sets the stage for the natural wood grain to steal the show.
Guide to Oils for Rubbing Wood Furniture
Oils are common finishes for hand-rubbed furniture, offering deep nourishment for the wood while building up a protective layer. The most popular options include:
Tung Oil – Provides a warm golden glow while waterproofing and protecting the wood. Pure tung oil dries slowly, so polymerized versions that cure faster are more common. Offers good scratch resistance.
Linseed Oil – Made from flaxseed, this traditional oil is known for deeply penetrating wood pores. Its natural oils help showcase the wood’s figure and grain patterns. However, it must be applied in very thin coats to avoid a gummy, sticky buildup.
Walnut Oil – Like its nut namesake, it is prized for penetrating and nourishing wood. It cures to a hard, durable finish with a subtle sheen. Has less yellowing effect than other oils.
Mineral Oil – Won’t technically “dry” or cure but gives wood a darkened, wetted appearance. It’s food-safe and won’t go rancid, making it a good wood lubricant. But it must be reapplied regularly as it doesn’t offer long-term protection.
Olive Oil – A readily available food-grade oil that provides moderate protection for wood. It requires many thin coats for best results but brings out a nice patina over time.
No matter which oil you choose, the keys are applying thin coats and allowing proper curing time between applications. Read the product directions carefully and test on scrap wood first. With patience, oils can create stunning “hand-rubbed” finishes.
Wax Finishes for Wood
Wax finishes offer an alternative to oils, imparting wood surfaces with a lustrous protective sheen. Common options include:
Beeswax – Produces a warm luster and pleasant honey-like aroma. Can be used as a pure beeswax finish or blended with other waxes or oils into a “wax polish.” Should be applied in very thin layers and buffed vigorously.
Carnauba Wax – Extremely hard wax derived from palm tree leaves that creates a high-gloss shine. Often blended with beeswax or resins to make it easier to apply and buff out.
Paste Wax – A blended wax that has been dissolved into a solvent to form a thick, creamy paste for easy application. It provides great protection along with a lustrous sheen when buffed.
No matter what wax you choose, proper application technique is key:
- Apply wax in small sections using a clean, soft cloth.
- Allow the wax to slightly haze or dry for a few minutes.
- Vigorously buff out the wax by hand until glossy using a separate lint-free cloth.
- Adding additional coats will increase protection and sheen.
With some elbow grease, wax finishes can create stunning “piano gloss” wood surfaces. Their lower odor and quick application time are a plus compared to oil finishes.
What Not to Use: Rubbing Alcohol
Despite its name, rubbing alcohol is not recommended for use on fine wood furniture. Here’s why it should be avoided:
- Can dry out and discolor wood over time.
- Provides no protective qualities—won’t nourish wood or build up a protective film.
- Strips away oils and finishes as it dries.
- Can raise grain and leave wood feeling rough.
A mild soap/water solution applied with a damp cloth is best for cleaning wood. Always dry surfaces thoroughly after cleaning. If disinfecting, look for wood-safe options like hydrogen peroxide or vinegar solutions. Avoid bleach and ammonia products.
The Art of “Rubbing Out” a Wood Finish
“Rubbing out” is a finishing process after a varnish, lacquer or oil finish has fully cured on wood. The goal is to create an ultra-smooth, polished surface by manually rubbing the finish with abrasives. Here’s how it works:
- Allow finish to cure completely, around 2 weeks for oils/varnish, a month for lacquer.
- Rub gently with 0000 steel wool toward the wood grain to rub the surface smooth.
- Follow up by hand-rubbing with 1500+ grit wet/dry sandpaper and water.
- Wipe away all dust with a lint-free cloth. Apply a thin coat of paste wax.
- Buff the wax thoroughly by hand until the wood has a glass-smooth finish.
The rubbing process removes dust nibs or imperfections in the cured finish, burning it to a glossy sheen. It takes patience, but the results speak for themselves.
Filling Holes, Fixing Imperfections
Part of prepping wood for an oil or wax finish is fixing any dings, gouges or holes. Here are some products that get the job done:
Wood Filler – Available in solvent and water-based types, wood filler pastes easily fill holes, cracks and defects in wood. Choose a filler tinted to match your wood’s color. Allow to fully cure before sanding smooth.
Plastic Wood – A two-part epoxy wood filler that dries hard enough for shaping, sanding and drilling once fully cured. Use to repair missing chunks or dry rot damage before refinishing.
Burn-in Sticks – Colored wax fillers in stick form that melt into defects with friction heat. Available in many wood tone colors. Rub over repair to blend the wax into surrounding finish.
Fill markers – Markers containing thick colored fill “ink” that fills tiny nicks and scratches. Provides instant touch-ups to damaged finish before rubbing out.
Putty sticks – Solid putty sticks formulated to fill small defects and holes in wood. Some include wax to help fill pores. Sand smooth after drying.
Decorative Rub-On Transfers
Looking to add some decorative flair to your rubbed wood furniture? Rub-on transfers provide an easy way to apply complex designs. Here’s an overview:
- What are they? – Rub-on transfers contain intricate designs like scrollwork, florals, and geometric patterns printed in special inks.
- How do they work? – A plastic applicator tool rubs The transfers onto the wood surface. The pressure transfers the design ink directly onto the wood.
- Applying transfers – Ensure the wood surface is clean. Cut out the desired portion of the transfer and place it ink-side down on the wood. Use the applicator to rub the back of the transfer for 30-60 seconds. Slowly peel away the top layer to reveal the design.
- Finishing transfers – Remove any leftover adhesive with mineral spirits. Top-coat with a thin finish layer like shellac to seal and protect the design.
- Design options – Transfers come in a huge variety of motifs from traditional to modern. Mix colors and layer transfers for custom effects. Create borders, medallions, and other accents.
- Pro tips – Practice first on scrap wood. Check alignment carefully before rubbing down transfers. Work in small sections for intricate patterns.
Wood transfers allow even amateur woodworkers to add ornate decorative details that would be difficult to recreate by hand. You can adorn your hand-rubbed furniture with impressive designs with a little practice.
Achieving a Hand-Rubbed Finish
A hand-rubbed finish takes wood from ordinary to extraordinary. As the name suggests, this finish is applied by hand, not machine. The finish—whether an oil, varnish or lacquer—is manually rubbed into the wood using a cloth. This removes any drips or dust nibs while creating an ultra-smooth surface with enhanced luster. It’s a hallmark of fine furniture that commands premium prices.
Here’s an overview of how to achieve this elite finish:
- Choose the finish – Oils, varnish, lacquer and shellac are common base coats. Oils allow the most custom rubbing effects.
- Apply thin coats – Use a high-quality natural bristle brush or wiping cloth. Too much finish prevents absorption into the wood.
- Allow to partially dry – Wait until the finish is tacky before rubbing. This could take 10-60 minutes.
- Rub by hand – Use a clean, soft cotton cloth. Rub the entire surface using small circular motions. Remove any drips or sags.
- Repeat – Apply 3-5 coats, allowing each to dry and then rubbing out. Sand lightly between coats if needed.
- Final rub out – After the last coat dries, perform a vigorous hand rub using wax or polishing compound.
It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. But the resulting depth and luminosity of a hand-rubbed finish is beyond compare. The wood seems to glow with an inner warmth and refinement.
FAQs and Tips for Stunning Results
After reading the basics, you likely have questions about mastering hand rubbed finishes. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions along with expert tips for success:
What is the best oil for rubbing out furniture?
For beginners, polymerized tung oil is easy to apply while providing good protection. Walnut and linseed oils also perform well.
Should I thin the oil?
Thinning with mineral spirits improves absorption on the first coat. Reduce by 10-30% depending on oil viscosity.
How long does it take oil to dry?
Drying time depends on temperature, humidity and oil type. Most oils dry in 6-24 hours. Allow 2-3 days between coats.
How do I get a smooth oil finish?
Sand to at least 220 grit before applying oil. Rub each coat thoroughly. Rub the final coat with 0000 steel wool once dry.
Can I use water-based polyurethane?
Oil-based poly provides better rubbing properties. But water-based types can also be hand-rubbed with good results.
What wax gives the most lustrous finish?
Pure carnauba wax creates the highest gloss levels. Beeswax and paste waxes offer a more subdued sheen.
How do I get a mirror finish?
Finish sand to 3000+ grit. Rub out the final coating with a polishing compound. Use a power buffer for large surfaces.
Should I rub in a circular or back/forth motion?
Small circular rubbings help fill pores evenly. Always rub in the direction of the wood grain for best results.
How long does the finish last?
Durability depends on the product. Oils may need reapplying every 1-2 years for optimal luster. Wax finishes can last 5+ years.
Additional Products for Restoring and Protecting Wood
In addition to oils, waxes and abrasives, certain specialty products can come in handy when restoring and maintaining furniture:
Restor-A-Finish – Wax-based product for blending out minor scratches, water marks, rings and other blemishes in finished wood. Available in various wood tone colors.
Wood cleaner – Non-toxic cleaners specifically formulated for cleaning soiled wood surfaces without damaging the finish. Murphy’s Oil Soap is a popular brand. Avoid harsh cleaners.
Conditioners – Products like Howard Feed-N-Wax impart oils, waxes and UV protectants into wood finishes to replenish their protective qualities.
Polishes – Polishing creams contain fine abrasives to buff wood to a lustrous shine. Can also help fill micro-scratches. Avoid wax-based polishes under oil/varnish finishes.
Guards – Protectants like paste wax or polyurethane provide a renewable sacrificial barrier against moisture and spills. Should be reapplied every 1-2 years.
Touch up markers – Available in various wood tones, these oil-based markers fill in minor scratches and finish imperfections. Easy to blend with surrounding finish.
Furniture pads – Adhesive felt pads on chair and table legs prevent scratches and floor damage. Protect tabletops with cloth pads when not in use.
With proper care, your hand-rubbed finish can remain stunning for generations. Keep wood conditioned and protected to retain its vibrancy.
Achieving a professional hand-rubbed finish on wood may seem daunting to novices. But with research and practice, you can master expert woodworkers’ techniques to uncover stunning beauty within each piece.
The basics are straightforward – sand smooth, apply thin coats of your chosen finish in the direction of the grain, then gently rub out each layer by hand. Doing this properly rewards you with wood that seems to glow as if lit from within.
Oils, waxes, polishes and abrasives each play a role. Experiment to find what works best for your specific furniture wood and desired look. Don’t be afraid to put in elbow grease buffing coats to a smooth luster.
While hand rubbing takes patience and effort, the results speak for themselves. You’ll delight in how oils and waxes accentuate colorful grain patterns and unique figure within your wood. Furniture goes from mundane to museum-worthy.
Approach the process with care and reverence for the natural beauty hidden within each board. The wood will thank you for your efforts by coming vividly to life, ready to pass its warming glow on to future generations.