Polishing Out Polyurethane

Hand-rubbing a polyurethane finish with fine sandpaper or pumice can overcome poly's "plastic" or "removed" look, and bring back some of the wood's natural tone. October 19, 2005

Once a polyurethane finish (wipe-on) is applied to the wood and is set, is there any way to penetrate it with an oil to flush out the grain and tone without having to strip and/or sand down to the open grain again?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
There are reactive coatings and evaporative coatings. The reactive coatings do not resolvate, and your wipe on poly coating is one of the reactive coatings.

From the original questioner:
Then what would be the best approach to compensate and/or lessen that removed-from-the-wood glaze the poly leaves? Steel wool down and wax?

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
Describe the steps you've used so far and the problem you're trying to correct.

From contributor C:
I did this same exact thing with a cheesy looking coffee table that was stained pine with a brush on poly finish. The stain was horrible and there were blotches everywhere, not to mention you could still see some brush marks. Rather than completely strip it (wasn't worth the dollar effort involved), I simply cleaned it thoroughly with hot, soapy water. I dried it off and then scuff sanded it with 320 grit. I then applied a sealer (vinyl sealer), but you could also use Zinssers' Bulls Eye Seal Cote de-waxed shellac. I scuff sanded with 320 grit and then applied a toner spray of the wood color I wanted. You could mix your own or buy a few cans of Mohawk's spray toners, depending on the size of the piece. I then allowed it to dry, then sprayed on the new lacquer topcoat.

This is a very easy process and only takes a minimal amount of time and if the color can be darker, this is the way to go. If you want a lighter color, you will have to completely strip it and start from scratch.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the suggestion, but I've used Koa here... and while the poly glaze effect is something that I'd rather not have, I don't want to totally wipe out and obscure the texture and color tone of the Koa that is clearly there. It's not that the poly wipe application is blotchy or poorly applied. It's that its effect distances (or glazes over) the real luster and tone of the wood.

From contributor F:
I am not sure what you are trying to achieve, but many years ago we used to paint with polyurethane and then rub the whole job down with steel wool and wax, which allows the surface to come through and leaves a low sheen surface that is very smooth but not brassy.

From the original questioner:
Yes, Contributor F, I think that's going to be the most effective approach, given I'm not prepared to sand down and start all over. Thanks for the feedback.

From contributor M:
You may also want to consider rubbing out with pumice, or polishing up with Rottenstone. These two powders will give you a fine finish to complete your project.

From the original questioner:
Will the pumice increase the glazed, removed effect which poly gives or heighten it?
I've never used it. Can you also suggest the most effective way to apply it?

From contributor N:
If it is to reduce the plastic look of poly, and look like a French polish, I think I did something similar to a new end table that had a satin or dull finish to match an antique armoire that had shellac on it and was French polished.

I used 0000 steel wool first to smooth the finish, which was fairly level already (if not, I use wet/dry sandpaper first). Don't be alarmed when the finish becomes even duller and less reflective. Similar to the #9 post, I then used pumice and rottenstone to bring up the shine, followed by wax. It takes a lot of elbow grease with both powders, but I was amazed at how shiny and reflective it turned out. I thought the flatteners used in many new finishes to make them satin or semi-gloss would not allow me to get the shine I wanted, but it did work. No matter what finish I use and especially with a poly, I always use wax as the last step.

From contributor G:
You can use Abralon pads to de-gloss the finish, or 3M autobody sandpapers that go up to 8000 grit. You can work through the grits till you like the sheen (2000 might be a good place to stop), then coat thinly with car wax (which will add to the gloss slightly). It will look like hand rubbed furniture, because that is what it has become.