Rubbed-Out Antique Finish

How to get an old-world, hand-rubbed look on fine furniture no swirl marks (even in bright sun). September 14, 2006

We offer the option of furniture-type finishes for our cabinetry. It involves distressing, stain, glaze, shading, splatter and lacquer topcoats. After the finish is dry, we rub out the surface with 0000 steel wool and a slurry of wax, mineral spirits and rottenstone. The result is a "smooth to the touch" surface; additionally, the dried wax-rottenstone residue in the dings and corners of the moldings gives the appearance of the grime of the ages.

So far, so good; here's the problem. One of our popular species for this process is cherry, finished dark. When this finish is seen in full sunlight, the rub marks from the steel wool are visible and some customers complain. Since my current customer is complaining, my pressing need is for a procedure to apply to the existing finish, as described above, to reduce the rub marks. Any ideas? In the future, is there a better rub-out procedure?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor W:
Unless you are getting really compensated for the extra labor of rubbing out by hand, then I would consider in the future giving an excellent off-the-gun finish. This can be done and if you use a dulled rubbed effect finish, it will look just as good as your hand-rubbed effect.

From contributor L:
I get a good smooth-to-the-touch finish right off the gun. Just sand the coat before the final pass so it is smooth feeling. Don't just knock down the nibs - sand it so it feels glassy. I only need to rub out if I screw up, otherwise things are like glass. If you are going for the old world look from the rubbing out, you may be stuck. You might want to try some automotive techniques, rubbing compounds and buffing wheels. Also, the rottenstone may be too much of a grit jump to go from steel wool. You may need some other grits between the s.w. and the r.s. I find that 0000 s.w. is quite abrasive/scratchy to a finish.

From contributor T:
I use one of those scouring type sanding pads and auto rubbing compound. My finishes are all waterbased, so I cannot use an auto body rubbing compound with any toluene or petroleum distillates. It would melt the top of the finish, softening it and making it feel rubbery. I use a natural chemical brand that has wax in it, too. Works beautifully.

From contributor O:
Brand of steel wool? Use only Liberon for a very fine, consistent scratch pattern. If you're already using Liberon, try gray Scotch Brite; if still too rough, switch to white; if still too rough, switch to peach.

You can get a "grime of the ages" look with your glazing and shading steps. I use a black or dark brown glaze in the dents, dings and corners. Looks grungy and adds depth. Build your dry mil thickness with gloss, glaze/shade, and lock it down with a couple of very thin coats of the sheen you want. No rub out.

From contributor J:
You may want to try using a Mirka product called Abralon (3M makes something similar, but I can't remember what they call it), which is a silicon carbide abrasive bonded to an open cell foam grip pad. This allows you to attach it to a RO sander and it will hold a liquid like rubbing oil to lubricate. The result is that you get a more random scratch pattern than the scratch pattern produced by rubbing with steel wool. In the right light on dark finishes, you might see scratches, but the stuff is sold up to 4000 grit, so you may be able to minimize the effect.

From contributor M:
Rubbing it will leave scratch marks in full light, in my experience, no matter what you do. The only thing I've seen not leave that is Mirlon pads (Ultra Fine) by Mirka with two applications of Minwax Finishing Wax. Too much work unless the customer is paying extra for it.

Personally, I'd use a conversion varnish in a 15 sheen (i.e., about the dullest you can get). Conversion varnishes are duller, a lot duller, than lacquers because they contain no nitrocellulose (well, most of them don't). I know ML Campbell's stuff is a mix of melamine and polyester resins rather than NC resins. For some reason, every 15 sheen nc product (whether precat or non-cat) looks shinier than 15 sheen conversion varnish.

Glazing will give you that cruddy look (and no need to buy rottenstone) and topcoat with the same undercoat you're using (check with your manufacturer about specific procedures). I personally would not want rottenstone sediment on the exterior of my cabinets. That would not be a pleasurable day when I cleaned them for the first time.

From contributor B:
Use the Abralon pads mentioned with a tablespoon of 3M Swirl Mark Remover. The Swirl Mark Remover is what auto body shops use to get rid of the rub marks left from the buffing. It also works great for the problem you're having.