How to polish clear coat by hand

By Mego Kimani •  Updated: 06/19/23 •  5 min read

When it comes to finishing wood, many people may overlook the importance of rubbing out the final coat. However, taking the time to properly polish a finish can make all the difference in achieving a high-quality, hand-rubbed look. In this guide, we will walk you through the steps of rubbing out a finish, including the tools and techniques necessary to achieve a mirror-like finish.

Choosing the Right Finish

Before you begin rubbing out your finish, it’s important to choose the right type of finish. Gloss lacquer or varnish are ideal options for achieving a hand-rubbed look, as they do not contain flattening agents that produce a low-luster result. Satin or semi-gloss finishes may feel smoother after being rubbed out, but they will not achieve the same polished mirror finish as gloss finishes.

Hand-rubbed lacquer finish

Brushing lacquer is just one step in the process of achieving a hand-rubbed lacquer finish. After applying the lacquer, you will need to hand-rub the surface to remove any ridges or rough spots. After 24-48hrs you can begin rubbing the brushed lacquer.

Wet Sanding

The first step in rubbing out a finish is wet sanding. Using 320-grit silicon carbide paper See the guide on sandpaper grits), sand the surface of the finish with the grain. This will help to eliminate any dust that may have settled during the drying time. Be sure to use steady pressure and sand evenly across the surface, being careful not to break through the edges and expose the wood underneath the finish. Once the paper starts sticking to the wood through suction, it’s time to change the paper.

Steel Wool

After wet sanding, it’s time to move on to steel wool. Using No.OOOO steel wool, rub the surface of the finish with even pressure. Be cautious when polishing shellac, as the heat generated by the friction of rubbing can soften the shellac and damage the finish. When you see traces of dust on the bottom of the pad, it’s time to unfold the pad and roll it tightly again, exposing a new area of clean wool. Once the entire finish is shiny, you know you’ve done a good job with the steel wool.

Should you use steel wool on water-based finishes?

It is generally not recommended to use steel wool on water-based finishes. Water-based finishes tend to be softer than solvent-based finishes and the steel wool can cause scratches or leave steel wool fibers embedded in the finish. Instead, it is best to use synthetic abrasive pads or non-abrasive cleaning cloths for water-based finishes. Additionally, it is important to always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for any finish product you use.

Pumice and Rottenstone

For those who want to take their finish to the next level, pumice and rottenstone can be used to further polish polyurethane. Pumice is powdered volcanic ash that comes in grits from IF to 4F, with IF being the coarsest. Rottenstone is decomposed limestone that is a gray color. Both can be used with water or mineral oil to further abrade and polish poly. However, by today’s standards, car polishing compounds offer the same effect with much less aggravation.

how to buff polyurethane by hand

Buffing polyurethane by hand is a great way to achieve a smooth and glossy finish on your woodworking project. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  1. Prepare the Surface: Before buffing, make sure that the polyurethane finish is fully cured and completely dry. Then, use a soft cloth to remove any dust or debris from the surface of the finish.
  2. Choose the Right Buffing Pad: To buff by hand, you will need a soft, lint-free cloth. Microfiber cloths or old t-shirts work well for this purpose.
  3. Apply Buffing Compound: Apply a small amount of buffing compound onto the cloth. A good quality automotive rubbing compound or a specialized buffing compound designed for use on polyurethane finishes works best.
  4. Begin Buffing: Rub the cloth onto the polyurethane surface in a circular motion, using light to medium pressure. Continue buffing until you achieve the desired level of shine. If necessary, apply more buffing compound as you go.
  5. Clean the Surface: Once you have finished buffing, use a clean, soft cloth to wipe away any remaining buffing compound from the surface of the finish.
  6. Apply a Protective Coat: To protect the newly buffed finish, you can apply a coat of wax or polish. This will also help to enhance the shine and prolong the life of the finish.


Once you’ve finished polishing with the compounds, apply a coat of Butcher (amber) wax or Minwax dark wax, depending on the color of your finish. This will help to protect and seal the finish, while also adding an additional layer of shine.

How to polish clear coat by hand summary

While rubbing out a finish may seem like an unnecessary step, taking the time to properly polish your finish can make all the difference in achieving a hand-rubbed look. By following these simple steps and using the right tools and techniques, you can achieve a mirror-like finish that will make your woodwork stand out.

Recommended Reading

Top Polyurethane Cleaners

Mego Kimani

Hi there, my name is Mego Kimani, and I am the owner of Woodmeter, a website dedicated to wood finishing. At Woodmeter, we offer a comprehensive resource for woodworkers and DIY enthusiasts, providing information on everything from achieving the perfect finish to product recommendations and technique guides. Our goal is to empower our community with the knowledge they need to create beautiful, long-lasting finishes on their projects, no matter their skill level or experience.