How to Convert Gloss Varnish to a Satin Finish

Converting a gloss varnish to a satin finish is no more complicated than sanding.
Sand glossy varnish to convert it to a satin finish.Sand glossy varnish to convert it to a satin finish.
The process, called "rubbing out," scuffs and abrades the glossy varnish to take away its shine. When done correctly, rubbing out also removes any imperfections present in the original gloss varnish. But the process requires a delicate touch. Work carefully and the piece will develop a smooth, professional-grade satin finish without sanding down to bare wood.

Step 1

Fill the mister with water. Add a few drops of liquid dish soap per cup of water in the mister.

Step 2

Tear a sheet of 320-grit carbide paper into quarters. Wrap one quarter around a sanding block.

Step 3

Spray any dust pimples, high spots, drips or any other raised imperfections in the varnish with the soap solution. Sand those raised parts down with the carbide paper. Sand just enough to level the imperfections; do not sand into the finish. Check the sandpaper periodically.

Step 4

Tear a sheet of 600-grit carbide paper into quarters. Wrap one quarter around a sanding block.

Step 5

Spray a section of the varnish with soapy water. Wet-sand the section just enough to scuff and take the shine out of the varnish. Wet-sand the edges first, then sand the interior of the wood. Use short strokes and sand in the direction of the wood grain. Keep the work surface wet. Brush aside the sanding slush as you go. Switch to a fresh piece or section once the grain gets clogged with sanding slush. Continue wet sanding section by section, until you scuff the entire piece. After you finish, inspect the piece with a flashlight to check for any shiny, missed spots.

Step 6

Wipe all traces of sanding slush away with a moist rag.

Step 7

Repeat Steps 4 through 6 with 800-grit carbide paper. Scuff just enough to sand down the sanding marks made with the 600-grit carbide paper.

Step 8

Unravel a pad of steel wool. Fold the flattened pad into quarters. Wrap the folded steel wool over a sanding block.

Step 9

Spray a section of the sanded varnish with soapy water. Sand the varnish in the direction of the grain. Make three passes over the section. Use long strokes. Overlap each stroke slightly. Refold the steel wool to expose a new section. Make three more passes over the section. Refold and sand in this manner two more times to make a total of 12 passes. Keep the work surface wet and brush aside the sanding slush as you go. Switch to a fresh piece or section once the grain gets clogged with sanding slush.

Step 10

Wipe the surface clean with a rag moistened with naphtha and allow it to dry. Observe the finish. If it is satisfactory, move on to the next step. If the surface is still too rough, make another set of three passes.

Step 11

Repeat Steps 8 through 10 to convert the rest of the piece to a satin finish.

Step 12

Moisten a dry rag with naphtha. Wipe the surface clean.

Things You Will Need

  • Plant mister
  • Liquid dish soap
  • 320- and 600- and 800-grit silicon carbide wet/dry paper
  • Sanding block
  • Flashlight
  • Rag
  • 0000-grade synthetic steel wool
  • Naphtha

Tips

  • The edges of an old varnish finish are the thinnest. Make fewer passes on the edges to avoid penetrating through the finish.
  • Varnish must cure for the amount of time the manufacturer recommends before it can be rubbed out. If the varnish gets gummy as you sand, it needs more time to cure.

About the Author

Based in Houston, Texas, Meg Butler is a professional farmer, house flipper and landscaper. When not busy learning about homes and appliances she's sharing that knowledge. Butler began blogging, editing and writing in 2000. Her work has appered in the "Houston Press" and several other publications. She has an A.A. in journalism and a B.A. in history from New York University.