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You can rub out nearly any film finish, including polyurethane, lacquer, and shellac. With the latter two, each topcoat bonds with the one beneath it to form one single layer. With poly, though, you'll want to apply a full-strength final coat to avoid cutting through to the layer below.
Although a rubbed finish solves some problems, it highlights others if you shortchange the surface preparations. For example, a porous wood, such as red oak, looks pockmarked because the pores don't fill with finish. To prevent that, always seal porous woods with a coat of the finish you'll use for your topcoat. Then fill the pores with a commercial compound such as Behlen's Por-O-Pac. (See Sources, last slide) Follow that with three coats of film finish as close to full strength as you can apply.
Brush on each coat as evenly as possible close to the edges to avoid sanding or rubbing through the finish there. However, avoid applying extra-heavy coats. Yes, thick coats protect against sand-through, but they also drip and sag more than moderate coats. And a heavy finish takes longer to cure.
Rubbing only works on a fully cured film finish. On anything less, you'll only smear the finish instead of polishing it. To tell when a finish has cured, sniff it. If you smell solvents, it needs more curing time.
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