What's the best way to get a satin finish?
I want a satin finish for my cherry dining table, and I have a supply of both satin and gloss varnish. Assuming I brush on three coats, which is the best way: two coats of gloss and a final coat of satin, or three coats of gloss followed by rubbing out the finish?
–Adam Bedford, Rockford, Michigan
Conventional wisdom once called for applying gloss on all but the final coat, which would be satin, Adam. Some believed multiple coats of satin might obscure the grain; others thought gloss finishes were more durable than satin finishes. Bob Flexner, author of Understanding Wood Finishing, tested the grain-obscuring theory and found there was no noticeable difference in wood-grain clarity between sample surfaces with gloss undercoats and those where satin finish was used for each coat. That's because the fine silica flatting agents buried beneath the surface of a satin finish become invisible. Only the granules on the surface diffuse reflected light to create a satin sheen. As for hardness, satin finish is just gloss finish with the added flatting agent, so there's no difference in hardness.
We recommend combining elements of your two choices. Apply three coats of satin finish. Then rub out the topcoat to remove surface flaws, such as trapped dust. For a super-smooth finish, first level the surface by sanding up to 600 grit followed by 0000 steel wool. Then rub the surface with 2F and 4F pumice in mineral oil for an even satin sheen. Use satin finish on the routed edges and any other areas where you don't rub out the finish.