Buff On a High-Gloss Finish

A lathe-mounted buffing system shines turnings and much more.

For an eye-catching shine on turned projects, use the same tool that made them—your lathe. Then, stretch your equipment investment by using the same setup to finish other projects small enough to hold. You’ll need a set of three buffing wheels, an adaptor for mounting the wheels, tripoli and white-diamond buffing compounds, and a bar of carnauba wax [Sources].

Begin with a good finish

A glossy finish starts with smooth wood, so sand projects up to 320 grit before you begin polishing and waxing. On turned projects, follow up sanding on the lathe by hand-sanding with a 320-grit sanding sponge. If you’re working with a hard exotic wood, such as cocobolo, continue sanding up to 1000 grit.

You can polish and wax bare wood, but a film finish provides better protection. We prefer one with a penetrating oil to make the grain “pop,” so the bowl shown received four wipe-on coats of Waterlox Original [photo below, Sources]. You can also use Danish oil, but avoid water-based finishes that can soften from the heat of the buffing wheel. Let the finish dry until you no longer smell solvent on the surface.

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An oil-varnish mix brings out the color of the wood and seals the pores while creating a foundation you can polish and wax.

While you’re waiting for the finish to dry, begin preparing your wheels. Attach a strip of adhesive-backed 100-grit sandpaper to a piece of flat scrap. Then, mount one of the buffing wheels on your lathe and set the motor speed to about 1,800 rpm. Note: For wheel preparation and buffing, wear eye protection and a respirator to guard against airborne lint and abrasives.

Turn on the lathe and press the abrasive against the fabric hard enough to slightly flare out the sides of the wheel, photo below. You can reduce the mess by having a helper hold the nozzle of a shop vacuum near the spinning wheel while you press the sandpaper against it. Then, turn off the lathe and vacuum lint and loose sandpaper grit from the layers of fabric. Repeat this process for the remaining two wheels.

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Sandpaper removes lint that might otherwise find its way onto your project. Paper protects the lathe from loose polish.

3 steps to a glossy finish

1 Begin the polishing process by mounting the all-linen wheel and turn on the lathe, again at 1,800 rpm. Press the stick of red tripoli polish—a dustlike silica—against the wheel edge until it turns red. Unlike the finer polish and wax you’ll use later, you can load the wheel with this polish. The tripoli abrasive breaks down into smaller particles as you work, so reload the wheel when it no longer removes the sanding scratches.

To prevent buffing wheels from flipping the workpiece back toward you, hold it low against the wheel [photo below] and apply light to moderate pressure. Keep the project moving and avoid polishing any one place for more than a couple seconds to prevent heating and softening the film finish.

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A linen wheel loaded with tripoli polish evens out scratches left by the 320-grit sandpaper. A low gloss already has started to emerge.

Frequently check your progress in an angled light. You should see an even sheen that contrasts with the duller less-polished areas. Once you achieve an even sheen, stop. Then, wipe the surface with a soft cloth.

2 Replace the linen wheel with a softer linen/cotton wheel. Turn on the lathe and touch the white abrasive stick against the cloth [photo below]. You only need a small amount of this extremely fine abrasive.

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Hold the white abrasive stick against the linen/cotton wheel for only about 2 seconds to load it for extremely fine polishing.

Polish your project as you did with the tripoli wheel, but use a lighter touch and keep exposing new surfaces to the wheel. For flat surfaces, polish end to end, with the grain, in overlapping passes.

3 After you buff to the desired sheen, replace the linen/cotton wheel with a flannel wheel. Turn on the lathe and lightly press the carnauba wax stick against the fabric. You’ll need even less of this than the white abrasive.

The wax doesn’t polish the finish; it fills the fine scratches left by the white abrasive for a glossy surface. Work the surface until the wax leaves an even shine. If you notice smudges as you handle the project, you’re using too much wax. Wear off excess wax on the wheel by holding a piece of clean scrap against the edge. Then, buff again until the wax hardens without smudging. 

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Buffed and waxed to a high shine, this turned bowl reflects light evenly around its entire surface. Should you need to renew the finish, simply buff on another coat of carnauba wax.

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