Polishing Polyurethane: How to Buff a Poly Wood Finish

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 06/09/23 • 

Once you’ve finished applying polyurethane on your tabletop, handrail, or any other wooden surface, you can take the finish to another level. Once the poly finish cures, you can polish it to achieve a smoother finish with a beautiful luster of your choice. Polishing polyurethane is easy, and we’ll show you how to do it in this article.

Wet-Dry Sanding

Before wet sanding, first, make sure your polyurethane finish has been properly cured. Curing means the poly finish has undergone all the chemical reactions and is now ready for use. Wet sanding polyurethane helps remove most imperfections on the surface, like dust that may have settled as the finish was drying.

To begin wet sanding, take a #320 grit wet-dry sandpaper, wrap it in a sanding block, and dip it in some soapy water. Start rubbing the surface of the poly in long strokes along the grain. However, you don’t have to sand along the grain because you’re sanding the polyurethane finish on top, not the bare wood.

Once in a while, wipe the polyurethane surface with a damp cloth to remove the soapy residue and see how it is coming along. You can also move up to finer grit, wet-dry sandpaper for a smoother surface. Once you’re satisfied with the finish, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Polishing a Polyurethane Finish

Once you’ve wet sanded the polyurethane finish, wipe it with a damp cloth and move on to the next polishing step. When polishing polyurethane, you can use sandpaper or steel wool to achieve a beautiful hand-rubbed luster.

Buffing Polyurethane

Buffing is a less aggressive method than polishing but also results in a polished surface. When buffing, use an orbital sander. Start at #400 grit sandpaper and move upward to finer grit sandpaper up to #1200 grit. However, if you want a finer and smoother surface, you can continue up to #2200 grit sandpaper.

As you’re buffing the surface, stop and remove any dust or residue accumulating with a clean cloth. Repeat the process with finer sandpaper until you reach your desired smoothness. However, buffing will not get you to a shiner finish; if you want a glossier look, let’s move to the next method.

Polishing Polyurethane with Steel Wool

Polishing a polyurethane finish with steel wool is great for achieving a higher gloss sheen. First, sand the surface with a fine grade #0000 steel wool. After rubbing for a few minutes, load the steel wool with paste wax or a polyurethane polishing compound. The polishing compound or wax acts as a lubricant when rubbing out the polyurethane finish.

Homax Steel Wool Grade #0000
$4.97 ($0.41 / Count)

The Homax #0000 super fine-grade steel wool is great for smoothing wood and rubbing different finishes, including polyurethane, lacquer, varnish, shellac, and much more.

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Using a polyurethane polishing compound will help you create a more consistent and better-looking shinier sheen than rubbing only steel wool.

Once you’ve rubbed on the polishing compound or paste wax with steel wool, give it some minutes to dry. After that, wipe the surface using a clean cloth to reveal a polished surface with a higher sheen. If you want a glossier appearance, you can continue polishing with the steel wool and apply a second coat of paste wax or polishing compound.

Before and After Polishing Polyurethane Tabletop

Before and After Polishing Polyurethane Tabletop

Pumice and Rottenstone

If you’re looking to bring out a higher sheen, pumice and rottenstone are very fine natural abrasives you can use. When using pumice or rottenstone, pour some lubricant, like mineral oil, on the surface and dust on a sparing coat of pumice or rottenstone. The lubricant eliminates the hazy appearance you get when rubbing dry abrasives.

You can use mineral oil or soapy water as a lubricant, but mineral oil has a higher sheen. Rub the edges with a #0000 grit steel wool, then move on to long, overlapping strokes along the grain. Once satisfied with the sheen, wipe the surface clean.

Check out our article on satin vs semi-gloss polyurethane for an in-depth reading on the difference in the sheen levels.


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