Introduction: Applying a Mirror Finish (by Hand)

Picture of Applying a Mirror Finish (by Hand)

How to apply a high-gloss finish by hand, using abrasive polishing.

This technique works for just about anything--furniture, automobiles, guitars, etc.

For large projects (cars), power sanders and buffers are helpful. But for small things, it's great. And for beginners, hand-sanding and rubbing is less likely to burn or sand though paint and clear--it's a safer route...

Hey--it's a bit intimidating at first, but really not that difficult (with the right supplies.)

This example is a vintage thin-line hollow-body guitar that needed several structural repairs....

Step 1: Supplies

Picture of Supplies

Supplies for this project are basic and inexpensive:

1) Rags. Lots of rags.
2) Wet/dry sandpaper-- 400 or 600 grit to start, 800, 1000, 2000 to finish.
3) A sponge for a sanding block.
4) A bucket of soapy water.
5) Rubbing compound.

Rubbing compounds and fine sandpaper can be found at automotive supply, home improvement, or craft stores.

Important Note: Avoid any rubbing or polishing compounds that contain silicon. It may look pretty, but any subsequent painting will be a nightmare!

Other supplies:

6) Jewelers Rouge (or "polishing compound")
7) Polish

(ible user Spokehedz indicates that block polishing compounds like Jewelers Rouge are available at Home Depot. Any real hardware store is also a good source.)

Step 2: Getting Started

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Of course, you need something to polish.

And for smaller objects, a workspace is required. Even for cars, this should be done indoors.

I used a old workmate portable bench, and covered it with old towels. They help stabilize the work, and prevent scratching.

After this piece was repaired, it was sprayed with lacquer (five coats.) The resulting finish is a semi-gloss with a fair amount of pebbling and orange-peeling.

Lacquer should be allowed to dry for several weeks, but you can work with it sooner. Don't, under any circumstance, use any masking tape on fresh lacquer, even the blue "easy release" tape. You'll have to start all over...

These techniques aren't limited to lacquer, of course. Acrylic paints, urethanes, etc. will work just as well (and not have the long drying time of nitrocellulose lacquer.)

Step 3: Initial Wet Sanding

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First, the surface of the paint or clearcoat must be sanded to remove any imperfections (deep nicks and scratches must be filled before lacquering, however.)

Soak the sandpaper in the soapy water. Use your sponge as a sanding block. I cut this small one from a larger sponge, and this is one of several cut.

Use 400 or 600 grit wet-dry paper. Be especially careful during this step, as sanding through the finish is easy with the coarser paper. Preparation (sanding, filling, painting), and multiple coats of lacquer help to insure the finish is free of woodgrain texture. If grain remains in the piece, sand with the grain.

Exercise care when sanding hard edges. It's very, very easy to cut right through the finish on a corner.

Wipe the work down often, first with a damp cloth, then a dry one. Inspect visually. This will help gauge your progress.

Sand only until any uneven surface texture is removed.

Note:If you drop the sponge, sandpaper or wiping/drying rag on the floor, START OVER WITH A FRESH SPONGE, SANDPAPER, ETC.
You're likely to scratch the work, if you don't.

Step 4: Finish Wet Sanding

Picture of Finish Wet Sanding

After the surface texture is removed, the piece must be sanded with progressively finer grades of wet-dry paper.

This removes any scratches incurred in the rougher sanding stages, and assures a smooth base for the high-gloss finish.

Inspect the work visually, but also be aware of the tactile 'drag' you feel while sanding. If it's not consistent, be sure the piece is wet overall, and check the feel again. Spend a bit more time gently sanding the 'dragging' spots. If it continues to drag in areas, then moving back to a coarser grade (from 1000 to 800 grit, for instance) might be called for...

Cycle through 800, 1000 and finally 2000 grit paper. All steps are wet sanding. A gentle, circular sanding motion is fine. However, if any woodgrain texture remains, best to sand with the grain.

Step 5: Rubbing Out

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The work should now have a scratch-free 'sheen.'

A rubbing compound is now applied. Use a soft cloth--an old tee shirt works well, or a terry cloth towel.

Apply a small amount of compound to the cloth ('charge' it), don't try to rub out the whole piece at once.

Work the compound into the surface evenly. As it begins to thin and dry, you'll feel more resistance. Continue to rub. You must rub the compound dry, and off the surface for the full effect. Turning the cloth (to where it's clean) near the end of the 'charge' will help complete the rub, and remove any remaining compound. But don't work with a clean part of the rubbing cloth until it's nearly all rubbed out.

The rubbing compound should include instructions, as well. Follow them...

Step 6: The "Big Finish"

Picture of The "Big Finish"

Sorry, couldn't resist the pun...

For a final step, I used a bit of jewelers rouge on a dry cloth.

Jewelers Rouge is a very fine abrasive, and kicks the shine up that last little bit. A "polishing compound" can be substituted here. These very fine compounds are the last abrasive step in the process.

After the abrasive polishing, I also apply a quality guitar polish, which is similar to furniture polish. It can add gloss and protect the finish, but doesn't remove any finish in the process. Be sure the polish is formulated for guitars, though.

Step 7: Addendum: the Guitar

Picture of Addendum: the Guitar

(This step was added later, about a week or so after initial publishing.)

It's just to show the finished, reassembled guitar. Very little work was done to the front of the guitar, just the back and sides. But it's very pretty, so I wanted to show it off. Plays nice, too.

The guitar is a late 60's Sekova thinline hollow-body electric. This is a MIJ (made in Japan) instrument. The company imported Japanese guitars into NYC, USA in the late 1960's and early 1970's. It's common heritage with Teisco and Kawai is pretty obvious, but they were allegedly made by Aria.

I'll quote some info from the 'net. I cannot speak to it's accuracy:

Sekova was a brand name for the Musical Merchandise Company of New York. These guitars were produced by ARAI whose parent company was ARIA. These well made copy guitars were more than likely built in the Matsumuko plant in Japan.


Gytaryst (author)2016-10-15

Do you know if it's possible to get a #8 mirror finish on stainless steel by hand? Can the rouge be applied by hand or is some kind of buffing machine required?

gmoon (author)Gytaryst2016-10-15

Sorry, I don't know.

Steel is WAY harder than lacquer, and I imagine that power equipment is the best way to proceed.

brittsarts (author)2016-08-03

Hi there- i've tried everything to make my spraypainted (metal) car look glossy. It's something of an art car. I've been working on it slowly for years- it's 24 years old. I wetsanded a section until it felt soft and smooth, ( and wiped off the excess dust. I used normal sandpaper- does it absolutely have to say "wet dry" on it?) I applied the rubbing compound with a microfiber cloth, and then I applied the polishing compound. the rubbing compound doesn't "thin and dry" for me, and there was no resistance. It was much like applying lotion to my car. All i ended up with was a slight shine. What can i do to achieve the gloss mirror-like effect you have on your guitar? Thank you so much, if you figure out the problem you would be the best person ever. I've been trying to figure this out for so long.

gmoon (author)brittsarts2016-08-04

Hi -- hope I can help.

You can use the wet/dry paper dry (why they call it wet/dry!), even though I usually use it wet. The wet technique probably makes it easier; lubricates the paper, keeps dust from clogging it, etc. Wet, it can be tricky to not sand through your finish layers, though.

It's important to progress up through the finer grades of paper. I would want to prep a fine finish with over 1000 grit, wet. Probably 1200 to 2000 grit is a good idea.

And sanding alone won't do it. Rubbing compound is a must, and you're using that. I've not used every type of rubbing compound out there. I cannot guarantee they all work the same, yet I was able to develop a "feel" for it's use, and that final bit of physical resistance seemed to be where the compound did the most work. Also, it's common to use toothpaste as a rubbing compound (Crest?), and I've used that on cars and it does work, too.

The final hi-gloss comes from polishing. Rubbing compound wasn't the last step. I use the jeweler's rouge, but there are other types of polishing compounds -- undoubtedly some of those will come in liquid or paste form. The rouge I use is stick-form.

I've even used some 3000 grit sanding gel, just because I found some on closeout.

My only other thought now would be to be careful about over-sanding on edges and raised details, because that's always a danger.

Good luck!

brittsarts (author)gmoon2016-08-04

hi again- so this morning I checked on my car and everything that seemed shiny last night is now covered in white streaks of the rubbing compound. Do you know what I may have done wrong?

gmoon (author)brittsarts2016-08-05

If streaks remain, it probably wasn't rubbed out enough at the end (as it drys). Or maybe you used a little too much...

seabeebob (author)2016-07-26

Were the multiple color coats wet sanded then clear top coats applied then again a wet sanding routine?

gmoon (author)seabeebob2016-07-26

The paint was sanded where repairs were made to the original finish, then a little prep sanding was done overall before the clear. Between clear coats, some wet sanding was done due to "orange peel" effect, when it was needed -- not after every coat.

Any major scratches need to be dealt with before clear, of course.

seabeebob (author)gmoon2016-07-26

I'm under the impression that if you wet sand your color coat to a matte finish, the clear will bring back the sheen due to light refraction? This was taught to me by an auto painter, on my own truck as he sanded a beautiful black paint job to an almost grey color. After clear? WOW! You don't need many color coats I'm lead to believe, the clear is what gives the color its intensity and sheen. Is this true in your experience?

gmoon (author)seabeebob2016-07-26

I'm not sure about that, as an explanation. But I'm not certain it's wrong, either, depending on how the auto painter was using the language, etc.

This is how I think about it (I was trained and worked as a photographer for 35 years). There are basically two types of reflectivity (although everything is a mixure of both):

-- Diffuse, which is the pigment itself

-- Specular, which is the surface

A glossy black and a matte black may have identical pigments, but the glossy paint will always appear darker (actually, have a wider range of contrast), except when the surface is reflecting a large light source. In that case, the pigment beneath a glossy surface is washed out by the other light source. Think of watching a big-screen TV with a picture window right behind you. The reflection makes it difficult to see the image. Viewing angle matters.

Certainly glossy photographic prints have a greater tonal range than matte prints. Matte, however, tends to hide surface defects. How you light glossy surfaces becomes an art form itself...(it's always about light; we don't see things, we see light bouncing off things).

I do think how (and how well) the clear bonds to the paint pigment can have an effect also, but the surface of the completed work has a larger effect, IMHO.

Auto paint guys and commercial painters in general may have different opinions (especially about the "depth" of a finish, which is usually a proprietary thing), but that's how I break it down. Hope that helps...

MattW88 (author)2016-03-23

Awesome instructable! I'm refinishing a guitar that I painted before and hadn't really found any decent instructables before on how to buff out to a gloss finish, let's see how this goes!

gmoon (author)MattW882016-07-04

Awesome! Missed this before...

BigMac8974 (author)2016-07-04

can you just skip wet sanding and go to polish

gmoon (author)BigMac89742016-07-04

Depends on the condition of the surface, I suppose. Just polishing won't remove any scratches. The wet sanding does that.

DanF73 (author)2016-06-01

I know this is an old thread, but I wonder if you could give me advice on finishing a motorcycle tank. I've basically gone through all the steps you went through in terms of initial coats, but was wondering if there's an extra step I should take after the rouge to keep it substantially safe from the elements. Any thoughts? Thanks--

gmoon (author)DanF732016-06-01

Maybe just add a couple coats of clear coat after the paint...but it may need all the additional steps you've already taken, on that additional finish.

If you've done that already, I think that's pretty standard for automobiles / bikes.

DanF73 (author)gmoon2016-06-01

Ahh that makes sense. Thank you!

ehamilt (author)2015-05-30

Great instructable. Thanks. I'm assuming most of this will apply to my paint job. I've primed, painted, and clearcoated my bicycle frame using tremclad oil-based spray paint. But I'm unsure of whether to use rubbing compound or polishing compound on my clear coat to achieve a smooth and glass-like finish. Several other sites on how to paint a bike frame warn against using rubbing compound altogether as it is too abrasive. I've got about 4 coats of clear coat but can't get it perfectly smooth. My clear coat applications leave overspray and 'pebble' texture in parts, smooth in others. Also, not sure whether I should be wetsanding to make it smooth before applying the compound. I've been using 2000 grit between some coats. Will rubbing or polishing compound achieve the finish I want without wetsanding first? Thanks.

gmoon (author)ehamilt2015-05-31

I'm not familiar with the ins-and-outs of painting a bike frame, but a rubbing compound isn't as abrasive as the 2000 grit. So skipping that step will depend on how close the wet-sanding gets to the final finish.

Re: wet-sanding itself--it's up to you. It's often a good idea to sand between coats (which you're doing sometimes), to minimize the pebbling, etc. The amount of sanding depends somewhat on the thickness of the coats. I'm sure you gotta watch for sanding through the finish at the frame lugs, etc.

Maybe the contraindication about rubbing compound holds for existing factory finishes. Yes, it will certainly remove some clear / paint, so if it were done without re-clear coating the finish, it would be a "destructive" approach...

sergeiepp (author)2015-05-13

park.jaesang.5688 (author)2015-03-27

Hi there very intresting . What would you recomend getting rid of scratches on accoustic guitar .what do you mean by charge it when you Apply a small amount of compound to the cloth

gmoon (author)park.jaesang.56882015-03-27

Sorry for the confusion. In this case "charge" just means apply an amount of compound to the cloth. So when the compound on the cloth is used up, it would be "charged" again by adding more. Thanks!

park.jaesang.5688 (author)gmoon2015-03-30

Cool. What would you recomend for an acoustic guitar

gmoon (author)park.jaesang.56882015-03-31

Dang--so many options. If money isn't a consideration (it usually is), then maybe Taylor. Or Martin, if that's your thing

Otherwise, possibly Seagull or Recording King. I have an Art & Lutherie that's decent.

park.jaesang.5688 (author)gmoon2015-03-31


laluna350z (author)2014-12-16

I am thinking to do this on a plastic navigation door piece for my car, would it work on a smooth plastic surface? Or this only works on wood?


gmoon (author)laluna350z2014-12-17

Some of the polishing steps would likely work fine; I'm not certain about the sanding part. You might find a similar piece of plastic to test it on first, before moving to the actual car part.

wraith109 (author)2014-11-08

Would this work on a spray painted surface? I am trying to get a reflective gold effect and having difficulty.

gmoon (author)wraith1092014-11-10

It should. Results may vary with type of paint. Try it on a test surface first...

robert.french.1800 (author)2014-09-03

It turned out GREAT

gmoon (author)robert.french.18002014-09-05

Awesome, man!

robert.french.1800 (author)2014-09-03

You did a GREAT Job on this one and thanks so much for the instructions as I have just done a Dean Edge 09 Bass that was given to me. It was in pieces and Black and I wanted to do something different so I stripped it down and carved a handle in the upper horn and sanded out more space in the lower horn then painted it Testers Purple-licious Purple lacquer and I will use your tips on Buffing THANKS

fastbob72 (author)2014-01-03

looks good !!!! - top tip,when using wet & dry sandpaper fill up a soup bowl or equivalent with reasonably warm water,add a dash of washing up liquid and let the sandpaper soak for 10-15 mins. Try it !!!!

HavocRC (author)2013-03-12

I'll have to do this to my squire strat! Awesome i'ble!

fire1888 (author)2011-08-10

Terrific Instructable and beautiful instrument! It is possible I missed it but remember there are different strengths in rubbing compound!

sunshiine (author)2011-07-28

Thanks for sharing this ible! Very interesting.

mamamardee (author)2007-10-12

Could you help me with what you have to do to get to this point? please

gmoon (author)mamamardee2007-10-12

Can you clarify a bit? All the prep work (painting, etc.) before the abrasive steps, maybe?

mamamardee (author)gmoon2007-10-12

sure sorry i love the way this looks but there must have been several steps before this finish. ok you have this lovely thing that you want to put a nice finish on. it has scratches and is not in the best shape. you want to go from ugly to what you have accomplished. first? then? and at last what you have shown us all here. sorry if this is asking 2 much

gmoon (author)mamamardee2007-10-12

No problem, just a little hard to answer. I think if I tried to make an instructable
about the whole process, only a few people would have been interested. By limiting this to one thing, it seems to be useful to more people...

Some points (I hope this is what you're looking for):

--It's almost never a good idea to refinish something 'vintage.' From a collectors POV, ugly is often beautiful. However, in this case, the guitar had so many structural problems, it was unplayable. If it were a 50 yr old Martin or Gibson, I would have a real luthier fix it.

(and finish-wise, this guitar was really quite good--look at the last step. The front wasn't refinished.)

--Running down the defects:

1) The top was sunken, warped inward.
2) Consequently the action was 1/4 in+ at the end of the fret board
3) The prev owners had tried to 'correct' this, by tightening the truss rod as much as possible (any more, and it would have broken.) But all this does is bend the neck backward--so the guitar was playable in the first 6 frets, and horrible above that.
4) The binding was separated in one of the cutaways.
5) The back was delaminating in two areas.
6) The binding was cracked in one spot.
7) The wiring was defective (disconnections, so neither pickup worked.)
8) Small crack on the front, between the neck and the neck pickup.

--So each problem needed to be addressed and repaired. And likely each one would be enough for an instructable on it's own! You can see why I didn't want to tackle so much, I hope.

--After that, small areas needed paint touchup. Then the back and sides had to be 're-cleared' several times with lacquer. Every effort was made to keep the existing paint. I never did sand down through that...

Anyway, back to the baseball game....

katerlyn (author)gmoon2011-05-08

Very interesting, I'm pondering this for other projects. I already have rubbing compound for all the times I run my car door into my mailbox. smile.

mamamardee (author)gmoon2007-10-13

thanks this will help - hope your team did well

gmoon (author)mamamardee2007-10-13

*Sigh*. No, they didn't...

steveastrouk (author)2011-04-16

Beautiful piece of work, and a very well written Instructable.
Well done Sir.


gmoon (author)steveastrouk2011-04-16

Thank you, Steve, it's much appreciated.

truthseeker57 (author)2011-04-03

Thanks for taking the trouble to put this instructable together. Excellent. Next time I undertake a project myself I'll be putting it into practice.

lselig (author)2011-04-01

I have followed your steps and I still have little surface scratches. How do I avoid this? What am I doing wrong? How long should I be spending on each step (Sanding)? I so want this to work out. Please help?

gmoon (author)lselig2011-04-02

Maybe you could explain (or show me) what you're finishing, and that might help.

It is important that each sanding step removes the scratches from the previous step. I usually stop periodically and wipe the surface until it's clean and dry, and check the progress.

Some really tiny scratches might be evident near completion, but the polishing compound takes care of those...

lselig (author)gmoon2011-04-02

I finally got the process right. No more scratches. Thank you for posting this process. I'll show you the end product when it is done.

walterh9 (author)2010-10-24

That is one sick guitar awsome!!!

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