Applying a Mirror Finish (by Hand)

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Introduction: Applying a Mirror Finish (by Hand)

About: Go sit in the Faraday cage and think about what you've done...

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

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

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

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

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

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"

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

(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.

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    125 Comments

    I know this is an older thread, but I wanted to say thank you!! I am a cosplayer, and have used this tutorial multiple times on our weapons props to give them that beautiful mirror shine without them being real metal. Awesome tutorial, and a HUGE help. THANK YOU!!!

    1 reply
    user

    Awesome -- you are welcome!

    I’m ready to buff by hand! But am I going to missing a lot of that glossy quality if compared to buffing with hand drill+pads?

    1 reply

    This project was all done by hand...it can be done!

    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?

    1 reply

    Sorry, I don't know.

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

    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.

    3 replies

    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!

    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?

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

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

    3 replies

    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.

    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?

    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...

    Awesome! Missed this before...

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

    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--

    1 reply

    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.