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I recently installed butcher block countertops in my kitchen. Several weeks ago, I put four coats of varnish on them, but (as always) they ended up with dust nibs. So yesterday, I wet sanded with 400 grit sandpaper (using mineral oil and water as a lubricant). That made the surface very smooth to the touch, but left an uneven sheen across the surface because the dust nibbed areas (i.e., the high points) were matte while the crevices were satin (the luster I chose for the finish). Normally, one would keep sanding until the sheen is even, but I figured I'd just add a top layer of finish thinned with mineral spirits (i.e., a wiping varnish). Theoretically, applying another layer of satin finish should make the sheen even.

Alas, it did not. Look at the picture below. Why has my top coat not evened out the finish? How can I even out the sheen?

A couple things I have considered.

  1. Bump up the sheen to semi-gloss. The top coat was a different brand of varnish, so maybe the undercoat (the un-dust-nibbed part) was more shiny than the top (thinned) coat, which could cause this diversity of sheen.

  2. Bump down the sheen to matte. Maybe dampening everything to the dust-nibbed sheen is the best way to go (for the opposite reasons stated in #1).

  3. Keep adding coats. This is, after all, thinned varnish I'm applying. Maybe it will take several more coats to even the sheen.

  4. Live with it :(

So...any ideas?

enter image description here

  • Maybe sanding is the problem. The surface of the sandpaper may be deflecting too little, or too much. Have you tried steel wool or something like a cabinet scraper? – BrownRedHawk Mar 18 '15 at 16:52
  • Thanks for the comment, @BrownRedHawk. I forgot to mention that the sandpaper wasn't backed with anything other than my hand, so it should follow the contours of the wood. I haven't tried steel wool. I could give that a shot. – dfife Mar 18 '15 at 17:36
  • If the worst case scenario is another round of polyurethane, I might give some steel wool a shot. I find it most evenly will affect all surfaces, but may not be good where you have a slight 'orange peel' kind of finish developing. – BrownRedHawk Mar 18 '15 at 17:56
  • I'll give that a try. (Although, I'm assuming, the top-coat has to fully cure first, which may take several days). – dfife Mar 18 '15 at 21:13
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Finishing should probably get its own SE site. :) I only partially jest.

In this case you will be up against several limitations to getting the finish that I think you are looking for, none of which should be considered insurmountable.

  1. Flatness
  2. Contamination
  3. Flow

If you want to keep at it and try to get a nice even finish you will need to begin to flatten the actual varnish that is currently on the counter top taking care around the edges and corners not to sand through the finish. You need to physically cut the finish flat before considering adding more varnish on top of what is currently there because you are correct, future coats will only follow and magnify any contours that are present.

You have a couple of approaches to do this now with a varnish.

Flattening Finishes

  1. Fine grit sandpaper and a sanding block.

Most of the time you don't actually need an actual block of wood to back up your sandpaper, sometimes you can get by with a stiff pad of some kind when sanding finishes such as lacquer. Varnishes are harder and stickier so you may want to opt for something pretty stiff to back up the sand paper.

A few more tips. Get a high quality 400 - 600 grit sticky back paper for finishing. 400 is about right. With the sticky back stuff, it comes in 4" or 4.5" rolls, you can get more creative and work faster when sanding finishes. You can wet sand it or dry sand it after a few days of curing. Wet is probably the way to go here. Be prepared to change to paper often. It will gum up and stop cutting then the temptation will be to just sand more vigorously which can lead to unevenness and sanding through.

I usually keep a sharp wedge of wood handy (picture a 5 degree incline plane 2 inches wide) to scrape the finish off of my sanding block / pad to get more milage out of the paper. The wood scraper does not damage the paper like a metal tool would and you can keep cutting at least twice as long per piece of paper.

Work in sections and dry the surface and evaluate your progress. You do want to evenly flatten the finish. I think you know what you are looking for, an even sheen indicating you have cut down the high points to the valleys.

If you completely sand though one coat into another you will sometime see ghost rings that can be seen under the correct light. These appear at the boundaries of coats of finish and are usually not something to worry about in a varnish finish as additional coats will cause these to be unnoticeable.

  1. Cabinet Scraper

Cabinet Scraper

A properly sharpened cabinet scraper can work miracles with a thick varnish finish. I add this just to tantalize you :). I have created mirror flat poly finishes with this tool and some good luck. I would consider this an advanced technique and would recommend practicing before I tried flattening a finish on an important project. However the time that a scraper can save you in sanding make it worth considering.

The key to this technique is to get a supremely fine and even burr on this guy and actually shave the finish with the lightest of pressure. On a well cured varnish, several days, you can almost produce little curls of finish. Care should be taken not to dig into the finish with the corners. (I usually round the corners on my cabinet scraper anyways for this very reason, not much mind you.)

Using a scraper has the disadvantage of being a more difficult technique but it can save hours if you get it right. The scraper will not gum up like paper and can produce a surface that is superior to all but the finest sandpaper. I would also only use a scraper with a varnish finish, the thicker finish the better.

Applying Final Coat

After you have satisfactorily flattened you finish, often done between coats of lacquer as well, you need to lay down the final coat or coats. The finish will need to flow properly but not be too thin and with a varnish, contamination is a big danger as these finishes take much longer to set up compared to a spray finish.

Applying the final coat of a varnish finish is probably beyond the scope of your question and I mainly wanted to highlight ways to flatten an existing coat varnish as this seems to be your most obvious next step. Best of luck Sir!

  • Thanks for the answer, @datUser. One question--I'm assuming for any of these to work, the piece itself has to be dead flat? Unfortunately, these are Ikea countertops and are FAR from flat. Any other options if they aren't? (Now I'm kicking myself for not flattening it with a hand plane beforehand). – dfife Mar 19 '15 at 15:28
  • When finishing or refinishing furniture 'dead flat' is nice but usually not a reality. What you are trying to achieve here is a good degree of 'localized flatness' Imagine if the surface were convex, you are just trying to get the surface of the finish to match the surface and flatness of the wood itself. If the counter tops are not that flat, just use a smaller sanding block. This will localize the flattening of the finish more than if you used a larger or harder sanding block. – datUser Mar 19 '15 at 15:48
  • Great, @datUser. I'll give that a go after the top-coat cures. I'm assuming a cabinet scraper will not work at this point? (Because it's too large to fit the contours of the wood). – dfife Mar 19 '15 at 15:50
  • Oh, and I agree about finishing--it SHOULD have its own site :) – dfife Mar 19 '15 at 15:50
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    @dfife that's a hard call without seeing the surface. I am sure that your intuition will be the best guide there. Check the surface using the scraper as a straight edge. If there are no real gaps underneath the scraper blade then I'd possibly consider giving it a shot. Just test an area that is as inconspicuous as possible to see how it goes. You do have the advantage of not having stained the surface prior to finishing (from what i can tell), that would be the biggest danger if you were to go too deep. – datUser Mar 19 '15 at 17:22
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Actually the sheen is fine - it is consistent in the reflected light. The problem is surface flatness, caused by the pores of the wood, some dust contamination, and a little bit of orange peel. Hand planing the surface would not have helped. Using a sanding sealer would have made it easier - sanding sealer is easier to sand, but It does make the overall finish a bit weaker. This surface needs to be "filled", meaning all those peaks need to be knocked off and all the valleys filled in. At this point, since you have several coats of poly already down, the only choice is to sand it down, add a coat of poly, sand it down, etc. until it is filled, or good enough for you. A hand scraper can be used instead of sandpaper. What you want to achieve is localized flatness. Using a flexible backer pad, like foam rubber, is best. A stiff backer will flatten a larger area, not what you want at this point. ~320 grit paper, wet or dry. The self leveling of the poly will help, as it will tend to flow into the valleys. A couple of sanding/recoat cycles can improve that finish significantly. Thin the poly ~10% to help it flow better. You may want to very lightly sand the final coat with ~600 for more obvious imperfections, then rub with 0000 steel wool to get even sheen across the surface.

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