Sometimes a quick and easy solution turns out to be a problems in the end. Take, for example, matte finish furniture. Easily finished, it requires very little skill to create the topcoat: Shoot it, heat it, put it in a box. That’s the simplified version, of course, but consider what it takes to create a high sheen, at least in my shop:
- After the color has been completed (staining, toning, glazing, shading, sealing) I apply three coats of a high-solids gloss lacquer.
- Once the lacquer cures, I wet sand it with 1000-grit paper and paraffin oil to even the finish.
- Three additional coats of high-sheen lacquer are applied.
- I wet sand the final coat with 1000-grit paper again, hand-sanding with a block to make sure there are no unlevel places.
- The finish is machine-compounded with a foam pad and a high-speed buffer, then cleaned with naphtha.
- The final finish is buffed with a sheep’s wool pad on a high-speed buffer, and wiped to remove dust.
Whew! This is how most fine furniture was finished (albeit more efficiently and quickly in a factory) before the “Chinese revolution.” However, what was a boom to manufacturers has been an absolute nightmare for retailers.
Now, I’ve heard plenty of repair technicians bemoan gloss finishes, overwhelmingly because of the fact that they don’t know how to repair them. Understandable, matte finishes began in earnest in the early 1990s, as I recall, so many techs were trained to repair nothing but. The problem is, I’ve consulted plenty of retailers in my career, and these techs don’t really understand how to repair matte finishes, either!
A few questions for a tech to answer:
Can you use steel wool to rub out a scratched matte finish?
No. Matte finishes are not rubbed. You can rub them out to eliminate their depth, per se, but you must relacquer the top to eliminate the wool scratches.
Can you buff out a scratch in a matte finish, even a light one?
No. Matte finishes are not buffed. You must relacquer.
Can you spot touch-up a matte finish using aerosol lacquers?
Rarely. Most aerosols leave a halo when applied, revealing the repaired area.
Can you relacquer with aerosol cans?
Typically, not to the same quality. Place two new tables next to each other, and relacquer one with aerosols. Unless they are 100% identical, the repair is not perfect. Period.
Can you use compound to rub out a scratch on a matte finish?
No. Compound increases sheen.
These problems exist not only in the warehouse, where most problems (hopefully) are caught, but also in the home, where retailers often send techs to try to correct small scratches. These service calls end in one of three ways: New piece ordered, part ordered, or problem solved.
The fact is that matte finishes are a problem for our industry. While they are quick to apply, they are difficult to repair and often disappoint the customer. The most glaring example of this assertion is the conundrum a retailer faces when presented with a scratched dining table. I have seen case after case where the customer takes final delivery of a dining table in perfect condition, only to call back with a service request when the finish becomes scratched, usually by something benign like a placemat or dish. Really? Not all manufacturers use conversion varnish or UV, which is harder but not impervious to damage.
To make matters worse, the only way to completely correct these finishes back to factory-new condition is to relacquer them using a cup gun or pressure pot, in a spray booth, that which woefully few retailers have invested… like having a car dealership without a garage.
The one-two punch to the retailer without a booth is…
- Lots of distressed or clearance inventory.
- Lots of dissatisfied customers having to wait for replacement stock or parts.
- Lots of service calls.
- Amateur-looking repair attempts by techs who, with a booth, could be making perfect repairs.
I’ve seen retailers fight this issue tooth and nail but the fact remains, if you want to push matte finish furniture (and most retailers do) then you must be able to completely relacquer using a cup gun or pressure pot. The alternative is to sell higher-end furnishings with higher sheens, which can be repaired with steel wool, buffing, wet sanding and compound, and are far easier to repair than their matte finish cousins.
If you insist on using aerosols for relacquering, try to keep their use at a minimum, and choose a specific set of materials that are designed to make invisible repairs with little effort. Among them:
- Blush eliminator... Essentially a can of lacquer without the solids, this formulation softens the original finish, allows it to level, then evaporates without significantly changing the sheen, if at all. It is ideal for “angel kiss” scratches or very light packing marks.
- Very high-grit (1000-grit) sandpaper... Use a block and some oil or water to sand out very fine scratches that won’t disappear with blush eliminator. You will still have to relacquer.
- Low solids lacquer with excellent atomization... I use only one: Touch-Up Solutions’ Premium Blend Low Solids Lacquer (0314 series). If you have to make a burn-in, I would suggest Touch-Up Solutions’ Pre-Catalyzed lacquers with good flow-out (0328 series).
It is absolutely critical to note that very few of us can accurately measure sheen reflectivity without a meter. Lacquer is sold according to, among other criteria, its sheen, or reflectivity—how much light it reflects. The higher the number, the higher the reflectivity. Typically the scale runs from a five-sheen (dead flat) to a ninety-sheen (gloss). But this factor can be deceiving when choosing a topcoat for the piece you are repairing. The vast majority of matte finish furniture has a sheen ranging from twenty to thirty-five. Remember that adding lacquer will change the sheen of the piece because you are covering up the original finish!
If you are at all concerned about your clearance issues or have a backlog of damaged stock because your tech staff is ill-trained to correct these problems, consider contacting your finish supplier for help, or use a furniture repair consultant who can come on-site and train your staff one-on-one.
Peter Schlosser is a quality control manager living in middle Tennessee. He is a contributing editor to Furniture World where he writes about service, repair and backend operations. Questions on any aspect of this article or furniture repair can be directed to Peter Schlossser at