The Black Rub

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Rubbed finishes consist of a contrasting layer of color over a ground color that is then “rubbed back” with an abrasive, usually sandpaper but possibly steel wool, to expose the ground color peeking through. Soft rubbing, which lets only the ground color through along edges, tends toward a more elegant finish, while heavy rubbing, along with distressing or “beating up” the work goes country or antique.

A black rub, which consists of an almost black glaze over a stained ground, is very popular these days and is featured here. Rubbed finishes differ from wiped finishes, where a transparent glaze is brushed over the ground and then wiped away in varying amounts. The techniques bear similar results and are often used on the same piece to create a complexity in the appearance.

Rubs are versatile finishes for decorative results. Furniture of sturdy construction, picture frames, cabinet work and trim can all benefit from this method. Fireplace mantels, bath vanities and banisters are frequent images in my portfolio. A recent surf of the Web produced four websites featuring black rub finishes in their collections. Pottery Barn, Ethan Allen, Baker Furniture and Graphix Picture Frames all offered numerous examples. Those searches also turned up a variety of rubbed finishes in various colors. Customers are seeing it, and they want it.

If starting with raw wood, the ground is best stained, sealed and rubbed down with 220-grit sandpaper to smooth. If not smoothed, any grittiness that remains from raised grain will make for more peek-throughs in the final rubbing – a more desirable effect on more antiqued pieces. For new wood, the stained and sealed approach offers an economy of effort over the priming and two coats of paint and results in generally more attractive results.

Black rub featured with and without metallic detail.

Most quality furniture destined for this treatment is already stained and sealed. The furniture gets a good rubbing and cleaning, preferably with a solvent such as methyl alcohol or mineral spirits to ensure adhesion of the glaze. A lot of furniture has wax from the original finish or from repeated, zealous applications of furniture polish. If so, ramp up the cleaning with steel wool and a solvent until all sticky residues are banished.

Previously painted work, such as cabinets or millwork, is prepared in the same manner. I prefer an oil-glaze formula with optional detailing in acrylic water-based materials. Oil-based glazes rub down nicely, providing smooth transitions between the black glaze and the ground. Water-based paints tend to rip instead of sand smooth. Oil glazes have high adhesion properties and stick to most existing finishes with no problems – another good reason to choose them instead of acrylics.

Samples illuminate our path, and one proceeds in peril without them. For an overall glazing liquid I choose anything from black oil-based satin enamel (two parts) to any deep-red oil (one part) I have lying around my shack; it’s an economical recapture on old paint. Any oil paint will do the trick, as it is rubbed dull before varnishing. I concoct the glaze with eight parts paint mixture to one part oil glazing liquid and one part mineral spirits. This is a rather thick glazing concoction that can be made more transparent with more of the glaze and mineral spirits if taste demands.

Finally I toss in a healthy dollop of Japan dryer. Without dryer, the oil glaze remains poorly sandable for a much longer period (a week or more). Straining it through a very fine cheese cloth or curtain ensures a clean batch. The work is completely painted with this concoction – not too thick. The ground might peek through here and there, but that will be a further attraction when the rubbing begins. Soft to very soft natural bristle brushes are best for application.

After two to three days the black is ready for optional detailing. Table edges and knuckles, balls of chairs, pedestals, and or high points on trim work are all worthy candidates. I like one part Gol  Rush to one part Champagne (Modern Masters Metallic) for most  detailing. Again, taste is the dictator. The paint is brushed on two to three times with a selection of quality artist brushes, which move along quickly as the material dries in short order.

Give this another one to two days to dry. Yes, this takes many calendar days to finish! Then rub the entire work with 220-grit sandpaper. Bear hard on edges and over the metallic to let undercoats show. A coarser grit can be used to expose more ground for a more rustic look, but LOOK OUT – those papers can cut deep, and recoating after too much rubbing compromises the look. Things get a little dull and ugly with the rubbing, but clear water toweled over the surface will remind you how a piece will look when varnished.

Two to four coats of Varathane waterbased varnish completes my projects. Choose a satin sheen varnish for protection and enhancement, because higher sheens are too brassy for a soft effect. Rubbed finishes can be executed in countless colors and combinations. Bright primary colors over sealed light wood give a beachy or children’s room effect. Dull midtones such as Benjamin Moore historic colors over stained grounds give an elegant or a country look, depending on the
amount of rub back. Black rub (really dark gray, as explained above) is the classiest of all. A not too-dark midtone also flies nicely with a white ground.

Several colored glazes can be applied in succession (allowing for proper drying), which creates a more complex layered feeling. If the project is going to be further enhanced with stain glazes in spatter, wipe, or a combination, the steps should be done before the final rub back and allowed to dry. Two days is best. If planning a rub on a white ground such as house trim or cabinetry, rub back might be best kept to a minimum as the white ground contrasts sharply with a dark-colored glaze. Step back and look at progress during the rub, as the finish can quickly get away from you.

If a totally water-based approach is in order, because of either an aversion to oils or job site requirements (e.g., New York City only allows water-based), the glaze should be a quick-drying glaze such as Golden brand “fluid matte medium,” sold in many artist supply stores. Professional decorative finishers typically trumpet water glazes with long open time (slow drying), but these always remain somewhat gummy, responding poorly to the abrasive rub back step. There are special sandpapers for latex, and these are worth using for waterbased approaches APC

About the Author
Victor DeMasi is the 30-year owner and operator of Monarch Painting in Redding, Conn. He teaches frequent workshops on decorative painting and faux finishing and can be reached at (203) 448-0106 or To view Victor’s work and workshop schedule, visit his website at

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