How to Use Steel Wool for Sanding and Polishing Furniture?

How to Polish Furniture with Steel Wool

If you have never used this, steel wool is a collection of very thin steel wires bundled together in a form of a ball.

Generally, it is used for a wide variety of polishing and cleaning purposes.

Steel wool is an excellent product that can be used as an alternative to fine sandpaper for different types of sanding projects.

Not only for polishing furniture made of wood, but you can also use this abrasive cleaner for buffing different metals and even surfaces like stone, glass, and others to give them a nice shiny finish.

Why Use Steel Wire Wool for Wood?

One key advantage of using steel wool, in place of sandpaper, is that the former can easily be compressed to almost any shape you want.

And this makes it easy for steel wool to sand hard-to-reach places and complex shapes like wood moldings and cedar sidings.

The only downside of using steel wool is that it can easily rust if it gets wet.

Also, during the sanding process, the small pieces of steel wool can break off which can later rust and leave rust stains on the surface.

You should therefore work carefully with the product and ensure proper cleaning.  

Knowing how to use steel wool for buffing your wood furniture properly will also help in overcoming such problems.

steel wool for sanding wood

Steps to Polishing Wood Furniture with Steel Wool

Many people think steel wool can damage the wood finish.

But if used correctly it can actually provide a classic polished look to your furniture without proving harmful.

It does so, by scraping off a very fine layer on the wood surface leaving back a smooth hand-rubbed finish and a shine just like new.

Mostly the process is time-consuming, but it’s useful and cost-effective when done for high-end expensive furniture pieces.

Step 1. Apply wood wax

Start by applying some wood wax onto a new wool pad.

You will need to apply it evenly over your table, chair, or other furniture pieces in a circular motion.

If there are natural grains visible, work against the wood grains and apply enough wax to lightly coat the surface.

Continue rubbing the wood pad until you get a satin-smooth finish on the surface without any slickness.

Step 2. Let the wax set and buff

Allow a few minutes for the wax to set up on the wood surface.

Then buff the surface in a circular motion with a soft dry cotton cloth.

Make use of a furniture brush for buffing, if you need to work on a furniture piece that has uneven surfaces or some nooks and crannies.

Step 3. Apply a second and third layer of wax

After buffing the wood surface lightly, apply a second layer of wood wax with a clean dry cloth.

Rub in a circular motion and allow it to set up for an hour. Buff the surface again with a soft clean cloth.

Then apply a third layer of wax. And this time, let it set on the surface overnight.

In the morning, finally, buff the surface to get a good shine.

For most cases, three coats of wood wax are good to apply for getting a beautiful finish with a great luster.

But if you desire to get less shine, two coats of wax will also do the job.

Make sure you allow the second wax coat to set overnight and then buff the surface in the morning.

Tips and Warnings:

The strands of steel wool are very thin and can hurt you.

While putting extra force the fibers can even pierce into your skin and can cause pain.

It, therefore, is recommended that you always wear gloves before working with steel wool.

Also, when using the steel wool cut the piece to your desired size with scissors or shears.

Never tear the wool piece as it damages the wool or can make uneven cuts that can harm the skin.

how to use steel wool for sanding

What Can You Use if You Don’t Have Steel Wool?

Steel wool can sometimes leave behind bits of metal on the wood surface when rubbed vigorously.

Particularly, if you are working with furniture made of white oak it can cause stains due to these residues.

Not to worry, there are substitutes such as non-woven abrasive pads (like Scotch-Brite) that can be used to fix these issues or if you don’t have steel wool available.

But keep in mind, although it’s a great alternative to steel wool, it does not provide the same results.

So, it’s not the best option that can always replace steel wool.  

As an alternative, you can also “burnish” wood to get a mirror-like finishing.

Burnishing wood is a process that is typically done by hand to achieve a glossy sheen to the wood furniture.  

Getting a burnished finished wood doesn’t require too many skills.

All you will need is a piece of denim fabric (maybe from your old pair of blue jeans).

  • Fold a piece of denim to make a small pad
  • Rub it vigorously on the finished/lacquered wood surface for a minute you need to polish
  • Make sure you rub the denim making an oval shape no bigger than 4 inches in circumference

Rubbing hard will make the wood warm which will make the wood finish blend deep into the pores thereby creating a shiny polished look.

What Grade Steel Wool Do You Need for Your Project?

Just like sandpaper grits, steel wool also comes in a number of gradings.

When buying the wood pad, check for the different grades available and choose the one that is most suitable for your project.

The grading of steel wool ranges from finest grades (number 0000) to the coarsest (number 5).

2Medium coarse
0Medium fine
000Extra fine

While the coarsest grades of steel wool are used for paint prep along with removing paint, varnish, and other finishes from wood; fine grades are generally used for delicate sanding work and polishing the final finishes.

If you wish to use steel wool for giving a final buffing to your furniture piece, you should be using the finest steel wool for the job.


What not to use steel wool on?

Besides using steel wool on painted furniture for sanding and removing paint, you can also use it on metal surfaces for cleaning.

There are however a few surfaces on which you should not use steel wool on. These include well-finished oak wood surfaces and polished stainless steel. These can get damaged while rubbing.

Do you use steel wool wet or dry?

Steel wool should generally be soaked in vinegar when used for cleaning surfaces like metal, cookware, or wood surfaces.

If, however, you are using the wool for polishing you need not soak it in vinegar but apply proper polish.

Can you use steel wool for finishing polyurethane?

Steel wool of grade “00” can be used lightly on polyurethane for polishing after you have finished applying the sealer on the surface.

Make sure the sealer is already dried completely and has cured for at least 10-15 days before doing this.

This will help bring extra smooth glass-like shine when rubbed and finished with dry rags.

Final Thoughts

Steel wool is basically a pad spun with thin metal fibers.

It can be used for removing paint, stain, polyurethane, and clear varnishes, and also for giving a nice polishing look to your old furniture.

No matter whether you need to sand your antique dining table chair set or desire to polish your outdoor patio furniture steel wool can work wonderfully.

Make sure you follow the above guidelines and steps to get the job done properly without any trouble.

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