There are 2 primary types of finishes to choose from for your furniture. One is known as open grain, and the other is known as closed grain. In general, open grain finishes have a more casual look, while closed grain finishes tend to have a high-end, formal look.
OPEN GRAIN FINISHES:
In an open grain finish, the wood is prepared normally, removing all old finish and sanded smooth. Stain is then applied, followed by a clear protective finish. usually lacquer for fine furniture. The wood has natural pores, or grain, and the finish follows the surface, conforming to the highs and lows of the grain. Open grain finishes are almost always used on woods with deep grain, such as oak and pecan, but can also be used on any furniture and any wood. Rustic and casual furniture are almost always done in an open grain finish, and can be done in low gloss (matte or satin) or high gloss sheen. Below are some examples of open grain finishes.
These 2 pictures show a high gloss open grain finish. You can see in the light reflection that the finish follows the highs and lows of the grain. Running the back of your finger nail over the finish, you can actually feel the grain of the wood.
This is also an open grain finish, but in a low sheen (satin) finish. Again, you can see the texture of the grain.
CLOSED GRAIN FINISHES:
In a closed grain finish, the wood is prepared as in an open grain finish, except that before any stain or finish is applied, the extra step of applying a grain filler is used. Grain filler is a soft paste, that when dry, absorbs stain and accentuates the grain, but fills it to level with the high portion (flake) of the wood. It is "overfilled" with the excess removed after drying, but still, in most cases, a second coat is needed for a quality job. Then, the stain and final finish are applied in either high gloss or low gloss. At that point, the finish can be left, or it can be hand rubbed to further enhance the appearance. Generally, closed grain finishes are used on grand pianos, and high-end furniture where a formal look is desired. The almost glass-smooth surface is much more reflective, as you can see below, because the pores of the grain don't disrupt the light. The extra work and materials required for a closed grain finish add about 20% to the price of an open grain finish, and hand rubbing can ad another 10%, but the results can be spectacular. Below are some examples of closed grain finishes.
These are 2 photos of the same grand piano lid in different light. The finish is a hand rubbed (note the brushed look) satin black (ebonized) finish, which is classic for grand pianos. Note that there is no evidence of any wood grain.
Here are 2 examples of closed grain finishes. The grain has been filled, but still shows the beauty of the wood, actually accenting the grain patterns. The finish is much more reflective since there is no texture to break up the light. This finish is appropriate for formal pieces and high end furniture, but can also enhance the look of less expensive pieces, making them look more expensive. This can be done in either high gloss or low gloss, depending on personal taste.
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MAINTAINING A CLASSIC SATIN EBONY FINISH
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A hand rubbed satin ebony finish is often used in piano finishing, and creates the classic look of a piano on the concert stage. However, the lack of wood grain to camouflage normal wear makes it more vulnerable to minor imperfections or light scratches becoming more obvious. Also, while lacquer dries very quickly, a full cure to reach maximum durability can take up to several months, so the initial period after finishing is the most vulnerable. First, waxing the finish is usually avoided, as it causes streaks, at least until a number of coats are built up, and also eliminates the satin effect. Cleaning with a soft rag dampened with water is the best way to clean and dust it. If you get light surface scratches, the easiest way to eliminate them is to duplicate the final step of the finishing process itself. This is to use #0000 steel wool (this is the finest abrasive level of steel wool) dampened with water, and rub in the direction of the satin rubbing marks in the finish. Rubbing firmly, but without excessive pressure should bring it back to like new. Be careful not to get too close to any edges of the piece, as that is where it is possible to actually rub through the finish, exposing raw wood, however there is usually plenty of finish on the flat surfaces to go through this process quite a number ofr times if necessary.