Brown Paper Bag Trick


Rubbing with a brown paper bag. Pin this trick on Pinterest!

A smooth feel is critical when judging the quality of a finish. It’s natural for people to run their hand over a finish, feel dust nibs and say, “This is not a great finish.”

The problem is, there’s almost always a little dust that has settled on, and stuck to, the last coat of finish, even if you keep your finish area very clean. There will be less with fast-drying lacquer and shellac and more with slower-drying varnish, wiping varnish, oil and water-based finish.

You can always make the finish smooth by rubbing with fine sandpaper and rubbing compounds, but this is a lot of work. Unless you are aiming for the ultimate in smoothness, rubbing the surface with a folded brown paper bag is usually sufficient. A brown paper bag is abrasive enough to flatten the dust nibs but not so abrasive that it scratches the finish — as long as the finish is fully dry.

Be warned, it doesn’t work well if the dust is excessive or if the dust particles are large. You still need to keep your work area and the finish you’re using clean.

I learned this trick about 15 years ago when I was editing Professional Refinishing Magazine, a trade magazine targeted to furniture refinishers. (Unfortunately, the magazine no longer exists.)

A reader sent it in for the “Tips-and-Techniques” column. I put it aside because I really doubted it would work (probably what you’re thinking now). Several issues later, I came up short of tips, so I decided to give this one a try. It worked amazingly well. It doesn’t remove the small dust nibs, it just levels them so you don’t feel the tiny bumps anymore. But you can usually still see the dust if you catch it in the right light.

— Bob Flexner

Editor’s note – You’ll find all of Bob’s books in our store: “Flexner on Finishing” and “Wood Finishing 101.”

4 thoughts on “Brown Paper Bag Trick

  1. woodbadger

    Back in the 1960s my parents used the back side of the sandpaper to knock off the nibs. Of course now I’m aware of getting a loose grit between the paper and surface. I also think it was rare to find any sandpaper finer than 220 in a hardware store back then.

  2. Logan1973

    I love this! I also found that using a piece of’ 2000 grit sandpaper that has already been used works well

  3. rjpat

    Makes sense, it would seem that this would be similar, considering that the bag is composed of wood fibers, to burnishing a turning with shavings. I have also seen where some people use it to hone an edge.

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