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A Polissoir Poulet No More!

February 6, 2013

The PolissoirBack in September of last year, Chris Schwarz blogged about his introduction to the polissoir, a French polishing tool described by Andre Roubo in his book, “L’Art du Menuisier”, at Don Williams’ home in the mountains of Virginia. There, Don demonstrated how this relatively small bundle of broom straw can be used to burnish raw wood or, with a little more prep work, fill grain in open-pored wood. I was immediately drawn to the idea of such an environmentally friendly finishing technique, so I contacted Don to see about ordering one. Obviously Don had never dealt with the Schwarz-Effect before; he expected a few dozen people to want one and, instead, received over 500 orders. I can only imagine the look he got when he asked a local artisan broom maker to make him 500 4” sections of broom handle.

I didn’t have to imagine for very long. When my polissoir arrived two months later, I opened the package in the kitchen in front of my wife.

Wife: Oh, that’s cute! Is that a little round box or something?
Me: Er… no, it’s just a 4” section of straw broom handle.
Wife: Was it free?
Me: No… I paid for it.
Wife:  O.o

Oh. I bet THAT is the look he got.

Escher Hone HomeWednesday evening, I had an opportunity to try the technique on a quick project and thus joined the ranks of active Polissoiristas! The project was a box, believe it or not, but not one of my normal presentation boxes. This was more of an “incentive” kind of thing.

I finally decided to sell that Light Green Escher hone I’d picked up a few months ago. One of my favorite things about listing something for sale on eBay is the description (i.e. the sales pitch) I get to write. I really get into it and who knows what kinds of subjects I’ll touch on in the process. For the Escher hone, one obvious item to mention was that the stone didn’t work well for me as a woodworker, since I’d only want to take a smoothing plane up to the 12,000 grit polish and the stone is only 1 3/4” wide while my smoothing plane blade is a full 2 3/8” wide.

Little In The Middle...One of the bidders contacted me and said, “Hey, since you’re a woodworker, why don’t you make a box for the hone?” Well, I thought about it and figured if the hone goes for what I think it is going to go for, then the least I can do is make the lucky winner a storage box for their prized possession.

So I grabbed a few shorts of mahogany I had lying about, cut and planed them to size, and squared them up. Then I transferred a few quick measurements off the stone onto the two boards for the recess I’d put in them and took them to my drill press to hog out most of the waste. I cleaned up the edges with a sharp chisel and then used my #71 to level the bottoms nice and flat. After fitting a pair of inexpensive pressed hinges to the back, I removed them and grabbed my polissoir and a can of Renaissance wax.

The Escher Was Nestled, All Snug In His Bed...I know the technique calls for a harder wax, but this was all I had on hand at the time. I’ll pick up some bees wax in the near future, as soon as I can track down a generous bee keeper. In order to first break in my new polissoir, I grabbed a piece of scrap board, prepped the surface the same as the box surface, applied a generous amount of wax to it, then started rubbing vigorously with the polissoir. Not only did that help break it in, but it also helped me figure out what techniques worked and what didn’t work. After I felt confident enough, I used the same process on the box.

The end result? It doesn’t quite have the glossy sheen as the examples Don shows in his video, but I was pleasantly happy with what the combination of the Renaissance wax and the polissoir did to the wood. Plus, it was a fairly quick and easy finish, with no chance of runs or drips or blotching, and I don’t even have to worry about giving it time to cure before I pack it up to get shipped off to the lucky winner of a rare Escher hone.

I’m looking forward to the next project I can try my polissoir on. Although I’m happy with these first results, I also know I can get a better finish with a harder wax. But I’m also interested to hear what some of the other 499 Polissoiristas have to say about their experiences!  Are you one of them?  If so, chime in! Write something about it and let us know! If you have not yet used it, then grab a board and some wax and get to it! What do you have to be afraid of? Don’t be a polissoir poulet!

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2013 9:13 pm

    I realize the photos totally suck, as far as showing the actual RESULTS of using the polissoir. I didn’t really intend on that being the purpose of the photos when I took them; I wanted to add additional pictures to the auction listing.

    I’ll set up a raking light and take better images of the next project, I promise.

    TKW

    Like

  2. February 8, 2013 2:04 am

    I was extremely excited to try out my polissoir. I thought I would try it out first by just burnishing the wood, with no wax at all.

    HOLY CRAP! I am in love with this thing. This polished the wood so nicely, I was afraid to contaminate this tool with wax.

    So, I did what any level headed woodworker would do. I ordered two more!

    Like

    • February 8, 2013 7:59 am

      Brian,

      Rather than order a second one, I was considering seeing if I could shape the other end and just use that one for a dry polissoir.

      I think you’ll be pleased at how it works with wax. When you get your additional polissoirs, I’d love to see a write-up on toolerable about your thoughts.

      TKW

      Like

      • February 8, 2013 10:31 am

        Will do. I got them in the mail already, just waiting to finish something so I can polissoirate it.

        Like

  3. February 9, 2013 10:55 am

    I think you have convinced me to give it a try….

    Like

  4. chris permalink
    November 7, 2013 5:14 am

    30 years ago when I was restoring antique furniture, I used a pair of shoe brushes for this job. One to put on and the other to buff off. Excellent results and no fancy “special” tools needed. It’s the job not the tool that matters.

    Like

    • November 7, 2013 9:13 am

      Chris,

      Thanks for the input!

      But either you’re talking about a kind of shoe brush I’m unfamiliar with or we’re talking about achieving two different results, because there is no way the shoe brushes I use on my dress shoes could burnish wood; the bristles are way too soft to achieve the same result. Likewise, I’d most assuredly scratch the crap out of my dress shoes if I tried to use the polissoir on them.

      It sounds like the technique you describe is more for applying wax, while the main purpose of the polissoir is to burnish (polish the surface of the wood through friction) the wood, with the wax acting as a lubricant and ending up as part of the finish being almost secondary.

      The polissoir certainly isn’t “fancy” – it’s just a stub of a broom handle – and I think it is the right tool for the job.

      Cheers,

      TKW

      Like

      • chris permalink
        November 7, 2013 4:26 pm

        Ah, well, it looks as if I misunderstood the action of this tool. Yes I was using the brushes to work up a good wax finish on old furniture that had been cleaned. This seems to be for raw wood.

        Like

      • November 7, 2013 4:39 pm

        Yes! Exactly! Unfortunately, this makes me think I did not describe using the pollisoir well enough.

        Hmmm… Next time I use it, I’ll see if I can do some video or at least a good set of photos showing the before (raw wood) and after (polished wood) with the pollisoir. I’d rather do video. I’d been meaning to approach the subject again, anyway.

        For the record, if I’m putting a top coat of wax on a surface for a finish, I don’t use anything special – just the same little square of white t-shirt material I’ve had in my can of wax for about five or six years now. I buff it out with old terrycloth towels my wife rejected from our linen closet. They get washed every now and again (when I don’t like how well they buff).

        I’ll have to keep an eye out for old shoe brushes the next few estate sales I hit, though. Sounds like an intriguing technique!

        Cheers,

        TKW

        Like

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