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The Polissoir

Copyright 2013. This article originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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a Tool You’ve (probably)

 

Never Heard of

 

 

Some tools are difficult to collect because they don’t really look like tools.  Winding sticks and wooden straightedges are fine examples of this.  To the uneducated person who is cleaning out a workshop, these all-important tools look like scrap wood.  Heck, they probably were made from scrap wood.

The polissoir could be easily confused with the handle of a wisk broom, because that is essentially what it is. The tool burnishes wooden surfaces and drives wax into the wood pores, resulting in a beautiful surface.

 

The same goes for the French “polissoir.” It looks like a beat-up broom handle.  Heck, it might actually be made from an old handle from a worn out wisk broom.

Recently I became aware of the “polissoir” – or polisher – because of my involvement in a massive effort to translate A. J. Roubo’s 18th-century masterwork on woodworking – “L’Art du Menuisier.”

The translation effort is being headed up by Don Williams, a professional finisher, restorer, patternmaker and woodworker.

Last year as Williams and his team were finishing the translation of the first book, he showed me a tight bundle of organic material that he was using to abrade and polish a wax finish.

Roubo discusses this tool and the process in his book.  It’s a technique that faded from typical workshop practice, but with the help of Williams, I think it will be revived.

Williams is so enthusiastic about the process that he worked with a professional broom maker in Virginia to create a handmade polissoir that can be sold to woodworkers at a reasonable price – $18.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to master this tool and the process of polishing bare wood.  It doesn’t take long to get a feel for it, and I’m impressed by how simple, straightforward and fast it can be. 

There is no finish that has to dry.  You are left in the end with a hard and glossy finish that is easily renewed or repaired.

While I wouldn’t use the finish for a kitchen table, it’s ideal for small projects that don’t see a lot of abuse, such as boxes, bookshelves and turnings. 

 

Roubo’s drawing of the polissoir from
“L’Art du Menisier.”

I think it would also be ideal for reviving tool handles and wouldn’t do any harm to the wood’s original finish.

To understand the polissoir, let’s take a peek at some translated areas of Williams’ massive Roubo project.

Straight from the Frenchman’s Mouth

 

Roubo’s work is a massive work that was issued in three magnificent folios and discussed veneer, furniture-making, marquetry, carriage building, garden furniture and much more.

And though Roubo covers a lot of ground, he also assumes the reader knows a lot about the subject of woodworking, and so some things are not covered in deep detail and you need to tease out the information you need by reading about the tool or technique when it comes up in other parts of the books.

This is true of the polissoir.  Here is all that Roubo wrote in describing the polissoir in plate 296:

“The polisher, figures 8 & 9, is a sheaf of ordinary grass or straw, about 4 thumbs long, by about 2 thumbs in diameter. This sheaf is bound tightly along its length. Before making use of it, one soaks it in molten wax, which one lets cool, after which one rubs the polish on a piece of wood to smooth it and make it proper to polish the work.

There are polishers of diverse forms and sizes, in order to be able to get into all parts, nooks and crannies.”


 
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