Playing with a Polissoir

Ever since hearing about these little enigmas several years ago, I’ve had the desire to get my hands on one and try it out. I first saw these demonstrated by Don Williams, oh, I don’t know, three of four years ago. After seeing Don demonstrate their use, I had intended to buy one or three from him at Woodworking in America 2012, where he was giving a talk on finishing. However, by the time I had the chance to see him about procuring my own polissoir, all that he had brought with him had been sold. So I had planned to email him after the event to order a couple, but then life happened, I forgot, and here we are today.

So several weeks ago, I spied a bundle of broom straw sitting atop the cupboard in my shop, left over from making a small, round broom. Having To Make as Perfectly as Possible close at hand, I flipped to the pages where Don so eloquently describes the process of making said polissoir. I had a little time, I had the materials, I figured I might as well cobble one together.

OK, I hear you. “What the hell are you talking about, Bob?” What you see in the picture is basically nothing more than the straw from a broom, bound extremely tightly together, and trimmed flat on the end. It’s purpose is to burnish the surface of a piece of wood. And what a job it does. I still want to play with the technique a bit more, but it’s really a cool little tool. The piece of mahogany I used wasn’t even planed really flat or smooth, but the polissoir still put a nice shine on the surface. Just rub on beeswax, rub vigorously with the polissoir, then buff with a soft cloth. Really cool.

Polissoir

I still want to buy a couple of the ones that Don sells, because I think the straw I used was a bit coarse, but it was still a neat little tool to make and it’s really cool to watch the surface of a board change right before your eyes. Don’t take my word for it though, let Don show you himself.

Here’s something else cool that I found while browsing other woodworking videos on YouTube. Apparently, the polissoir is not just a French tool. Check out this video of some traditional Korean craftsmen. At about 0:40, one of them is using a tool that is very similar to Roubo’s polissoir, though not quite as tightly bound. Watch it from the beginning though to see how he uses it. It’s a pretty cool finish, no stain required.

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11 thoughts on “Playing with a Polissoir

  1. Thanks Bob!
    You´re not the only crazy one. I too made my own polissoir using straw from an artisan crafted whisk broom. Mine, I hastily assembled with cable ties, ugly as sin, but it works. It’s amazing what a finish can come from simple friction … and the muscle behind it. Yet another way to burn off the calories of chocolate powered woodworking.

    Thanks also for pointing to the Korean video. Details of some of the cabinets are impressive.

  2. I will study this method they used to i don’t know what you would call it burn the timber stain without staining this i haven’t seen anywhere and it’s the best blotch free method yet. Isn’t it amazing how they don’t use benches they sit on the ground saw, plane, chisel and produce beautiful furniture.

    • We spend so much time and effort trying to make our benches as solid as the ground we walk on. Maybe they’re on to something!

  3. Did you ever see one of these?

    It is a “gifty” kitchen item from Lancaster – a cake tester. You are supposed to break a straw off and use it to stick in a cake to see if it is done. This one (which we received as a gift) has been taking up room in a kitchen drawer for many years…

    The first time I saw Don’s Polissoir – this was all I could think off. It is a little small in diameter (maybe we made too many cakes), but with some twine tightly wrapped around it…maybe. I think I’ll move it from the drawer, where it is taking up space in the kitchen, to a box where it will take up space in my workshop.

    It’s been very quiet in the workshop this winter.

    • Yep, I’ve seen them. The shaker whisk broom Dave has in the shop at Pennsbury always makes me think too. Just cut off the broom part and you’re left with the polissoir that Don sells.

  4. Bob, I’ve noticed a couple of Don’s polissoirs among your tools in recent videos. How do you like them? They look pretty and comfortable to hold. Like you and Shannon Rogers, I think the best tools look as good as they perform.

    Brucewlove’s cake tester reminds me of a bamboo wok brush. I wonder how bamboo would work on a surface.

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