Just puttering in the shop the last few nights. I had some off cuts of fairly straight grained mahogany, a small piece of ebony,and some nice white maple. Then I spied a perfectly sized piece of riven oak. So I made two new pair of winding sticks to replace my old ones. There was nothing wrong with the old ones. They were perfectly functional, just not real pretty. So I just felt like making some new, pretty ones and giving my polissoir a good workout. I actually have a third pair in the works. I don’t really need three pair of winding sticks (heck I don’t even need two) but the third pair are a bit different. I consider making the third pair an exercise in experimental archeology. More in a few days.
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.
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.
Note: All of my old podcast videos have been moved to my YouTube channel. You can now watch this video here:
Forget dovetails. If you want to become the envy of woodworkers everywhere, master the miter. It has to be the most finicky joint in Western woodworking to cut by hand.
Here’s that mahogany molding from the last post. It has been mitered, glued and nailed, and had one coat of oil. Almost ready for the wall.
Not much shop time working wood lately. Lots of saw filing. Slow progress patching a hole in my daughter’s bedroom ceiling (a story for another day; my Twitter followers know all about it). Exterior illumination (‘Tis the season).
I did manage to finish the firewood box though. I ended up using General Finishes “Milk Paint”. The local Woodcraft was out of the real stuff in black, and I was too impatient to wait for it to be shipped, so I tried a can of the General. It was OK. Just OK. It’s basically just flat acrylic paint, like you would find in a craft store, only in a big can instead of a little plastic squeeze bottle. It’s not milk paint, I’ll just leave it at that. Next time I’ll wait for the real stuff. It will be fine for a firewood box. I put a single coat of wiping varnish over it since it will live on my outdoor porch and be beat up pretty badly filling it with and removing firewood. I’m glad it’s done now that the 20 degree temperatures have left and the 70s have moved back in. Oh well. We’ll be ready for the next cold snap. I have a feeling we’re going to be in for quite a bit of cold and snow in the mid- Atlantic region this year.
At any rate, now I can move on to that 10’ board of mahogany :-). After the holiday.
Merry Christmas everyone!
I finally got around to applying the finish to the entertainment center doors. I took a finishing sequence from an old Fine Woodworking article on finishing walnut by Jeff Jewitt. While it is a bit involved, I think it served to even out the different colors of the different walnut boards quite nicely. I still need to build the upper bookshelf units, but at least the lower sections are now 100% complete.
I like the look of period painted furniture. I know a lot of folks scoff and roll their eyes when someone says they are going to paint a piece of furniture, feeling that the wood should be left alone to speak for itself. I can understand this sentiment. Cheap quality mass production of painted termite barf has given painted furniture a bad name. I certainly wouldn’t even think of putting paint over a nice piece of figured walnut or mahogany. However, like it or not, paint was a very, very common finish for period furniture. Some pieces were painted bright colors, while others were painted and grained to look like more expensive woods.
Look at it through the eyes of our ancestors: when you live in a world where just about everything is made out of wood and therefore some shade of brown, a brightly painted piece of furniture may be the only color you see in your modest little home. Only the wealthiest families would have had upholstered furniture and fabrics adorning the walls and windows of their estates. The more common middle/lower class homes were pretty bland. So paint was the solution to brown.
Paint is also a good finish for less expensive timbers. While I like the look of natural pine very much, I have a lot of it in my shop. Pretty much every appliance and fixture in my shop is made from some kind of conifer and finished natural or left unfinished. Other than my tool chest, there isn’t much color in there. So I decided I wanted my new cupboard to be painted. I went with a warm yellow ochre so as not to scream too loudly. However, while I do like painted finishes, I’m not all that fond of bland, lifeless, uniform color. I like to spice things up just a little.
Take the photo above of one of the cupboard doors for example. The color is nice. But it’s kind of uniform and lifeless. There isn’t much character to the finish. I think this is one of the reasons that many people have an aversion to painted furniture. When a piece of furniture is freshly painted, it looks freshly painted, almost like something you just put together from a box you trucked home from the Pottery Barn. My solution to this problem is to give the paint some character.
One of my favorite products for giving some age and life to a painted finish is a dark wax. I’m kind of fond of Briwax Dark Brown, for reasons I’ll discuss in a second, but just about any dark brown wax will work, even shoe polish. The dark wax imparts some age and grunge to the piece by getting trapped in any little areas of tearout, corners of door frames, scratches, and other places that dirt would naturally collect when a piece is used for years and years. The best part about this type of aging is that it’s a piece of cake to do, and doesn’t require beating your new furniture with chains and keys and all that nonsense (please don’t beat your furniture).
I work in small sections at a time with the Briwax because the solvent in this particular wax flashes off very quickly (work outside or next to an open window as the fumes aren’t exactly healthy for you). I apply the wax with 0000 steel wool, working in the direction of the grain wherever possible. Using the steel wool to apply the wax knocks off any little dust nibs trapped in the final coat of finish and gives the paint and wood a smooth, burnished look and feel that is just awesome. I apply the wax somewhat generously, because I want the excess to collect in the areas mentioned previously. After applying and rubbing the wax in with the first pad of steel wool, I’ll go over the dried wax with a clean pad of steel wool to remove buildup in areas where I over did it a bit and burnish things a little more.
Once the steel wool work has been completed, the aging is just about done. The final step is to use a soft cotton cloth to buff out the surface and get most of the gunk out of the corners and such. I don’t remove all of the buildup in the hard to reach areas, just what will easily come out. This simulates what would remain in these areas after years of regular cleaning and polishing of the piece. The beauty of the Briwax product is that it will redissolve itself if things aren’t exactly like you want. If an area is too heavy and already dry, just apply more wax and buff it off with a clean cloth. The new application will redissolve the dried wax and allow it to be worked around again. I work in small areas to try and avoid getting an inconsistent build, but this feature of the product has been very helpful many times when I’ve worked too large an area and couldn’t buff the heavy build out fast enough. Also, the wax can be cleaned off completely with plain old mineral spirits. So if you don’t like the look of the dark wax on your piece, it’s easy to strip it right off with a rag and some mineral spirits and go back to the unwaxed finish.
It took me about 10 minutes of work to do each one of the doors on the cupboard. The main case took awhile longer of course, but it’s cool to watch the piece age right under your fingers. If you decide to try this for yourself, and I do recommend you try it, wear gloves, as the pigment in the wax will stain your hands, make sure you have really good ventilation, or work outside, and have fun!