Chris Schwarz's Blog

My Introduction to the ‘Polissoir’ – Roubo’s Wax Polisher



For most modern woodworkers, wax is not a finish. It goes on top of the finish and creates a barrier to scratches. But after reading the forthcoming translation of A.J. Roubo’s “L’Art du Menuisier,” it’s clear that wax was once a fast and beautiful finish for furniture.

That is, when assisted with a tool that’s forgotten in this country.

Enter the “polissoir” – the French word for “polisher.” Here is how Roubo described the tool in his section on wood finishing tools:

“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. [This tool has the unusual benefit of both smoothing the surface by burnishing and applying a wax coating to create a glossy finish.]

“The wood burnishers for polishing, figures 10, 11, 12, are of small pieces of walnut or another wood of a fine and closed grain, without being too hard, of about 6 thumbs of length at least, which are of various sizes and shapes, and thin to a bevel at the end. These woods serve to polish the work, or better said, to extend the wax into the creases and tight parts in which the polishes cannot go, like fillet-work and other little pieces where it is necessary to keep the sharp edges.”

A quick editorial note about Roubo: The text is not entirely linear. So while this is all we have on the polissoir proper, Roubo comes back to the tool time and again in the manuscript. It makes appearances in other sections of his volumes, including his treatise on veneer.

But after you imbibe all that writing, the basic idea is this: Rub a wax on your work – the wax can be beeswax or another mixture. Scour the waxed surface with your polissoir, which will burnish the work and drive the wax into any pores of the work. Allow the wax to cool. Buff it up.

After this weekend, I think I’ll be putting a polissoir into my tool chest. Here’s why. I spent the weekend at Don Williams’ mountain home in Virginia, where he demonstrated the tool using a variety of waxes. I used the tool and Roubo’s instruction and was entirely impressed.

Don is the leader of the project to translate Roubo’s opus on woodworking. He’s also a lifelong professional finisher, restorer, conservator, woodworker and patternmaker. And even with all those years of experience, he was blown away by the polissoir and what it did for his finishes on hardwoods and softwoods. And impressing Don with something in the finishing realm is no small feat. So the fact that it was done by a dead Frenchman is all the more interesting.

Don wanted to share this knowledge with other woodworkers and finishes – even before his Roubo translation hits the streets. And so he has given talks on the polissoir, appeared in some internet videos and has even started selling this tool at a modest price.

I now have one of these polissoirs – I traded him a hat for it – and it is a sweet piece of work. It’s handmade to Don’s specifications by a professional broom maker who works near his Virginia cabin. The fibers are tightly bound by both a natural casing and some intricate string work.

And holy cow does the tool work. I’m not going to waste any more words. Simply watch the video I shot at Don’s shop. It’s a bit longer than your typical woodworking video – and there are no banjos – but it is darn well worth your time.

If you want to order a handmade polisssoir, you can send Don an e-mail at donsbarn250@msn.com. The polissoirs are $18 plus shipping.

If you are interested in traditional finishes, get one. If you are interested in wax, get one. If you dislike polyurethane, ditto.

— Christopher Schwarz

For more on finishing, check out “Understanding Wood Finishing.”

20 thoughts on “My Introduction to the ‘Polissoir’ – Roubo’s Wax Polisher

  1. Eric

    Hi Chris, a bit late but….
    Now I found a way to make me a polissoir. Cheap and easy. First the straw were bought at a home centre ( a small broom = 4$ ). Then I cut the thing to retreve the straw. I tied it up with a tie wrap just to help me hold it. Then I used a “clamptite” sold by Lee Valley to permanently tie the thing very tight. For aesthetics I will put a bit of leather around it. Maybe not… Now I can make me a dozen if I want and it took me, 15 minutes to make :-) thanks for the tip, I overlooked the polisssoir in the original book ( i can read the thing, even if it is old french).
    Cheers
    Eric

  2. andersoncustom@gmail.com

    I was recently refinishing a door and needed a method of cleaning off the stripper. I used saw dust to absorb it, and that made me think of something that my dad told me about 20 years ago. We were in his boyhood church and I was admiring the floor. He told me that floor was polished using horses pulling bails of straw. It’s like an extremely large scale polissoir.

  3. K Wilson

    Interesting that ‘thumbs’ is the unit of measure. FWIW, in modern Spanish, English ‘inch’ is translated as pulgada, from dedo pulgar, thumb. And the outer joint of one’s thumb is indeed about an inch long. Do you know the original French word? Might ‘inches’ be a reasonable translation? Or maybe not; that might give a spurious modern degree of precision.

    Very interesting article; I think I’ll try this.

    1. whintor

      Here in France, despite the fact that Napoleon introduced metrication in the early 19th century, the idea of pounds and inches still persists.
      The french for pound is “livre”, and in any market a livre of vegetables will get you 500gm (about 1lb 2oz). and a demi-livre 250gm.
      Similarly, inch is “pouce”, which is also the word for thumb. It is strange, but faucets are supplied in inch sizes, not metric!!
      The polissoir that Roubo knew was described in some texts as being made of “joncs”, that is rushes – a much tougher material than grass or straw.
      Another brush used in wax polishing available today is made of goose quills – and has probably as ancient an origin as the polissoir de joncs.

  4. Betkerr

    Chris: You’ve done it now. I now have to buy new music, what is the name of the song being played? Is there a way to add a feature identifying the music that accompanies the videos?
    Also, have you ever thought of releasing a CD compilation of the greatest woodworking music?

    Bob

  5. davegutz

    This sure brought back memories. When I was a kid I joined the local ski team. For training we skied cross-country and made our own skis. We raided the attic or went to the local 2nd hand shop for an old pair of woodies. After trimming off the metal edges, if any, on a table saw we sanded the bottom down to bare. These skis were usually hickory. Then we used a plumber’s torch to apply some pine tar as a protective soak-in finish – just once in the life of the ski unless you skied over some rocks. Every time we used them we had to apply the right kind of wax for the conditions. This was rubbed on then burnished with a piece of cork. Those bottoms looked beautiful – too good to ski on!

  6. keltor

    Unfortunately I’m at work at the moment so no YouTube, but this is a traditional burnisher ala (http://www.thebroombrothers.com/newsite/?page_id=419) that was dipped in Hot Wax?

    I learned about using this from an older antiquer around Texas who would bid against me at a lot of auctions. Actually for him not being a woodworker, I learned a fair amount of woodworking from him. :)

    Every broommaker in the world probably knows how to make these since they used to be quite common before floor buffers came along (they now use burnishing pads.)

  7. lawrence

    Are there any examples of furniture “in the wild” which had this type of finish? I am not doubting in the authenticity of the technique but am only curious as to the longevity of the finish and its historical uses.

    V/r

    Lawrence

    1. Llwynog

      Lawrence,
      Wax-only finish described as this was(is) very widespread in France. My relatives and I own some 150+ years old chairs or buffets which were all finished in such a way.
      Another very traditional tool to apply this finish is a scrubbing brush made of geese tail feathers which can still be readily bought (google for ‘brosse plume oie’ and you will find several resellers). this brush works particularly well with open pores hardwood such as oak or chestnut.

    2. Anderson

      My French mother-in-law also just used wax. For instance they hauled an old grain chest out of the stables that was still in good shape, but if it had ever been finished the finish was long gone. She just went at it with wax, said it took her 12 coats before the wood stopped absorbing it and she could get an even polish. Haven’t asked her but from what she said, seems like she just used a rag to rub it in. I wonder if it was just the availability of wax – beeswax was easy and very cheap to track down, shellac or varnish would have been very very expensive, and maybe even things like linseed oil might have been relatively expensive.

  8. Marty Collins

    Growing up my mom use to refinish old furniture purchased at yard sales. The chemical paint strippers would raise the grain a bit and after a very light sanding she would use a six inch length of hardwood dowel as a burnishing tool with a clear wax to finish smoothing and bringing out the once hidden grain. I’ve tried this myself and it works very well. Just have to keep the dowel vertical so the edge does not dig in (especially on softer woods).

  9. BW

    These are great! I got one last weekend- it cleans up sanded as well as planed surfaces. After trying to describe this to a straw broom maker on Granville Island, Vancouver, BC, they said “oh – a burnisher”. They had made a couple on request of a woodworkerand and happened to have one left, similar price to Don’s. Yahoo! i am sure they would make more on request. You have to add your own wax.

    Cheers!

      1. mrogen

        Hi Chris,

        Megan is one lucky lady to have you for a friend! And it isn’t even your birthday.

        But it is mine on Friday and I’m happy to still be around. I’m looking forward
        to reading some Roubo in the future as well.

        Have a great class,

        Michael

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