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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.”