No Need to Rush your Work…

… or, a potted history of abrading wood

The subject of Dutch rushes as a means of smoothing wood and finishes in Mulberry – Soiled, not Stained prompted me to expand on the matter of smoothing wood. These days we take sandpaper for granted, often wantonly discarding pieces before their usefulness has been enervated, but early cabinetmakers would no doubt have niggardly worked the same pieces until every last vestige of abrasive efficiency was exhausted.

Since Homo sapiens first hurled a lovingly flint-smoothed stick at a Woolly Mammoth, we have sought to ameliorate the surface of wood. Only stone tools were available to early man, but even these days, carefully profiled pieces of glass make excellent disposable scrapers for intricate profiles in much the same manner as concave knapped flints were used to scrape prehistoric arrow shafts.

Dutch rushes

Dutch Rushes, a species of Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) also known as Scouringrush Horsetail have ridged stems with a single series of transversely oblong siliceous tubercles.

Scouringrush Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale).

When dried, the stems make an excellent fine abrasive for scouring sinks, kitchen table tops and wooden floors, smoothing cabinetwork and polishing metals etc.

Dried Scouringrush.

Stalker & Parker recommend every artist should furnish themselves with, amongst other paraphernalia:

Rushes, which are called Dutch-Rushes, with which you must smooth your work before you varnish it; and as you lay your ground of Colour or Black, if any knob or roughness appear on your work, you must take a Rush and rush it off; so must you do as oft as you find any roughness or grittiness upon your work, either in laying your Grounds, or varnishing it up. [1]


Holtzapffel observed:

Dutch Rush, or the Equisetum Hyemale, is said to be a native of Scotland, and to thrive best in the marshy places in mountainous districts; it is gathered in pieces two or three feet long, which are intersected by knots at distances of four to six inches. The rush is usually of the size of a writing quill, of a greenish-grey colour, with a groovy surface that feels rough like fine glass paper, from the quantity of silex disseminated throughout its exterior surface, and upon which circumstance depends its suitability to polishing hardwoods, alabaster, marbles, and some other substances. [2]


Britton & Brownwrote of Scouringrush:

The rough stems of this and related species are used for scouring floors. The species consists of numerous races. Called also Horse-pipe, Mare’s-tail, Shave-grass, Shave-weed, Pewter-wort, Rough Horsetail, Dutch-rush, Gun-bright. [3]

Something fishy

Early coastal fishermen would have been aware of the rough nature of the skins of various fish. Shagreen (in French, peau de chagrin; literally ‘skin of chagrin’ from chagraigner, to distress, of Germanic origin. In Germany the Shagreen skate Leucoraja fullonica is called Chagrinroche), a name that encompassed several species of ray, dog-fish and shark, was used since early times as a fine abrasive for smoothing wood and polishing metals. The skin’s surface comprises hundreds of calcified placoid scales and when tanned, produced a hitherto unparalleled long-lasting pliable abrasive.

Shagreen skate Leucoraja fullonica.

Tanned ray shagreen.

Interestingly, in the seventeenth-century, the duplicitous name shagreen became synonymous with the more decorative skin of the ray, the papillae having been rubbed down to reveal iridescent ‘pearls’, which was used as a covering for sword hilts, scabbards and small domestic utensil cases such as etui and snuffboxes, etc. It’s probable that the pearly appearance of the prepared ray skin gave the common name of Pearled Ray to the Cowtail Stingray (Hypolophus sephen). The skin of the Cowtail Ray is known as ‘galuchat’ after Jean-Claude Galuchat (d. 1774) whose accomplished manipulation of leather attracted the patronage of the court of Louis XV and the French aristocracy of the mid-eighteenth-century.

Drawing instrument case covered in green-dyed galuchat.

The use of shagreen as an abrasive didn’t wane until the mid-nineteenth-century.

Fish skin is more durable but less generally convenient than glass paper, to which it probably gave rise. It is however now but little used in polishing, although in clearing off rounded and irregular works, as in pattern making[4]

Abrasive-coated paper

Sandpaper

Sandpaper is a generic name given to a wide family of paper and other substrates coated with abrasive particles. The Chinese purportedly made sandpaper as far back as the thirteenth-century by bonding sea sand (crushed seashells) onto parchment with gum. Although sandpaper was originally made with sand, the grains are easily smoothed over and quickly lose their bite.

Glass paper

John Oakey (1813-1887) an apprentice piano maker (presumably fed up smoothing baby grands with sanding sheets akin to lightly-browned toast), devised a process for the mass-production of glass paper and in 1833, set up a factory in Walworth, London.

The sharp glass frit particles were far superior in performance to sand, though because of glass paper’s similar appearance to sandpaper; cheaper, counterfeit sandpaper has seemingly been foisted by parsimonious persons as genuine glass paper since its innovation.

Take any quantity of broken glass (that with a greenish hue is the best), and pound it in an iron mortar. Then take severel sheets of paper, and cover them evenly with a thin coat of glue, and, holding them to the fire, or placing them upon a hot piece of wood or plate of iron, sift the pounded glass over them. Let the several sheets remain till the glue is set, and shake off the superfluous powder, which will do again. Then hang up the papers to dry and harden. Paper made in this manner is much superior to that generally purchased at the shops, which chiefly consists of fine sand. [5]

Garnet paper

Garnet grit far outlasts the frit used for glasspaper; it tends to fracture in use, thus constantly creating fresh cutting edges.

Modern abrasives

The particulate used in modern abrasives involves much chemistry and technology; emery, aluminium oxide, silicone carbide – and several I don’t even know what they are – chromium oxide and ceramic aluminium oxide are bonded to various substrates for wet or dry use. Modern sandpaper can also be stearated to prevent clogging and extending the life of the paper.

It beats flogging the bureau with Horsetails!


[1] A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, by John Stalker & George Parker, Oxford, 1668.

[2] Turning And Mechanical Manipulation, by Charles Holtzapffel, London, 1843.

[3] An Illustrated Flora Of The Northern United States, Canada And The British Possessions, Vol 1, by Nathaniel Lord Britton, Addison Brown, New York, 1896.

[4] Turning And Mechanical Manipulation, by Charles Holtzapffel, London, 1843.

[5] The Tinman’s Manual And Builder’s And Mechanic’s Handbook, by Isaac Ridler Butts, Boston, 1861.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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3 Responses to No Need to Rush your Work…

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