Roubo the Broom Salesman, Part 2

One of the first curiosities encountered in Andre Roubo’s discussion of the finishing component of fine furniture making is this weird whisk broom in Plate 296, Figures 8 & 9. On one hand it makes sense: The finishing room and the workpiece must be kept clean and tidy for work to proceed skillfully and flawlessly. But you have to admit that is a weird looking whisk broom.

Of course it isn’t a whisk broom.

It is instead a tool that was completely unknown to me at the start of this project: a corn straw burnisher. Roubo offers fewer than 100 words describing the tool and its use. Yet that tool has fundamentally changed the way I work. As the last tool to touch the surface prior to the application of finish, or in some instances the tool that actually applies the finish, vigorously scouring the surface with it imparts a radiance to the substrate that cannot be adequately described, it must be experienced.

At the opening of the “finishing” section of the chapter I inserted the following commentary.

In the English language craft lexicon, the word “polish” can mean three distinct processes. First is the smoothing of the surface with scrapers and abrasives. In the time of Roubo, these abrasives would include sandpaper and shagreen (sharkskin or ray skin) pumice, or vegetable reeds and fibers. The second usage of the word “polish” involves the application of a resinous varnish or some other film forming “finish” applied to the prepared surface. Finally comes the application of a maintenance coating such as wax furniture polish or something similar whose purpose is to impart a degree of high gloss, usually temporary. In addition Roubo uses the word “polisher” to mean a variety of tools, including abrasives, burnishers, and applicators. Since Roubo is not explicit in his syntax, I will attempt to distinguish amongst these many concepts in the edited translation and make the distinction readily apparent to the reader.

This obscure, rude little tool fits all three descriptions, and it has made me a better finisher. I have found it so valuable that I have made several (the process is described in detail in “To Make As Perfectly As Possible – Roubo on Marquetry”), and have recently found a craft broom-maker with whom I am working to make as many as I or anyone else wants.

Whenever I show it to a fellow craftsman and demonstrate, as I did during one of the Dinners With Roubo at WIA, light bulbs go off. My students have shown me the results of their work using it. Unanimously they declare it was a missing link, a tool to bring their finishing to perfection.

It will make you a better finisher, too.

— Don Williams

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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19 Responses to Roubo the Broom Salesman, Part 2

  1. Jim Burton says:

    So….you’re going to show us how to make one, right Don?

    • Don Williams says:

      Absolutamente. With copious words and images. Photography already done, text for this essay about 90% done.

  2. Very cool. When the craft broom-maker is ready to handle some demand, it’d be great to have a link or info for ordering one of my own to play with.

    • millcrek says:

      Don, I have a similar tool made of larger hollow reeds that are filled with melted wax. I use it to burnish wax onto the wood for a wax finish. I found a picture of it on the web somewhere and made one to try it. Is yours wax impregnated, are these tools related?

      • Don Williams says:

        They are related, sort of… Often the hollow reeds of horsetail were used as scouring bundles, sometimes with wax, sometimes not. Ditto corn straw scouring bundles. (sometimes horsetail reeds were slit and flattened to be used as a sandpaper-like material as the matrix is loaded with very sharp silicate clusters) The beauty of them is that they are so inexpensive they can be tailored to any need you have, whether shaped a particular way, impregnated with wax or a wax/pumice mix, etc. When you get one impregnated fully with wax and get the tip really smooth, then magic can happen.

    • Don Williams says:

      Stay tuned. I’ll check with Chris and perhaps I will post an abbreviated description of the process by which I make my own. If the broom maker can make them exactly as I want them I will probably buy them by the case full to use when I teach.

  3. Catskill kid says:

    I agree with Michael hopefully your broom-maker can allow us to order a few and see the magic.

  4. John Cashman says:

    I get more excited about this book each time you blog.

  5. Jimmie Brown says:

    Answer this question for me and I will give you a source for theses handly little brushes so cheep you will not wont to make one. Why does this guy’s drawers not stick with changes in humity?
    He does sashimono woodworking.

  6. Richard says:

    I read a story about guild woodworkers in the 17th century (if I remember correctly. This was about 40 or so years ago….) and apprenticeship tests. The story had it that in order for the apprentice to graduate to a Journeyman (as in leave his master and travel around to finish his education and find a place to setup his own shop) he had to make a piece and be judged on it. In the case of the story I read the piece was a tool box with multiple drawers and they had to fit so well that they would do what the guy on the link was demonstrating, if you pushed one in others would pop out from air pressure. On the day of the test the box and drawers had to be fine tuned to allow for the humidity that day and tomorrow the drawers might be so loose they wouldn’t pop or so swollen they would stick. I imagine the guy in Japan (a notoriously humid climate) had the same thing going on and still very impressive.

    • jimmie brown says:

      Thank you for replying to my query about the sticking drawers. Here is my end of the bargain.
      Donald C. Williams, Senior Furniture Conservator, Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute presented a discussion at the December holiday meeting of the Washington Conservation Guild entitled “Conservation on $5 a day” (How to use household goods and dry goods store items to outfit a consertion studio) in it he recommend “Corn straw burnishers, like the brushes used to clean woks, are an excellent tool for burnishing the surface of wood prior to applying a coating.”
      Under the name wok cleaners you can find straw brushes for about $1.70. They are still used in cabinet making inlue of sandpaper during finishing in Japan.

    • Graham Burbank says:

      During my years at the Wendell Castle Studio, this was common practice for small drawers. A couple of important notes,..The drawer box sides were ALWAYS quartersawn white oak, slip fit carefully with a handplane and polished with wax, and the fit was adjusted slightly looser in the wintertime (height only). Keep the height of the box under 3″ or so, and you will find that they may need adjusting once or twice the first summer. Push the limits, and yeah, they may stick. One minor fitting detail: take an extra swipe or two with a cambered iron down the middle of the side until the drawer is only contacting at the base and the top for extra insurance. They don’t call it a “piston fit” for nothing!

  7. abtuser says:

    I’ll be looking forward to the assembly essay. I have an available broom-maker right down the road.

  8. Paul says:

    Most of you already have such a brush, SCOTCHBRITE!
    It can be rolled tightly,formed, waxed, etc. This is a well known secret among Custom Stock(rifles shotguns) Makers

  9. tsstahl says:

    As a kid I saw a bunch of these in a relative’s barn. He used them during the horse/mule shoeing process to clean out hooves. I had completely forgotten about them until seeing this photograph.

  10. bearlimvere says:

    Looking forward to the book, as well as the source for brushes!!!!!

  11. joemcglynn says:

    Interesting, this explains the recent price hike in whisk brooms.

    I’m looking forward to the book, and more information on burnishers.

  12. Don McConnell says:

    Hi Don,
    I’ve been following your blogs on this topic with great interest, which drove me to track down the text in Roubo which I believe describes this tool. If my identification is correct, I believe it is called a polissoir (polisher) in a vein very much as Milcrek describes above. My very rough translation is that the polissoir (shown in figures 8 & 9 of Plate 296) is a bundle of rush (possibly reed, jonc), of about 4 inches length and 2 inches in diameter. The bundle is tightly bound along its entire length. Before use, it is soaked in melted wax, allowed to cool and rubbed on a piece of wood to consolidate and render it suitable for polishing work. It comes in various forms and sizes in order to get into narrow places and hollows.

    Regarding the latter, I’ve found an illustration, in Diderot of a polissoir with domed ends, which looks quite suitable for dealing with hollowed areas. Also, I found another text which indicated these tools were primarily used after the application of wax. Is this consistent with your understanding?

    • Don Williams says:

      Well, yes and no. The translation for the description of the polissor is that they were made from common grass or straw, and the wording/expression is different from the description of the “equisetum”, or horsetail reed. Yes, the polishers (Roubo’s description) or burnisher (my description) were described as approximately four inches long by two inches in diameter. While Roubo’s only explicit reference for the tool is as a waxing tool, my own use of it in various applications make it not too far a stretch to believe it was used for more than just smoothing out wax. Throughout the whole section on finishing tools he speaks of the benefits in making the tools whatever shape or size you needed for the task at hand.

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