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polishing-msg - 7/23/04


Period polishing and sanding methods and materials.


NOTE: See also the files: charcoal-msg, tools-msg, metals-msg, horn-msg, ivory-msg, bone-msg, lapidary-msg, wood-finishes-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I  have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I  have done  a limited amount  of  editing. Messages having to do  with separate topics  were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the  message IDs  were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make  no claims  as  to the accuracy  of  the information  given by the individual authors.


Please  respect the time  and  efforts of  those who have written  these messages. The  copyright status  of these messages  is  unclear at this time. If  information  is  published  from  these  messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: william thomas powers <powers at cis.ohio-state.edu>

Subject: charcoal

To: markh at khyber (Mark Harris)

Date: Sun, 14 Nov 1993 13:27:58 -0500 (EST)


Some of the uses of charcoal that would not be thought of today are:


Polishing metals with powdered charcoal, (non-ferreous ones)

Polishing your teeth with powered charcoal

medicine for a "sour stomach", bad breath, gas

meat was packed in it

charcoal could be added to stale water to purify it

wrought iron can be made into blister steel by heating it in a closed

      container full of charcoal, (red hot for a considerable time)

some of the chinese barrows had massive layers of charcoal to help

      protect the inner tomb


BTW sifted wood ashes mixed with a little water and used on a wool cloth

pad makes a GREAT polishing compound for bone, Theophilus was right--

but he forgot to mention the water... The faster you can "buff" it the better.

"shoeshing it with a long narrow strip of wool works well.


Wilelm the smith

Barony of the Middle Marches

Middle Kingdom



Period Sanding Techniques

Tue, 01 Sep 1998 00:20:38 -0500

From: Gunnora Hallakarva <gunnora at bga.com>


At 10:54 PM 8/31/98 -0500, you wrote:

><Jeff Parker <jeffdp at earthlink.net>>

>>Has anyone else any experience with something similar?  I

>>use hand planes and scrapers, which give a different

>>appearance from sanding.  But is their a period technique

>>other than these that would work?


I have gotten good results using wet sand on leather, using progressively

finer sands and finishing with wood ash.  It's a hell of a mess, and it's a

pain to do -- the progress is nowhere near as fast as using sandpaper.


Also, I have used scouring rushes which have such a high silicate content

that they make good "sandpaper" for fine sanding.


Gunnora Hallakarva




Mon, 31 Aug 1998 22:48:39 -0800

From: Chuck Phillips <cphillips at artnet.net>


Jeff Parker <jeffdp at earthlink.net> wrote:

<< This is sort of an offshoot of an earlier posting.  I have

tried sanding, once, by placing sand on the surface of the

wood and rubbing it with a flat object. >>


This would not be terribly effective, as the grits will tend to roll

around, rather than cut.  Also, the individual grains of sand are

probably pretty well rounded over, depending on where you got the sand.


I recall references to colonial cabinetmakers using sharkskin and a

particular variety of grass (it has a very high silica content) for

smoothing.  No idea how old the technique is, and all my references are

packed away right now.


If you want to make your own glasspaper, I would use a thin layer of

hide glue to adhere a freshly crushed and screened frit (crushed/ground



Charles Joiner

Who mostly uses sandpaper for sharpening tools these days.



Date: Tue, 01 Sep 1998 00:47:28 -0700

From: "J. Kriss White" <jkrissw at earthlink.net>


At 10:48 PM 08/31/98 -0800, Charles Joiner wrote:

>I recall references to colonial cabinetmakers using sharkskin and a

>particular variety of grass (it has a very high silica content) for

>smoothing.  No idea how old the technique is, and all my references are

>packed away right now.


I recall reading a 19th century book that described traditional (Meiji-era

and prior) carpentry techniques and tools in Japan, and sharkskin was

said to be used for sanding.


Lord Daveed of Granada, mka J. Kriss White,

Barony of Calafia, Kingdom of Caid



Subject: [medieval-leather] Re: FYI Polishes

Date: Sun, 02 May 1999 21:24:30 -0400

From: Peter Adams <adamspf at erols.com>

To: medieval-leather at egroups.com


I am not certain why IÕm posting this, but I figured some of you would

find this useful or at least interesting.


The Horse Tail reed is also known as Dutch Reed, Turners Reed, and

Scouring Rushes.  This is a very primitive plant which isolates silica

in crystaline form within its structure.  It is somewhat friable in use,

but easily replaced.  It grows in shady marshy ground, and looks like a

bunch (sometimes a WHOLE buch) of green straws sticking out of the



My rather unscientific tests indicate that The samples I have are

approximately equivalent to 600-800 grit (at least American) sandpaper.


Another nifty polish I have used is wood ash, combined on a rag with

water.  John Leader did extensive work on bone ash polishes, but I

havent read his work yet.


For the ardent recreationists among you, try polishing some brass with

wood ash some time, it gives a lovely satin finish.


Also for the SCAdians among us, Coopers Lake Campground in Pennsylvania

USA (home of Pennsic War) has several acres of equicitum- I cut some from

the roadside, and have not used it all yet.  It dries, and can be

reconstituted by soaking.  However DO NOT allow your animals to get

ahold of it, as equicitum also produces a plant toxin I canÕt name right

this minute but I believe to be in the family of aconitic acids, and

which is known to have produced sickness and or death in cattle who ate

it in their fodder.


It has been used since time immemorial as sandpaper, and for (oddly

enough, given the one name above) scouring dishes.






Subject: Re: [medieval-leather] Re: FYI Polishes

Date: Fri, 30 Jul 99 15:44:57 MST

From: Peter Adams <adamspf at erols.com>

To: "Mark.S Harris (rsve60)" <rsve60 at email.sps.mot.com>


> Can you describe it for me and perhaps tell me where, at or near

> Coopers Lake Campground I should look for it? Is it the leaves I

> want to obtain? Or the stalks?


> Lord Stefan li Rous


The answers to most of your queries are in the body of the original

text, but to recapitulate-

Equicitum is a primitive reed (plant) with no leaves, it looks like a

bunch of straws sticking out of the ground.  It rough like fine

sandpaper to the touch.  My guess is 600-800 grit, just right for soft

polishing metal. (When I am in period mode, I occasionally follow with

wood ash and water.  The lye and gentle abrasion make an excellent next

step on brass)


It can be seen in marshy areas.  At Coopers lake this is along the

causeway past the old archery field into the woods, where the reed grows

wild along the road, and in the lowlands. It will be most likely a bad

year for the reeds, due to the drought, but there should be some.  I do

not, however, advocate your harvesting on private property.  I suspect

the Coopers might not care for a landrush business on their flora

either, especially if its a tough year.


I obtained some years ago and dryed it.  I reconstitute it by soaking

overnight (you need a weight to keep it from floating.)  I don't really

have much call for it except to make scrubbers for my dishes, but it

works ok on aluminum, brass, and pewter at least. I haven't tryed it on

antler, bone, or horn, but *my guess* is that it would be a satin

finish. Various bone ashes, (although burning bone stinks), are

presented as an excellent set of polishes by Dr John Leader, an

archaoelogist I know.



Subject: Re: [medieval-leather] Re: FYI Polishes

Date: Sat, 31 Jul 99 11:29:07 MST

From: Peter Adams <adamspf at erols.com>

To: "Mark.S Harris (rsve60)" <rsve60 at email.sps.mot.com>


Equicetum evolved in the cretacious period, and is present on all

continents.  It has therefore been known to virtually all primitive

riparian cultures, and any others that spend much time near shady wet



This accounts for the many names.  Equicetum is latin for horse tail,

which the reed somewhat resembles, the rest of the names are colloquial

names based on use or point of origin.  I cant imagine why the English

would call it Dutch reed, unless it is that the lowlands of holland,

shady and wet, must simply be covered in this stuff.


Mark.S Harris wrote:

> I'm not sure why you need to reconstitute/re-hydrate the plant. Is it too

> stiff/brittle to use when it is dried out?


Yep, it gets rather brittle.  This is not sandpaper, more a polishing

rag, once it is wet again.





[Note - Since I obtained some Equicetum in Pennsylvania, I have also

found it growing in central Texas. So it may be available in a multitude

of areas. You might want to try your nieghborhood nursery, particularly

one which deals in landscaping plants for backyard ponds and fountains.


     Stefan li Rous]



Date: Sat, 11 Sep 1999 17:33:50 -0400

From: "Peter B. Steiner" <petersdiner at yahoo.com>

To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu

Subject: Re: Sandpaper?


Anna Troy wrote:

> When did sandpaper come in use and what was used before? I've made a 14th

> century knive and I scraped the handle smooth instead of sanding it but now

> I need dokumentation so I can enter it in the up-coming A&S contest.


    I can't tell you when modern sandpaper was invented...though I suspect it

has been around since about five minutes after the invention of cheap paper.

<grin>  A Period artisan would have used loose grit (powdered garnet, powdered

quartz, fine beach sand, whatever was handy) and rubbed the surface to be

smoothed with either a dry, wet, or oiled rag....depending on which was most

appropriate to the surface being worked.

I'm not certain whether or not I have primary source documentation...but I

shall look through my library and attempt to find something.

I would be -very- interested in hearing more about your knife!





Date: Sun, 12 Sep 1999 00:42:17 -0500

From: Tom Rettie <tom at his.com>

To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu

Subject: Re: Sandpaper?


>    I can't tell you when modern sandpaper was invented...though I suspect it

>has been around since about five minutes after the invention of cheap paper.

><grin>  A Period artisan would have used loose grit (powdered garnet, powdered

>quartz, fine beach sand, whatever was handy) and rubbed the surface to be

>smoothed with either a dry, wet, or oiled rag....depending on which was most

>appropriate to the surface being worked.


Additionally, the skin of dogfish (small sharks) appears in the purchase

records of period carpenters and joiners, apparently for use as an

abrasive.  If you would like a citation, let me know and I'll look it up.





Date: Sun, 12 Sep 1999 12:44:12 -0500

From: Tom Rettie <tom at his.com>

To: Anna Troy <owly at hem.utfors.se>

Cc: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu

Subject: Re: Sandpaper?


>>Additionally, the skin of dogfish (small sharks) appears in the purchase

>>records of period carpenters and joiners, apparently for use as an

>>abrasive.  If you would like a citation, let me know and I'll look it up.


>Yes please :-)



This is from "Building in England Down to 1540" by L. F. Salzman.  Oxford

University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books, 1997).

ISBN 0-19-817158-7.


This quote is from a discussion on carpentry tools:


page 346.

"For the final smoothing of woodwork the medieval equivalent of sandpaper

seems to have been the rough skin of the dog-fish, as 'a skin called

huyndysfishskyn for the carpenters' was bought, for 9d., at Westminster in

1355 (14).  This also appears at Windsor four years earlier: 'in j pelle

piscis canini pro operibus staff'--vjd.'(9)


The footnotes correspond to the following source references:


9.  Exch. K.R. Accts.; bundle 492, document 27.

14. Exch. K.R. Accts.; bundle 471, document 15.



From: "C. L. Ward" <gunnora at vikinganswerlady.com>

Date: April 14, 2004 7:24:41 AM CDT

To: "Kingdom of Ansteorra - SCA, Inc." <ansteorra at ansteorra.org>

Subject: RE: [Ansteorra] Dogfish anyone?


> Does anyone know where I can acquire/purchase dogfish hide

> (Mustelus canis) or horsetail reed (equisetum hyemale)?


Xanthe, depending on what you're sanding, you can also make a paste of

rottenstone and linseed oil and apply with a rag as a wet sanding agent.

Rottenstone (decomposed limestone) is sold at most art supply stores.





From: "C. L. Ward" <gunnora at vikinganswerlady.com>

Date: April 15, 2004 1:22:53 AM CDT

To: "Kingdom of Ansteorra - SCA, Inc." <ansteorra at ansteorra.org>

Subject: RE: [Ansteorra] Dogfish anyone?


> Can you also please tell us which cultures used

> this rottenstone in the Middle Ages and when?


Not specifically - the earlier you go, the less evidence survives about how

wood items were finished.  For instance, in Viking contexts, we have wood

that survives because it's been in a waterlogged site - but that means that

any oil or varnish is usually long gone by the time it's dug up, and what

the archaeologists have to do for conservation usually wipes out any traces

that might have survived a millenium of burial and water-logging.


Where we start getting concrete information about "sanding" and finishing is

fairly late period, and there we have data because in a very few places

someone wrote it down.  All the materials, though, are easily available

everywhere, and we have better early evidence that various abrasives were in

use for metalwork that we know were also definitely used later for wood.


Rottenstone is a soft, weathered, decomposed siliceous limestone, used in

powder form as a polishing material.  Another term for this substance is

tripoli, and it is used as a metal polish as well.


Usually the primary "sanding" of wood was done with a powdered pumice stone,

then final polishing/fine sanding was done with rottenstone - and this

technique is still in use today for high-end finishes.  Both pumice and

rottenstone are used powdered, and usually mixed with linseed oil for use

(though I've seen modern woodworking books suggest paraffin oil, kerosene, or

even water instead). Rottenstone is softer than pumice and the particle size

breaks down easily under use, making it good for achieving smooth, final

finishes. It's particularly used today in fine woodwork and luthier-work for

the final "rubbing out" of a lacquer or varnish to achive a very high



L.F. Salzman in _Building in England down to 1540: A Documentary History_

(Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1952) mentions "sanding" using rottenstone,

scouring rush (aka equisetum, horsetail fern, shave grass, etc.), or

dog-fish skin. On the latter, Salzman notes receipts for "hundysfishskyn for

the carpenters" (Westminster, 1355) and "j pelle piscis canini pro operibus

stall" (Windsor, 1351).


In the 11th century, Theophilus (_On Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval

Treatise on Painting, Glassmaking, and Metalwork_. Trans. John G. Hawthorne

and Cyril Stanley Smith. New York: Dover. 1979) mentions polishing niello

using powedered pumice stone, polishing silver using "chalk" or rottenstone,

and also using shave grass (equisetum) to smooth wood and parchment.


For metal polishing, aside from Theophilus's recommendations above, he also

suggests jeweller's rouge. Jeweller's rouge is powdered ferrous oxide

(Fe2O3, hematite, red ochre), and was used in medieval pigments and paints.

I know big pieces of wax impregnated with jeweller's rouge were found from

the Anglo-Scandinavian excavations at Jorvik (York, U.K.). I don't know that

you can say for certain that the York find was being used for polishing

metal, but I'd tend to think so. Jeweller's rouge has been in use as a

polishing agent all the way back to stone age peoples.  I've seen

speculation that some knapped-flint utsensils were polished with ochre, and

it has been scientifically demonstrated that the Olmecs in the New World

were using jeweller's rouge to polish mirrors (stone, not metal).


There are many other abrasives that were used in polishing prior to the

modern stuff.  Some others I know I've seen mentioned include powdered

volcanic glass, diatomaceous earth, emery, flint, and garnet.




<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org