You guys ever read a book by the late wood finisher George Frank, titled, “Adventures in Wood Finishing”? Great book. His stories are well written and a lot of fun to read. Plus they have lots of interesting tidbits in them about wood finishing. Here’s a link to the book at Amazon:
One of the stories in the book is about a set of huge doors George was commissioned to build for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. The catch? He wasn’t allowed to apply any finish to them—a tricky situation. So how did he manage to “finish” the doors without finishing them? He burnished them.
Over the last year I’ve mentioned this treatment conversationally to people and have had it requested several times. It produces a surprisingly comfortable handle, and a very attractive one too. It’s remarkable how shiny the wood gets, and without any film or oil applied to it. The end grain especially looks almost glassy.
It’s kind of like going back in time and seeing what a saw handle would have looked like brand new a very long time ago—quartersawn beech with a burnished finish. Not all handles were burnished, though, just the better ones. And no doubt I fuss over my handles a lot more than the old handle makers fussed over theirs. But the basic look of the wood and everything, it’s all there.
I used to wonder why the old handle makers bothered using bone—why not just use a harder wood? Burnishing is burnishing right? But then I made a burnisher out of bone and no longer wondered anymore—its surface was the perfect combination of hardness and smoothness.
My burnisher is made from a piece of beef bone that I bought at a pet store. It’s real bone, just already defleshed and sterilized, so all the prep work to the bone is already done.
I cut out the piece I wanted with a hacksaw then ground it to shape and polished it up. I had access to a photo of an original handle burnisher from England, so I knew the basic shape to shoot for. Beyond that I refined the edges and surfaces into contours I thought would be useful.
Of course someone could say that a handle finished this way will become soiled from the dirt and oils from your hand. And that brings us back to George Frank and his doors—some people saw the doors and found them dirty, and others saw them and thought they had a wonderful patina. The truth is, any handle will patinate from use. I for one don’t think the signs of honest work are something to be avoided.