A Bone to Pick

May 21, 2010

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:

Adventures in Wood Finishing, by George Frank

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.

Interestingly, saw handles used to be burnished for a finish.  The handle maker would use a piece of bone to burnish the beech wood and close its grain.

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.


  1. That is really interesting. I like the finish. I have a few questions; 1.) How did you polish the bone? 2.) Do you just rub the bone over the wood? 3.) Does the size of the bone matter? Thanks in advance.

    • Archiphile, thanks. The donor bone for the burnisher was a standard beef bone like you’d find in any pet store, like this. I cut it down its length, and then took that segment and cut it down its length once more to get the blank for the burnisher. I tried to do it strategically, with my final shape in mind, so that the blank would itself already be as close as possible to the final shape. In my opinion you want this particular type of burnisher to be long enough to hold comfortably, and still have enough burnisher left to nearly span some of the flat surfaces, like the cheeks. I say “this particular type,” because you could make a burnisher of any size or configuration you wanted really; or even have more than one. Just one of these “parent bones” is big enough to make a number of burnishers, and I plan to make another smaller one expressly for working in the tightest areas.

      Using it is pretty much a matter of rubbing it on the wood, just as you surmise. The trick is to not do it too hard and to just let the burnisher do the work—-kind of like burnishing a scraper. This is where the bone really shines—it’s hard enough to do a tremendous job with relatively modest pressure. You want to watch the sheen you are creating, and keep it even and complete. The surfaces of the burnisher are a mixture of different radii, some very flat, others very round, but none actually sharp—nothing to gouge or make scratches. I shaped the basic radii on a belt sander, then polished the whole thing with different grits of sand paper, up through 600.

  2. Hey Andrew!

    Very interesting. A boner/burnisher. I do a little burnishing when I wheat carve my handles. I don’t use a bone though. I use a center punch that just happens to fit nicely down in the V shape of the wheats.

    Question….does your bone become burnished as you use it and do you then have to sand it again?


    • Hey Marv,

      Yes the bone does get polished more and more as you work with it, but that’s a good thing, so I don’t sand it back off. The degree to which the bone is polished by the wood is actually pretty subtle but is noticeable; just sort of an extra layer of refinement to the burnisher itself.

      I really admire your wheat carving, Marv. It’s just so well done, it’s really special stuff.

      See you,

  3. Andrew, I found this post through a circuitous route. It sounds like something I need to bone up on (no groaning, please). 🙂

    I was wondering if something like a piece of shaped lignum vitae would make an acceptable burnisher?

    Thanks much,


    • Hi Dean,

      That’s a bona fide bad joke if I’ve ever heard one! 🙂 Sure, I’d give lignum vitae a try; it’s definitely hard enough. You need to get the burnisher itself very highly polished and smooth; the lignum vitae won’t be as finely textured as the bone, but I would imagine it could still produce a very good burnisher. I’d give it a try on some scrap and see what you think. Good luck!

      • You’re killing me! But thanks very much for the information and suggestions.


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