At the Altars of Flat, Smooth and Texture

I’ve been working wood off and on for well over two decades now.  Since day one I’ve worshiped at the altars of flat and smooth.  Everything I read and saw told me that finished surfaces should be just that, flat and smooth.  In the early days I didn’t have a clue about hand planes.  I would buy surfaced lumber from the home center, cut the joinery and sand everything until I had what I thought was an acceptable surface.  I went thru a lot of sandpaper back then.  As I progressed and built skills, I learned to use hand planes and how to sharpen.  My surfaces continued to improve and I used less and less sandpaper.  However, the goal continued to be flat and smooth.  I’m at a point now that I can produce a glass smooth surface on just about any piece of wood.  Long grain or end grain, neither is any problem.  The funny thing is, I don’t really like it all that much.  At least not for every surface.

At first I thought my dissatisfaction must be due to the quality of my surface.  So I continued to explore planing methods, sharpening and surface prep.  Still the feeling persisted.  Then I began to wonder if my dissatisfaction had something to do with my working in predominately softwood.  So I concentrated my efforts on prepping and polishing softwood, pine in particular.  Still, I didn’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about flat and smooth.

Along the journey I became aware of the polissoir.  Don Williams, while working on/with the translation of Roubo, began to experiment with this simple polishing tool.  Tightly bound broom corn treated with beeswax, the polissoir works great on hardwood, but is far less effective on softwood.  It was my interest and work with the polissoir that led to a discussion with a fellow woodworker (thanks Frank) and during that exchange I came across the uzukuri.

The uzukuri is a Japanese tool made after the same fashion as the polissoir.  It, like most things in woodworking, is available in differing grades from coarse to fine.  By the way, Roubo’s polissoir is the same way.  Broom corn just happens to be the popular fiber widely utilized currently.  Anyway, the uzukuri can be made from reed, grasses, roots or horse hair, depending on the level of coarse or fine desired and is a tool designed specifically for softwood.  While the finer grades are meant to burnish and polish the wood, the coarser grades of the uzukuri are for abrading.  The “aha” moment happened when I realized that list bit.

uzukuri-exmplThe density between early and late growth wood can be quite different in a piece of softwood such as pine.  The uzukuri was created to take advantage of and to enhance this feature.  The coarser grades of the tool are used to abrade away the early (softer) growth wood.  Effectively raising the grain pattern of the late (harder) growth wood.  The finer grades of the uzukuri are then used to burnish and polish the board.  The result is a very smooth, but tactile and lively surface.  The best way I know of to describe the effect is to liken it to driftwood.

I purchased a cheap corn broom and dismantled it to create a version of the uzukuri to experiment with.  I found those experiments quite encouraging and really liked the surface effect.  So much so that I saved my nickles (damned inflation) and blew a large chunk of my woodworking budget on buying proper uzukuri in coarse, medium and fine.

So with my new tools in hand I created the sample pieces below.  I need a great deal more practice, but you should be able to get an idea of the effect.  There is no finish on these samples.  Just the surface created by the technique.

I found the process quite easy and intuitive.  The uzukuri is used, like sandpaper, with the grain.  By altering the pressure I was able to control the effect on the wood.  The result is quite pleasing to both my eye and my hand.  I do believe that this technique will bring another dimension to my work.  While not for every surface, I anticipate using this technique for a large portion of my surface treatments.  So I haven’t completely changed my religion.  I’ll still be worshiping at the altars of flat and smooth, but texture has been added to the pantheon.

What I need now is practice.  My next project is a toolbox.  In an earlier post I droned on about how it was just a box and didn’t need to be “pretty”.  But…I can’t pass up the opportunity it provides for practicing this new technique.  Large flat surfaces that do not need to be cosmetically “perfect”.  It doesn’t get any better than that for practice.

Greg Merritt

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19 Responses to At the Altars of Flat, Smooth and Texture

  1. Brian Eve says:

    That IS very cool. I imagine that there would be some interesting uses on a project for texture like this. It might also be a fantastic prep to a piece intended to be painted. I’m sure you’ll come up with some fantastic projects using this.

  2. BrianJ says:

    I love that it takes advantage of the natural nature of the wood, grains, knots, would all add their own character to the piece. My eye is never usually drawn to the intricate, straight line or geometric necessarily (….except for on this site of course…… ) I’m far more interested and fascinated to see what natural grain has to say.

  3. Bob Easton says:

    I wasn’t too keen on the way a polissoir eats away at the soft wood, but you’ve shown an interesting surface. i’ll have to go try that.

    On another note, your spell checker failed you by letting you use the wrong word. I think you meant “altar.” 🙂

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I think its an interesting surface. I was actually quite surprised with the luster that was created.

      LOL…I failed, spell checker is fine. The original working title for this post was “Altering flat and smooth with texture”. I thought I would be witty. Apparently I arrived unarmed for that battle. Corrections have been made.

  4. Deniseg says:

    Both the visual and tactile effect are striking. What applications do you think you’d like to use this on, Greg?

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I plane to use this treatment on most of my pine surfaces. The amount of texture can be subtle or quite deep. Most of the time I plan to go with subtle. Just enough textural element to create dimension and a tactile experience. Much like leaving plane scallops on a large panel. I want the things that I build to be used, not put on display. I think the addition of a textural element will invite people to touch and use the furniture that I build.

  5. Peter Brown says:

    Do you load the uzukuri up with wax, similar to the polissoir? Or is that surface created with just the burnishing action?

    • Greg Merritt says:

      No wax. The individual fibers need to remain loose and dry in order to conform to the contours of the grain. This is why the polissoir does not work that well on soft wood. The wax on the polissoir causes the individual fibers to lock together as one solid mass. Great for hard wood, but not for the uneven densities found in soft wood.

  6. joemcglynn says:

    “In an earlier post I droned on about how it was just a box and didn’t need to be pretty”

    Greg – do the finger joints! If you char the wood first I’d bet you could do some pretty interesting things.

  7. I believed for years that sanding was invented so that people who couldn’t sharpen a plane properly would think they were actually woodworkers. Really hard to move off my core beliefs, but you just taught us a trick. I’ve carved the spring-wood out of yellow pine with gouges to get that texture, and endured sandblasting and wheel-brush sanders on large timbers.
    The yarri-kanna (spear plane) is wonderfully subtle following grain. It is the only edge tool I have found that will surface eastern red cedar without tearing it to pieces.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I think you view on sanding is spot-on. My understanding of this technique is in its infancy, but I do know that it is far more efficient to start with a properly planed surface. There are several exquisite examples to found with an internet search. I do know that it is a favorite surface treatment for floors in Japan. Yellow pine would be a prime candidate for this due to the extreme density change between early and late growth wood. I have a very small scrap of straight-grained fir and it responded beautifully to this technique.
      I’ve not tried, nor even held, the yarri-kanna, but it looks like it would be fun to work with. The surface effect is very nice with that tool as well.

      • My friend Matt Ross took up blade-smithing and Japanese culture about twenty years ago, and made a few yarri-kanna blades. I have a couple of them, they’re fascinating tools. A texture like hammered copper or ripples on water is possible. I can imagine following that planing by scrubbing with a bundle of broom-straw or horsetail, fine sanding tends to take off the high spots and reduce the effect.

  8. Pingback: Practice with the Uzukuri-Part 1 | GREG MERRITT – BY MY OWN HANDS

  9. Pingback: HB Hobby Tansu #1-Part 14 | GREG MERRITT – BY MY OWN HANDS

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