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.
The 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.