Greenwood Carving Aftercare, Abrading and Burnishing

As part of this series of blogs looking at greenwood carving aftercare, we started in the first blog Greenwood Carving Aftercare, by looking at prolonging greenwood carving time and two surface finishes, tool markings and knife scraping. In this second part we will focus on abrading and burnishing.

However, you view sandpaper, whether you class it as the devils work or just another tool by which you can achieve the results you desire. I see it as the same process our ancestors used in abrading stone adze heads, pottery and bone jewellery and a whole hoast of other things, this is just taking advantage of a modern abrasive material, and for me it holds a valuable place. It can offer a connection to your project that knife carving alone does not provide. Using your body against the surface of the wood to transform it ergonomically to custom fit your body, whilst increasing the clarity and the beauty of the wood from within, using successively finer and finer grits is a joy for me. So, let’s take a look.

The closer you look the more you will see, ebrading revealing what the wood has to offer in a way a knife alone never will. Jay’s highly sanded yew root spoon. For display only as green, the wood is highly toxic

• Abrading

Abrading by hand can be used to achieve two aims, namely shaping, and smoothing the surface of your work after carving. Sandpaper comes in many different varieties and grits, from 60 grit all the way to 7000 grit. The lower the number the larger the grit size and coarser the paper. The higher the number the smaller the grit size and the smoother the paper. The grit size can vary from what looks like granulated sugar all the way down to grit resembling the size of cooking flour. The American (CAMI) and European (FEPA) grading systems are the two you are most likely to come across, both have their own way of measuring grit size. They are similar with coarser grits but vary with finer grits.

Jays mountain ash Trinity spoon
Holes first carved out with a knife and then abraded to form and smooth

There are many types of sandpaper to choose from. They can all be purchased in assorted packs for just a few pounds. I recommend using aluminium oxide paper to abrade. The main benefits are a strong backing and adhesive, combined with a surface that as it breaks down exposes new sharp edges, providing good performance that last well.

Once you have chosen your paper it is best applied in stages to achieve good results. Starting with the course first for shaping and to achieve one uniformed surface. It is then superseded by the next higher grit size which will remove the scratch marks left by the previous, and so on increasing the smoothness of the surface, until you are satisfied with the result. As a guide start with a coarse (80 grit) if you have lots of shaping to do, moving on to medium (120 grit) and then fine (180-400 grit) for further abrading. Anything beyond 400 is classed as ultra-fine.

Jays sycamore spoon abraded to 400 grit

Tip: All sandpaper can become clogged during use to a varying degree, tapping any sandpaper you choose on a clean surface will help clear them out and improve efficiency.

o Shaping
If there are areas of your work you wish to shape further and you feel you have taken the knife work as far as you would like to, then abrading is a great option for you. Coarse grits are recommended at this stage for initial shaping, switching to medium as you get closer to your final form. Shaping has the added advantage (especially with utensils) to form areas ergonomically with the profile of your own hands, increasing comfort and usability of your creation.

Jay’s sycamore spoon with a large handle he made for an elderly person, who struggled gripping things
An ergonomic thumb hold to aid grip on the top of the same spoon, formed through abrading

This can be achieved by matching the part of your body or surface which best matches the shape you wish to obtain. This could be the sides, tips or pads of your fingers or thumbs. The inside of the hand is also very useful, from the central palm, the lower palm (closest to the wrist) and the thenar (base of the thumb) or the inside of a clenched hand. You will instinctively gravitate to the area of your body which provides the best results for what you wish to achieve.

Tip: If you find that your sandpaper is slipping fold it in half, so the abrasive side is also skin side. This will help prevent the paper slipping.

Other surfaces can also be used as formers to help achieve desired shapes, like a flat surface to form a level rim of a spoon or kuksa. You can also mobilise a flat surface in your hand by squaring off an offcut and wrapping sandpaper around it. For smaller intricate shapes like lanyard holes rolling up a suitable piece of sandpaper can create a useful former. This method can be used to form sharp angles for tight areas too, by folding it several times.

Jays sycamore spoon, a Jerry can on his weeklong course as a customer was used to get the flat edge on the bowl of this spoon

o Smoothing
Creating a finer finish to the surface changes the tactile qualities of wood, making it to some more pleasing to hold. It also increases the clarity of the grain, releasing more detail from within the wood features itself, enhancing its beauty further. The finer the grit, the smoother the surface and the greater these qualities are enhanced.

Smoother surfaces making for a very pleaseing spoon to hold in the hand, folded sandpaper used to help create the sharp angle in the handle

Tip: You can raise the grain a little between each of the first three grits by dampening the surface a little with some damp kitchen roll, this will make it feel rougher. Abrade with the same grit and repeat a couple of times until the grain stops raising. Then move onto the next higher grit. On the last grit stop abrading as soon as the raised grain is smooth again. This will help prevent it raising through use and you will end up with a better finish.

Following the abrading, advice above if you wish to enhance those qualities further you can move onto wet and dry abrasive paper from 400 grit. It is a black flexible and waterproof but can be used wet or dry. It comes in grit sizes 60, 80, 120, 180, 240, 320, 400, 500, 600, 800, 1000, 1200, 1500, 2000, 2500, 3000, 5000, 7000.

Jay’s sycamore spatula, a week of abrading through 18 different grades of abrasive paper

Wet abrading acts as a lubricant, removes less material and takes longer than dry abrading but will achieve incredibly smooth results than with dry abrading. 400 grit wet and dry for the final finish will satisfy most desired results. You can work up to 7000 grit, with each successive higher grit, the wood fibres became clearer as if focusing a camera lens for an ever sharper image. Reaching 7000 will transform the texture so much it will no longer feel like wood and feels more like new glossy plastic offering incredible clarity of wood grain, but it will take you a week to get there and to some can detract from the tactile feeling you get from wood.

A little oil for pretection brings out all the detail the abrading has created. It felt more like glossy plastic once completed

• Burnishing

Burnishing provides a smooth shiny surface without the use of any chemicals. It is a process by which wood is rubbed on another wood surface, removing soft cells, and leaving hard cells, which gives a smooth and shiny appearance. Shavings, small piece of denim, or ribbons from a pole laith can all be used for example. These are rubbed in small circles by hand until the desired result and then move on to a new area, ensuring the previous area is overlapped. It is very time consuming and labour intensive but is very effective and easy to achieve on any form of laith, holding the shavings or ribbons of wood against the workpiece as the laith rotates it. Ensure you have the guidance of someone suitably trained on the laith for this finish

Jay on a pole laith looking forward to some burnishing

In my next blog we will be looking as seasoning, oiling and baking your green wood projects, see you next time.

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