Early Abrasives


Sandpaper (or glass paper as it was originally known) is a relatively modern innovation. Prior to its introduction, woodworkers relied on chiefly on skill with a plane and scraper to produce a smooth, flat surface. When abrasives were needed, natural alternatives were available, such as cattails (used by turners), fine sand, and rottenstone (a soft, decomposed limestone).

In his 15th century manuscripts, Jehan Le Begue discusses methods of preparing wood for painting. Here he says, "First make the wood very flat and smooth by scraping it, and lastly by rubbing it with that herb which is called shave-grass.1"

An undated Paduan manuscript, perhaps of the 16th or 17th century, gives the following instructions for preparing wood for blackening:

"When the wood has been polished with burnt pumice stone it must be well rubbed with a coarse cloth and with the said powder, bathing the work with German size that it may be more polished; it must then be cleaned with another rag.2"

In his book "Building in England Down to 1540," L.F. Salzman notes:

"For the final smoothing of woodwork the medieval equivalent of sandpaper seems to have been the rough skin of the dog-fish, as 'a skin called hundysfishskyn for the carpenters' was bought, for 9d., at Westminster in 1355. This also appears at Windsor four years earlier: 'in j pelle piscis canini pro operibus stall' -- vjd."3

A 1635 essay by Pierre Lebrun instructs that when preparing wood to imitate ebony, it should be "rubbed with a piece of rag or reed to polish them. After this they are rubbed with a waxed cloth or a piece of wax, to make them shine like ebony. If there are any spots, they are to be removed by rubbing with reeds."4


(1) Merrifield, Mary P. (editor/translator). Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY,1967, p. 228.

(2) Merrifield, pg. 710.

(3) Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997). p. 346.

(4) Merrifield, pg. 818.