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Using burnishers

Was: Jewelry vs. Stones Tumblers

Hi, Helen,

I have a burnisher but (apart from using it around the inside of a
bezel after setting) for the life of me I can't figure out what I'm
supposed to do with it. All it does is leave super-shiny lines
wherever it's been and I can't seem to get any evenness of finish
with it. 

Have you tried burnishers with different shaped ends for one that
would give a different effect?


Lorraine (who is looking for an excuse to buy an agate burnisher

Hi Lorraine,


I have the top burnisher in the link you gave me. I’m just not sure
what I’m supposed to do with it. My efforts seem to be very


I find that the large, broad steel burnishers are pretty useless. I
prefer to use carbide burnishers. The only real advantage I see to
the large steel burnishers is that they are easy to polish when they
get scratched. In general though, I find them too large for most
jewelry work. If I need a burnisher to go around less durable stones
that a carbide burnisher would scratch, I have a burnisher I made
from the tine of a stainless steel fork imbedded in a wooden handle.

Here is what I teach about using a burnisher. There are two types of
scratches. The first type is a scratch that actually removes metal
from the surface. These are very hard to use a burnisher on unless
they are very light and on just the right surface. The second type
simply moves metal. The difference between the two types of scratches
is analogous to digging a trench with a bulldozer versus a plow. A
bulldozer or a back hoe reach down and pull or push soil out of the
trench and places it somewhere else. A plow pushs the soil to the
side, creating heaps on either side of the trench.

To determine whether a burnisher will work you have to understand
what kind of scratch you are dealing with and how deep it is. Think
of that plowed trench. If you where to go behind that trench and push
that heaped up row of soil back into the trench, you are, in effect,
doing what a burnisher is best at. Always work the burnisher in the
same direction as the scratch as opposed to at right angles. You
should avoid pushing harder than is neccesary to get the metal back
into the trench. Any harder and you create a compressed area that
will be just as obvious as the original scratch. You can now see why
a very broad, large burnisher isn’t as accurate on some surfaces.

Often you will have a large area, such as the inside of a shank or
the outside of a bezel, that has lots of little scratches over the
entire surface. Here you might think that using a large brunisher
would work better, but often it doesn’t. If you have a large flat
area to work and you stroke it with a burnisher in such a way that
only a tiny area of the burnisher is touching the metal, you will
indeed get a lot of small lines no matter how softly you push on the
metal. If, however, you can manipulate your burnisher so that a
larger area of the tool is in contact with the surface of the metal,
you are less likely to have those small lines and in some cases can
avoid those lines completely. This is where a smaller burnisher comes
in handy. Don’t hesitate to use the body of the burnisher as opposed
to just the tip.

I have, right now, on my bench, 11 carbide burnishers. I use 3 of
them almost every day. The others are more specialized. Here are a
few other points to remember when you use a burnisher.

Keep your work and the tool exceptionally clean. Any abrasive dirt
that gets between the surface of the metal and the burnisher will
scratch the surface of the work and probably the surface of the
burnisher too.

Keep your burnishers highly polished. The surface of your work will
never be any shinier than the surface of the burnisher.

Try using a bit of light oil, such as oil of wintergreen, on your
burnisher. Sometimes a bit of oil, especially when you are dealing
with a larger surface area will make burnishing easier.

Don’t push too hard and never use a burnisher without thinking about
what you are doing. A burnisher is not a magic tool. It does a
specific job and it does it under fairly exacting conditions (as
related above). Running a burnisher along willy-nilly over a surface
to get it shiney is about as useful as pointing a torch at a shank
and expecting it to size itself.

One last thing; I find I mostly use burnishers as the next to last
step to a final polish. A shiney surface with small lines created by
a burnisher is easier and generally quicker to polish by other
mechanical means, such as a lathe or rotary handpiece, than a surface
with scratches of various depths. So, you’ll be more successful using
a burnisher as an intermediate step rather than the last one.

It takes a bit of skill and experience to use a burnisher to it’s
fullest. So use a burnisher often, even if it doesn’t seem to help
much. If you use it with intent and observe it’s effect on your work,
you will develop a fondness for burnishers; but like many great
relationships, it’s not love at first site.

I hope this helps.

Don't push too hard and never use a burnisher without thinking
about what you are doing. 

Larry’s little treatise there should be published someplace… About
as good a description as I’ve seen. I used to set fine silver bezels
with those large steel burnishers - once around, once down, it’s
done. As for using a burnisher for burnishing, as Larry describes, I
used to struggle with that, too. Then gradually I realized I was
pushing to hard, trying to horse it. It doesn’t necessarily take a
lot of power, depending on the exact job. It is literally careful
rubbing…Kind of an arcane method these days, but real useful when
it suits…

When is it appropriate to burnish? I don’t have a clue. I used to
file, sand, rubber wheel, first cut polish, final polish and then
attempt to burnish (but couldn’t see the point of the burnishing).
Now I’m filing, sanding, rubber wheeling then rotary tumbling - which
I guess is burnishing in itself. Would I need to use a hand burnisher
still? I’ll be setting stones after tumbling and so I will probably
have to polish out some tool marks. Would I hand burnish after that?


Hi Helen,

You ask about burnishing, well one main point I was taught when
starting was that burnishing can make gold shine without removing
any metal. As you will know when using a polishing mop a certain
amount of the metal surface is removed. Burnishing is very important
when restoring a bright finish to something that has been gold plated
as normal mop polishing can remove some of the gold plated surface.

When I was an apprentice most gold and silver plating companies
employed a full time burnisher. The best way to describe the good
effect of burnishing is when it’s used on antique gilded silver
plate, where the plate is heavily chased. These pieces are almost
always gilt to a slightly dull matt finish with the chasing
highlighted by the skills of a burnisher, this process gives a
contrast to the design. If you ever visit the Goldsmith’s Hall and
see their Paul de Lamerie collection of silver plate you can see the
effect of good burnishing. I use agate burnishers mostly when
restoring antiques and steel burnishers when setting cabochons. I
also use a burnisher when copying engraving engraving designs from
one piece to another, but that is another story.

James Miller FIPG

When is it appropriate to burnish? I don't have a clue. 

Helen, no doubt you’ll get more than one reply to this. There are
people who burnish a lot, and there are many who don’t know which
end of the tool to use. Again, it’s a pretty old-school method.
People say they polish 24 kt. gold, but burnishing is the way to go,
and in fact any really soft metal is better rubbed than polished.
Another is blind spaces where wheels can’t reach. Solder down a
triangle of square wire and you’ll have a heck of a time polishing
the inner space into the corners without destroying the wires, but
you can burnish it easily, and then put a shine on it with an end
brush. I’ve used it to polish inside of prongs after a stone is set,
too. The most common use might be what people have said - rubbing
out engraving mistakes. I use it a lot in sculpting - you can push
metal and get subleties in carving that you really can’t get any
other way. And get a fair polish on something that wheels would
simply destroy.

In the end I wouldn’t worry too much about it. It’s a method that is
really useful when it’s useful, but many people can get what they
want without ever touching a burnisher. Anytime you think, “I can’t
reach it, or wheels are too aggressive or too big”, a burnisher might
be just the thing. As several have said, they are just pieces of
polished, hard metal, and are easily made for any certain task you
might need… I use an old 3/32" - 2.25mm bur shank, ground and
polished to a point, a lot…

Dear Helen, It is appropriate to hand burnish after setting a stone
in a bezel setting. I personally use the curved burnisher in a manner
similar to a peeling an apple motion. (pulling it towards myself) It
smooths the bezel out and adds a final compression to the top edge of
the bezel against a stone. I only use the top quarter inch of the
blade for control and keep the burnisher polished for the best
results. Next I will use a rubber wheel to smooth any marks. After
that, it’s polishing time on the old buffer.I too use a tumbler, but
BEFORE setting any stones.

Ruthie Cohen

Thanks for the explanation James. I’m beginning to see when it is
appropriate. I’ll practice more so that I can use it when needed.
Hopefully after some practice I’ll be able to burnish successfully
without just stabbing myself in the hand with the point! :frowning:


Thanks Ruthie,

I sort of burnish the bezels when I’m setting. I use a square ended
prong pusher which I’ve polished, compressing the bezel with the
prong pusher, aided by a chasing hammer. Once I’ve turned the bezel
onto the stone with pusher and hammer, I carry on tapping the pusher
on the setting, but this time in a sidewards motion, all around the
setting. This irons out those “corners” that you can be left with
after doing the 12, 6, 9, 3 (and all points in between) thing. I
loupe it regularly to make sure they’re all ironed out. Then I use a
fine rubber wheel and a final polish. I’ll try the burnisher again.
I do use it around the inside edge of bezel settings in an attempt to
get that mirror reflection. I understand that some jewellers use a
graver for this but I’ve not been that brave yet!

Thanks again Ruthie.

Hi Helen,

You ask about burnishing, well one main point I was taught when
starting was that burnishing can make gold shine without removing any

I will point out that the burnisher she says she has is the tool of
choice for American Indian (or whoever) turquoise jewelry setting.
The long, usually curved, 3/8" 10mm or so thick ones. Once around
pushes the bezel in, once down seats the edge on the top, and it’s
smooth because it’s a burnisher. They’re useful for anything else, of
course, but that’s one reason Rio carries them always, being in the
center of that business.

On reading all the Burnisher posts, I totally agree that some are
far too bulky to be useful. Years ago, i was told that the end of a
child’s plastic tooth brush provided the smooth edge, and less
problematic, in the event of a slip, burnishing device.

In traditional settings, one may get some strange glances, but that
makes me think of “bring it on.”

As another on the horizon, coming down the pike, from the creative,
inventive mind of Jay Whaley, is a wonderful single piece hammer,
bezel pusher device. I have had the opportunity to use the first
protocol unit, and it is wonderful. the next iteration is in
development at this time, and should soon be available for beta
testing. I will keep you posted on that.

Jay, and his wonderful ideas, and development of adjunct devices to
well known tools, has made life so very much easier, for any of us
lucky enough to take classes from him. There are more afoot.

Hugs, and thanks to Jay Whaley,