Full Chisel Blog

May 6, 2008

Shagreen. ends my chagrin

Filed under: Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:10 pm

Well at long last my chagrin has ended with the purchase of a fine piece of shagreen.  For those of you unfarmiliar with shagreen, it is the skin of a sting ray.  Also some shark skins are called shagreen, but it usually refers to ray skins.  Now shark skin, especially dogfish skin makes excellent sandpaper, but it only sands in one direction.  Shagreen is different.

Shagreen, sting ray skin

Traditionally sting ray skins were dyed green, hence the name, and was the traditional handle covering of swords in both the orient and in the West.  What is unusual about this skin are all of those little dots, they are mineral tubercules that are very hard.  When the skin is prepared the sharp edges are scraped, sanded and ground down to make them smooth.

That is why they look like shiney spots, they are an off white color and the leather is dyed black and the tubercules stay white.  And they are also very hard.  The reason they are used for sword handle grips is that you can hold on to the sword even if it is covered in blood or sweat or both.

Shagreen is also used to cover eating utensil handles (George Washington had a set), easy to hold in greasy fingers.  Medical instruments would have handles covered with shagreen to help with the grip when things get bloody.

Aside from its colorful uses, shagreen is an excellent traditional replacement for sandpaper.  (Sandpaper is early but quite expensive and not as durable.)  I will be saving the center section where the big tubercules are and some other areas of different grit.  I wonder how to classify the grit, spine, snoot, tail, edges.  When the tubercules end the top of the ray ends and the underside is smooth and not made into leather.

The spacing of the tubercules (I like that word for some reason) varies over the surface of the skin, but the grit is determined by the user.  Shagreen is the only variable grit sandpaper, now there is a novel thought.  But the leather comes prepared and the mineral nodes are smooth.  In order to make them more abrasive, I use a file to roughen up the surface, the finer the file the finer the grit.  It is basically scratching the tubercules to get them to have sharp cutting edges which last until they mechanically wear off.

Left smooth the shagreen can be used to burnish woodwork, including turnings, similar to ‘boning’, the process of burnishing by using a piece of smooth animal bone or hardwood stick to polish the work.  Shagreen is a useful material and I will make a tool handle or two, I need a piece for a friction match case to ignite the ‘lucifers’, and a goodly supply of a fine flexible abrasive.

Still searching for dogfish skin, I have had a bit of sharkskin and I did like the way it worked and it lasted for quite a while.  I will be putting this stuff to the test and will talk of it later.



  1. Do you use horsetail? Equisetum, or something like that in Latin. Really puts a nice polish on wood, and it grows along the irrigation ditches here (Idaho).

    We have some fossilized shark skin in the nearby desert, and it’s very abrasive, but not so great at polishing. 🙂

    Will wait to hear your ray report.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 6, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  2. Ken,

    Yes, scouring rush and that is the name Linaeus gave to it, is excellent for abrading wood. However this particular plant contains a large amount of silica and is abrasive enough to scratch your hardest metal files. It was the traditional abrasive for doing Boule, brass and tortoise shell inlay. The most common use of horsetails, or joint grass (it is a primitive plant the chlorphyl is in the stem) was for cleaning cooking pots, hence scouring rush.

    When fresh it will leave a green stain, when dry it crumbles, I use it in bundles when smoothing turnings or flattening materials. It can be used to finish off wire inlay on gunstocks to bring up a high shine, of course then you would ‘bone’ the inlay.

    And John Colter probably used these or phragmites for his air pipe to hide under water when he was fleeing from Bugs Boys.


    As far as the fossile shark skin, that might make a great coarse stone for initial sharpening.

    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 6, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  3. Why were sting ray skins dyed green (of all colors) and what did they use for dye?

    Comment by The Village Carpenter — May 7, 2008 @ 6:05 am

  4. VC,

    This one took me a few minutes and to the first part of your question I have no Idea (that part didn’t take long) as for the color it was probably done with two colors, indigo for the blue and osage orange for yellow. Green is a difficult color to get in the nineteenth century and that may have been the reason that it was used. There are other period recipes with different formulations, but early receipts usually combine blue and yellow to make green, dying blue first then yellow. (from an 1824 Recipe book I am going to reprint).


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 7, 2008 @ 6:38 am

  5. So, was osage orange sawdust was mixed with water (or oil)?
    I have no knowledge of how dyes were made and am curious.
    I’ll be interested in your reprint.

    Comment by The Village Carpenter — May 7, 2008 @ 7:03 am

  6. VC,

    Osage orange shavings, sawdust and little sticks are soaked in water to produce a wonderful yellow dye. I have dyed a white silk kercheif a light yellow color that almost glows in combination with the silk. Other woods like logwood, pernumbuco (Brazil wood [Brazil is the only country named after a wood]), fustic are used as dye stuff as are butternut and walnut hulls.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 7, 2008 @ 7:44 am

  7. Horsetail — dry it completely, then just prior to use, soak in water, slit open and use. You don’t get the green stain that way, it stays together fairly well. We use it (sometimes) as a finish, so no more metal-tool contact afterwards. The silica is the trick. Maybe someday they’ll figure out a way of sticking the silica to paper!


    Comment by Ken Pollard — May 7, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  8. Ken,

    Good trick I will have to remember that one. Yes after using any grit abrasive I never put tools to it as any lodged grit will dull my sharp tools. Sanding is something I rarely do, although sandpaper is appropriate for my period of interest (mid nineteenth century). A finish off tool is almost always smoother than I can get it with sandpaper. Hand planed surfaces or surfaces that have been scraped with a card or cabinet scraper and stuff off the lathe is never sanded as that would rough up the surface.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 7, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  9. Hi Stephen
    I have been searching for an answer and wonder if you can help please? As a young girl I used to fish and have continued intermittently throught my life and now Im a grandmother. So far, npbody can answer my question so I hope you an change that! Shagreen is the only name I can find to desribe the sandpaper type skin which can be used as such from rays sharks and dogfish. I am aware of that word but there is another that I recall from childhood and sadly there is nobody here to assist my memory. This has been driving me mad for about 5 weeks now would you believe?! If you are aware of any other names I wouls be so grateful if you would kindly mail me. I will know it when I hear but and everyone tells me to forget it but I cant! If you have any idea that would be most wonderfully appreciated Stephen. A very interesting page I must say too.
    Kind regards

    Comment by Lesley Harte — May 28, 2008 @ 9:20 am

  10. Lesley,

    Ray is a selachian fish from the family Raiidae, also called a skate. There are distinct rays, eagle ray, rock ray, shark ray, sting ray and whip ray. Hope that helps,


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — May 28, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  11. […] cut the piece of sting ray skin (shagreen) to the size of the oak block with a wax pencils width larger than the block.  I then used large […]

    Pingback by Variable Grit Abrasive « Full Chisel Blog — July 22, 2009 @ 7:04 am

  12. […] I also bought a small brass spyglass, the optics aren’t bad [5 power] and the $5.00 seemed fair.  It is in need of leather covering, I have black lamb, black pig [hair cell] that would work but I am thinking black shagreen. […]

    Pingback by Square Candlewick, Horn Spoons, Small Knife Blade & a Spy Glass « Full Chisel Blog — September 3, 2012 @ 8:51 am

  13. Leslie, did you call it galuchat?

    Comment by Abby — November 23, 2012 @ 6:16 am

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