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From the pages of Fine Woodworking Magazine

Steel Wool vs. Abrasive Pads

A closer look: steel wool leaves more uniform scratches than pads


I had always wondered why one grade of steel wool worked better than another, and why good steel wool seemed to produce a superior-looking surface on a clear finish than a comparable synthetic abrasive pad. Writing this article spurred me to do some real detective work.

With the assistance of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I looked at the various grades of steel wool and abrasive pads under an optical microscope. I then rubbed a clear acrylic sheet with 000 Liberon-brand steel wool and another sheet with a gray Mirlon abrasive pad made by Mirka. The products have roughly similar abrasive powers. I then looked at the scratch pattern using a scanning-electron microscope.

The acrylic samples, coated with a thin layer of palladium to make them electrically conductive, were placed in an ultrahigh vacuum. Electromagnets then bent an electron beam, which produced an image on the screen.

Steel wool
Abrasive pad

Steel wool magnified 20 times (inset) shows uniform, tightly woven strands. Magnified 500 times, the scratch pattern left by 000 steel wool is more uniform and less harsh than that left by an abrasive pad.

A gray abrasive pad magnified 40 times (inset) shows how the abrasive/glue mixture forms irregular lumps on the strands. When magnified 500 times, the scratches left by the abrasive pad are deeper and more uneven than those left by steel wool.

Scanning electron microscope photos: David H. Matthiesen

Jeff Jewitt is a furniture finisher and restorer in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of Great Wood Finishes and Hand-Applied Finishes.

Photos, except where noted: Mark Schofield, From Fine Woodworking #159, pp. 58-61