Forty years ago after I started out my career all marble edge polishing was achieved by hand. At present such work is completed solely by machine however there are still circumstances the place hand polishing would be a helpful skill to know.
Traditionally edge polishing was considered a separate semi-skilled trade. These polishers spent their entire working day rubbing hundreds of toes of marble edges and would develop strange physical deformities, bulging shoulder muscular tissues and a thumb that may curve back and touch their own wrist have been the commonest!
The process would start as soon as the perimeters to be polished had been recognized, massive areas of marble slabs, for instance the cladding on commercial buildings would be laid out on large benches and sample matched. The exposed edges that required polishing perhaps hundreds of toes, can be identified and marked.
One after the other each slab would be propped upright in opposition to a bench with the edge to be polished uppermost. Just to hand can be a bucket of water, a sponge and a rag cloth.
The work was carried out utilizing numerous grades of carborrundum stone blocks and to start could be a rough 60 or 80 grit stone. This would be the longest stage of the work as the sting of the marble would have quite deep ‘wheel marks’ left by the diamond noticed blades from the cutting. The stone could be dipped into the water after which rubbed evenly up and down the edge of the slab always keeping a heavy and steady pressure on. The rough corners of the marble would be additionally rubbed off to create a small flat corner called an arris.
From time to time the marble had to be dried to check on progress, this was achieved by whirling the rag in the air above the work. This is still the very best way of drying massive areas of wet stone by the way!
Once all the wheel marks and other deep scratches had been removed with the 60 grit he would move on to the second stone, this time a a hundred and twenty grit, just a bit finer than the previous stone. This stone would be used till all the scratches from the previous grit had been removed utterly and changed by a new layer of finer scratches.
Polishing marble is in truth the process of wearing down the surface with finer and finer scratches till the scratches are now not seen to the naked eye!
This process continues through a minimum of six completely different grits of abrasive down to a 500 or 600 grit. The final stone used was a very fine block made by the polishers themselves from extremely fine carborundum mud and marble glue, and strangely called snake!
At this point the marble surface is still not highly polished. It has just a very smooth honed finish. The ultimate stage is achieved with a hard block of felt and a cocktail of varied polishing powders, essentially the most commonly used had been putty powder, pumice powder and oxalic acid. One or all of these can be used wet or just damp to provide the final gloss.
The most obvious advantage of hand polishing is that this process doesn’t create clouds of dust, as the work is carried out wet, This implies that unlike dry machine polishing, there was little serious health risk to the polishers. The quality of the finished polish was additionally superior to machine polishing leaving a higher polish, smaller arrises and a flat surface.
Nonetheless, hand polishing is a critically gradual and laborious process. Machine edge polishing is way quicker, and within three or four years of the appearance of edge polishing machines the art of hand polishing marble had all however disappeared.
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