What is Burnishing?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

Burnishing is a type of craft application. It can be used on many different mediums, including wood, paper, metal, and clay. As a pottery treatment, burnishing is used to polish the surface of the medium with a hard, smooth object.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

An artist may burnish a finished piece of pottery prior to the firing process. Burnishing creates a pleasing glossy finish to clay jars, vases, and other finished projects. This adds a lustrous shine resulting in a professional, polished look on the piece.

To burnish a piece of pottery, the project should first be allowed to dry. Depending on the type of medium, thickness, and the size of the piece, this could take from mere hours to a day or more. The clay or other medium should be firm to prevent the burnishing tool from leaving scratches or other marks on the artwork. It should also remain somewhat pliable to prevent scratching from occurring during the process.

Using a specialized burnishing tool, gently buff the pottery work. Some burnishing tools to choose from include plastic tools, bone or wooden spatulas, glass bulbs, or smooth stones. The back of a spoon can also be used if other tools are unavailable.

Small circular motions should be used in this process. Avoid pressing too deeply to prevent scratching or marring. As the object is burnished, a high gloss will begin to appear in the treated areas. This will allow the artist to easily see which areas still require treatment.

After the first treatment, set the piece aside to dry once again. It should not be allowed to dry completely. As it sits, the first gloss initiated will begin to wear off, resulting in a matte look. Proceed to burnish the piece again, creating the shine originally created in the first treatment. Following the second burnishing, the piece should be set aside to dry completely.

Once the piece is thoroughly dry, it will need an oil application to seal in the polished shine. To do this, corn oil may be used to coat the piece's surface. The entire area should be covered. Though the burnish will likely seem to disappear during the employment of the oil, it will return during the final step of the project.

Buff the art piece once again with the burnishing tool. After the last treatment, the project should be smoothed a final time with the artist's hands. The creation will then have a permanent sheen.

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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Discussion Comments


@starrynight - That is very sad about your vase. At least you got to enjoy it for that one week!

Did you know you can also burnish wood? When I took shop in high school we used this process instead of applying varnish to a few of our smaller pieces. What we did was sand the piece til it was smooth and then rub it with wood shavings for a burnished finish.

I actually don't really like the look of burnished wood very much and really preferred the pieces that I finished with varnish.


When I took ceramics in college I created a burnished vase. The burnishing process was a little bit time consuming but I was really happy with the way it turned out. Unfortunately I had the finished vase for about a week before my cat knocked it over and it shattered! I still have my memories though.

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