Steffen Nowak, Maker of fine Violins, Violas and Cellos in baroque and modern style

Dogfish skin preparation as a
traditional wood abrasive

My Bedminster North Street fishmonger Michael (Fresco Fishmarket) had a nice present for me last Saturday, a medium sized dogfish, also known as rock salmon in some British chip shops. The skin, once prepared has traditionally been used as a wood abrasive (see S.Sacconi in 'Secrets of Stradivari).
Tiny sharp and tough scales make up the outer skin of this amazing fish, when stroked against the sharp points one can feel its distinct ‘bite'.
As the fish was already cleaned and without its head the easiest way to proceed was to cut the flesh away very close to the skin (rather than pulling the very tough skin off in one go from the body). A sharp Japanese filleting knife came in useful. Afterwards some hard scraping on the inside with a steel scraper and plenty of cold water was needed, and then the skin segments with the scales facing down were pinned to a flat board and generously covered with baking powder.
After drying overnight some more scraping got rid of the remaining white tissue, and now it’s ready to use. I keep it uncut, only trimming squares or rectangles off when needed.
These days I only use it on my inside work for smoothing linings and occasionally blocks, as I prefer the micro texture a sharp scraper leaves on the surfaces to be varnished. Depending on the size of the fish the scales vary in coarseness, so it can leave some deep scratches on the wood, often only becoming visible after varnishing. Quite useful perhaps when trying to copy the rougher look of a late Guadagnini.
At first the dried skin might be a bit stiff, rolling it around a dowel makes it more subtle, oiling it on the inside even more so, but I would worry about transferring oil onto my instruments surface.
Wood shavings and dust accumulating in the scales can be brushed off with a toothbrush, and it wears down slowly. Gentle pressure and rubbing in straight lines either with or across the grain tends to work best, also to different effects on the soft spruce with the harder late growth. Circular motions are best to be avoided, unless you are after the Gudagnini effect.
My colleague and bowmaker Philip Brown likes to use it to good effect on snakewood.
Oh, and the meat from the dogfish made a tasty stew with garlic, spring onions, cumin, a splash of sherry, pepper and salt. Thank you Michael!


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