Polishing with Gloves On—Just Don’t Do It.

Q: I like using these tight white gloves with a thin grip coating when I’m polishing. I like them better than using those thick, bulky rubber covers on individual fingers, but I’ve been told they aren’t as safe—what’s the problem?

A: I remember seeing a young polisher lose an entire finger through using a glove while polishing. I know he was paying attention, but he made a mistake. And the gloves he was using were not all that dissimilar to the ones you describe: thin cotton, like the ones used to handle photo negatives; tight fit, no slack in the fabric, easy to feel what you’re doing, and they protected the metal from fingerprints and abrasion. But they didn’t protect his finger when the glove caught. They probably were slightly thinner than the ones you’re talking about, but any glove can catch, and the stronger it is, the more dangerous to your hand. This happened in 1989, and I was six feet away using a cleaner on the other side of the polishing room when it happened. I didn’t see it happen, but I heard it, saw the towel-wrapped hand, the bloody glove and the both of them with the shocked young man all bundled off quickly to the emergency room, where surgeons found the finger too mangled to reattach. No tendons pulled from the arm, but this was bad enough. This one happened. No urban legends here.

Polishers can be dangerous. I also recall the fellow graduate student, my first year in grad school, who was buffing the edges of these triangular pieces of titanium sheet. about 3 inches on a side. She was using a big stand-up industrial machine with 18 inch wheels, no dust guard or table. Gloves played no part in this, but it illustrates the fact that buffers can be dangerous with even a moment’s inattention or error in technique. The point on one of those triangles snagged in the buff, which grabbed it, whipped it around about 180 degrees or so before it let go, which threw it right back at her like some sort of ninja throwing star. One of the points hit her square in the sternum where it stuck. She walked back into the grad studio and asked whether it would be Ok to just pull it back out by herself. I think the pain hadn’t quite hit yet…If that had hit just a bit to either side, and not hit her sternum, it could have been much worse. Might easily have penetrated her chest wall had it hit between ribs.

And there are more war stories. Personally, I’ve been pretty lucky over the years. A few whacked fingers when chains broke or a ring jammed on a felt ring finger buff, but nothing seriously broken.


Please be careful when buffing. I said it before, and will repeat it. In my opinion, buffing motors are among the most potentially dangerous machines we use. Use then right and with care, and they work magic for us. Use them wrong, and they can be instantly unforgiving.

A safe and effective alternative to gloves are simply the fingertips of gloves. You can buy these, or cut the ends off existing gloves. That means removing most of the glove by cutting off the leather finger tips, leaving a tip long enough to cover the end of the finger to about half-way between the last and middle knuckle. You use only the leather finger tips. That’s enough so they won’t fall off, and will protect your fingers from the heat, yet is still short enough so if it gets caught, it will pull from your hand without taking the finger with it. You can buy such leather finger cots already prepared, by the way, saving having to dissect your gloves yourself.

But even these are not always the best, since although you won’t likely injure yourself using these, you also cannot really grip the work as well as you can without them, and that sometimes means work getting caught in the wheel and damaged, even if your fingers are mostly OK.

Much better than covering your precise and sensitive gripping tools (your fingers) with a leather finger cot, is finding other ways to hold the jewelry itself. Rings can be held for polishing the insides with a strip of heavy leather wrapped in a C shape around the ring. You hold the leather from the outside, and use it to grip the ring. Belt weight leather not only can grip tight, but is thick enough to not only stop most rings that get away from you and spin on the finger buff, but will keep that spinning ring from hitting you too. Rings can also be put on a tapered wood mandrel to polish the outsides, and many items can have little “nests” made of wood to cradle them for polishing. Thats useful when you have many of a single item to polish. The few minutes you spend making a “nest” (just heat one item up and burn it into the wood to create a cradle for the shape) gets paid back quickly in the time spent polishing.

The easiest way, though, to deal with pieces heating up is to polish more than one piece at a time. If one starts to get toasty, set it down and work on the other. Items can be quickly cooled if placed in the air stream of the dust collector’s suction port.

Also, 3M makes a tape called “vet tape”. It’s a kind of treated gauze that sticks to itself, but nothing else. You can wrap a bit of that around a fingertip to give a close custom-fitted finger cot that works quite well. For helping to deal with the dirt, there are creams, often sold as “glove in a tube” (or bottle, or some such thing.) These are protective creams that help keep chemicals and polishing compounds from imbedding themselves in the skin, so washing up after polishing is much easier, and they also help protect from irritation when using a variety of chemicals in cleaning. They aren’t as good as actual rubber gloves for that, but are still helpful. For actual hand cleaning, I prefer the orange-oil based cleaners sold to mechanics for cleaning the grease and gunk off their hands. Some have a bit of pumice added, which speeds up their action. They usually contain some lanolin or other skin creams or conditioners, so you don’t end up with dry cracked skin after cleaning up. I find these things, along with a small brush for fingernails etc, to be quick and effective on polishing compounds, especially if one used the protective barrier cream before polishing.

If you use the solution in your ultrasonic to wash your hands, just don’t turn it on. Some of the ultrasonic cleaning solutions can be rather harsh on skin even without the energy of the ultrasonic, so pay attention to the results if you use the stuff like that.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.