Abrasives are one of the invisible wonders of our technological world.  Few give credit or attention to some of the oldest (and newest), and hardest working class of tools in the human toolbox — and yet, they are an indispensable part of a surprising number of industries.  From polishing to grinding, drilling to machining, sharpening to cleaning — wood, metal, gemstones, earth, silicon chips, teeth, high-tech ceramics, the hardest rocks and the softest skin.  Abrasives are there to do the job.  In simplest terms, abrasives are made from any material that can be broken down into small particles (like emery, diatomaceous earth, or nut shells), or that have a naturally rough surface (like pumice, millstones, whetstones, or shark skin).  They range from the hardest substances on Earth (like diamond) to the soft meal of jojoba kernels.  Abrasives vary widely according to their uses, and a person’s expertise in abrasives is most often guided by the purpose for which they’re being used.  From woodworkers to industrial machinists to jewelers to makers of cosmetics, each knows the best abrasives for the task at hand.  Below is a brief list to help you become acquainted with the world of abrasives, and perhaps spark your interest to learn more.  After all, like every other tool, someone has to know how to make abrasives, too.  Maybe that someone could be you.

  • Bort (Diamond)
  • Carbonado (Diamond)
  • Diatomaceous earth
  • Emery (Corundum)
  • Garnet
  • Ilmenite
  • Pumice
  • Sand (Silicon dioxide, other hard minerals)
  • Seeds (Apricot, Jojoba)
  • Shells (Walnut)
  • Zirconium
Meet the Diatoms: Makers of Diatomaceous Earth
Did you know…

Toothpaste is a mild abrasive paste used to scour and polish your teeth. In most toothpastes, the abrasive grit is calcium carbonate (also a common ingredient of seashells and limestone), or kaolin (a clay also used to make fine pottery). FYI, toothpaste also makes a great silver polish. I’ve used it on my antique silver jewelry and it’s awesome.

Jojoba meal

Made from seeds crushed after oil (wax) extraction. Used in things like facial cleanser. Photo from Purcell Jojoba, a family-owned jojoba farm and processor, right here in the U.S.

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