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  • A gritty, innovative invention turns 100.

    April 01, 2021

    A gritty concept that led to a world-first product – turns 100 years old.

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    3M Wetordry waterproof garnet sandpaper

    3M™ Wetordry™ sandpaper, the iconic and innovative invention created by the famously awkward 3M inventor Francis Okie, is still known within the automotive industry for its long-lasting abrasive abilities while maintaining the health of its user by significantly reducing airborne particles. But the story behind this 3M product highlights more than scientific and innovative advancements. It highlights 3M’s tolerance for tinkerers, married with determination and the sheer desire to improve lives.

    The tolerance for tinkerers leads to revolutionary outcomes

    Francis Okie, an eccentric, young ink printing manufacturer who had ideas far beyond the realms of his own business, was in search of sandpaper grit samples. When nobody took Okie seriously, one may have assumed his unconventional aspirations were set to fail. That was until Okie wrote to 3M president William McKnight asking for every size of sandpaper grit samples 3M made.

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    Wetordry sandpaper found success in both car manufacturing and auto repaint shops. It gave a smooth finish, and cut better and faster than competitive products.

    McKnight, suddenly curious about Okie’s unusual request, dispatched his United States East Coast manager to investigate. 3M hadn’t sold bulk materials to anyone before but McKnight felt a strong urge to respond to this request.

    Francis Okie sat at an oak desk, which had been worn down by Okie’s product idea trials. Okie explained to the 3M representative his quirky and ridiculous sounding idea – a type of sandpaper that had the ability to not only withstand moisture but use it to an advantage. He explained that while he hadn’t planned on sharing his idea with anyone, he was also not having any luck in finding a reliable supply of raw materials – and his financial backers had cold feet. Okie had no way to bring his idea to the market.

    Could 3M help?

    Innovation flourishes in diverse and small groups of committed people.

    After some thought, Okie agreed to sell his patented waterproof sandpaper idea, later called Wetordry sandpaper, to 3M. Okie moved to St Paul, joining 3M to further work on his great idea. He found himself surrounded by others who, like Okie, wanted to improve lives of those around them with their weird and wonderful concepts. Okie now had what he needed to make his idea a reality.

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    Wetordry sandpaper also was used for egg cleaning

    The very first experimental batches of Wetordry sandpaper were made in a washtub, until it was suggested to Okie that he make smaller batches in a bowl. Okie often forgot about recording his ingredients and their quantity – so even when he had a good batch, Okie had no idea why. In later years, the absent-minded inventor often forgot where he had parked his car, relying on his colleagues to drive him home. Okie would also forget where he parked his second back-up car, misplacing both over several days at a time. Fueled on by a desire to improve the automotive industry however, Okie continued his mission to turn his great idea into reality.

    Okie eventually went on to successfully develop 3M Wetordry sandpaper, which debuted in 1921 – a revolutionary abrasive with a waterproof adhesive. His goal was to develop a product that not only would provide effective abrasive qualities, but also create safer and less hazardous conditions for its user by limiting airborne particles which often affected the eyes, hands and the respiratory system of the user by using it in conjunction with water. 100 years on and 3M Wetordry sandpaper is still enhancing work sites around the world. Okie’s invention has improved the lives of many by making abrasive work safer, easier, and more comfortable – highlighting that the journey to success required courage, dedication and most importantly, grit.

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    Historical Wetordry sandpaper guide for automobile industry.