French polishing is a
Wood finishing refers to the process of refining or protecting a wood
Wood is a porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of tree
In botany, a tree is a perennial plant with an elongated Plant stem, stem, o ...
technique that results in a very high gloss surface, with a deep colour and
In gemology, chatoyancy ( ), or chatoyance or cat's eye effect, is an optics, optical reflectance effect seen in certain gemstones, woods, and carbon fibre. Coined from the French "œil de chat", meaning "cat's eye", chatoyancy arises either f ...
. French polishing consists of applying many thin coats of
Shellac () is a resin
In polymer chemistry and materials science, resin is a solid or highly Viscosity, viscous substance of plant or synthetic origin that is typically convertible into polymers. Resins are usually mixtures of organic co ...
Denatured alcohol (also called methylated spirits, in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom; wood spirit; and denatured rectified spirit) is ethanol
Ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, ...
using a rubbing pad lubricated with one of a variety of oils. The rubbing pad is made of absorbent cotton or wool cloth
Wadding is a disc of material used in gun
A gun is a ranged weapon
A ranged weapon is any weapon
A weapon, arm or armament is any implement or device that can be used with the intent to inflict physical damage or harm. Weapons are ...
inside of a piece of fabric (usually soft cotton cloth) and is commonly referred to as a ''fad'', also called a rubber,
or (Spanish for "rag doll").
''French polish'' is a process, not a material. The main material is shellac, although there are several other shellac-based finishes, not all of which class as French polishing.
The French Polish technique is an excellent method to accent exotic wood grain. The finish is softer than modern varnishes and lacquers, and is particularly sensitive to spills of water or alcohol, which may produce white cloudy marks, as does heat damage. On the other hand, French Polish is simpler to repair, as opposed to traditional & modern varnish finishes.
French polishing was developed as a finishing technique in the early 19th century. In the
In the history of the United Kingdom
The history of the United Kingdom began in the early eighteenth century with the Treaty of Union
A treaty is a formal, legally binding written agreement between actors in international l ...
, French polishing was commonly used on
Mahogany is a straight-grained, reddish-brown timber
Lumber, also known as timber, is wood
Wood is a porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of tree
In botany, a tree is a perennial plant wit ...
and other expensive timbers. It was considered the best finish for fine furniture and string instruments such as pianos and guitars. The process was very labour-intensive, and many manufacturers abandoned the technique around 1930, preferring the cheaper and quicker techniques of
Spray painting is a painting technique in which a device sprays coating material (paint, ink, varnish, etc.) through the air onto a surface. The most common types employ compressed gas—usually air compressor, air—to atomize and direct the paint ... nitrocellulose
Nitrocellulose (also known as cellulose nitrate, flash paper, flash cotton, guncotton, pyroxylin and flash string, depending on form) is a highly flammable compound formed by nitrating
In organic chemistry, nitration is a general class of chem ... lacquer
Lacquer is a type of hard and potentially shiny coating
A coating is a covering that is applied to the surface of an object, usually referred to as the substrate
Substrate may refer to:
*Substrate (biology), the natural e ...
An abrasive is a material, often a mineral, that is used to shape or finish a workpiece through rubbing which leads to part of the workpiece being worn away by friction. While finishing a material often means polishing it to gain a smooth, reflect ...
. In Britain, instead of abrasive buffing, a pad of pullover is used in much the same way as traditional French polishing. This slightly melts the sprayed surface and has the effect of filling the grain and burnishing at the same time to leave a 'French polished' look.
Another reason shellac fell from favour is its tendency to melt under low heat; for example, hot cups can leave marks on it. However, French polish is far more forgiving than any other finish in the sense that, unlike lacquers, it can be easily repaired.
The process is lengthy and very repetitive. There are also many similar variations in schedule and technique. What is described here is one such schedule. The finish is obtained through a specific combination of different rubbing motions (generally circles and figure-eights), waiting for considerable time, building up layers of polish and then spiriting off any streaks left in the surface.
The fad is first used to place a thinned coat of shellac. Once fully dry, thicker coats follow with small amounts of superfine pumice, a crushed volcanic glass. The pumice acts both as a fine abrasive and to fill the pores of open-grain woods, though pumice tends to be messy to work with and many modern woodworkers simply use fine-grained sandpapers (>4000? grit) to smooth off the earliest layers of shellac— the resulting shellac powder will then fill in the wood pores at least as well and often better than pumice, and the subsequent shellac coats will liquefy and surround this dust, filling in and sealing the wood pores as it does so.
The 'fad' is often lubricated with an oil that then becomes integrated into the overall finish. This helps to prevent the 'fad' from lifting previously applied layers of shellac. Typically, softer/ thinner oils such as mineral oil will produce a glossier though less durable finish whereas harder/ more viscous oils such as
Walnut oil is oil
An oil is any nonpolar
Chemistry is the science, scientific study of the properties and behavior of matter. It is a natural science that covers the Chemical element, elements that make up matter to ...
Olive oil is a liquid fat obtained from olive
The olive, botanical name ''Olea europaea'', meaning "European olive", is a species
In biology, a species is the basic unit of biological classification, classification and a taxonomi ...
will produce a more durable finish. Although
boiled linseed oil
Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil or flax oil (in its edible form), is a colourless to yellowish oil obtained from the dried, ripened seeds of the flax
Flax, also known as common flax or linseed, is a flowering plant
Flowering plant ...
is commonly used as a wood treatment, it is too viscous to use for French polishing .
There are two main variations to French polishing with regard to the use of pumice/ abrasives. In the original 'French Method', both shellac and abrasive are applied and worked together. In the 'British Method',
shellac and abrasive are worked alternately.
Additives to the shellac mixture may include
Sandarac (or sandarach) is a resin
In polymer chemistry
Polymer chemistry is a sub-discipline of chemistry
Chemistry is the study of the properties and behavior of . It is a that covers the that make up matter to the composed ...
(sap of an African cedar) and
Copal is a name given to tree resin
In polymer chemistry and materials science, resin is a solid or highly Viscosity, viscous substance of plant or synthetic origin that is typically convertible into polymers. Resins are usually mixtures o ...
, sap of a South American tree. These and other additives combined with heat and light can make the finish tougher, by cross-linking the polymers and oils in the shellac.
The piece is usually finished off after leveling (1500 grit oil sanding), then light buffing with
. Too much heat or pressure from buffing will melt off the shellac and result in a bare spot that must be refinished.
Learn how to french polish professionally"French Polishing and Enamelling"
by Richard Bitmead, 1910, from
Project Gutenberg (PG) is a volunteer
Volunteering is a voluntary act of an individual or group freely giving time and labour for community service. Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work, such as medicine, educati ...French polishing method
by M. Tutin, cabinetmakerTop Polishing & Wood Care Tips
by M&S French Polisher
Wood finishing techniques