French polishing has always had a certain “romance” about it. Antique dealers speak of French polishing as if it represents the pinnacle of finishing mastery. I’ve been told by more than one antique dealer that the secrets of French Polishing are held by a select few and that it is a difficult skill to master.
Nothing could be further from the truth. French polishing is a skill that can be acquired with a few hours practice using ingredients that can be purchased from Home Depot. Moreover, once one understands the process of French polishing and why it was developed, one will understand why French polishing fell out of favor. Today’s refinishers will tell you that French polishing makes for a very beautiful but very bad finish.
The Basics of French Polishing
French polishing is a process used to apply a coat of liquid shellac (shellac mixed with alcohol) onto wood. The shellac is applied to the wood with a pad made from a ball of wool wrapped in fine cotton or linen. Shellac is poured into the pad, absorbed by the wool, and squeezed out as the pad is moved across the surface of the wood. The skill in French polishing is to apply the shellac evenly, leaving no pad marks. Layers of shellac are applied until the desired finish depth is achieved. To fill the grain of the wood, pumice is sprinkled onto the surface prior to each layer of shellac. To keep the finish smooth, mineral spirits or light oil is applied to the pad.
So Why Not Just Use A Brush?
If you’ve ever painted your house, you know that brushes leave brush marks. Even today, modern spray and application systems will leave an uneven surface. Brushes and sprayers distort the liquid finish; after application, the surface must be leveled. Today, uneven finish surfaces are leveled and polished with fine sandpaper and abrasives; the result of this rubbing process is called a hand-rubbed finish. Sandpaper fine enough and consistent enough to achieve a hand-rubbed finish was not available until the late 19th century. Three hundred years ago, French polishing was the only way to get a beautiful finish onto a piece of furniture.
The Drawbacks of French Polishing
French polishing provides a very beautiful but very fragile surface. Shellac scuffs easily, and is sensitive to heat, cold, and moisture. Most of the “old wives tales” about never placing drinking glasses on furniture were developed over hundreds of years of dealing with shellac finishes. If one prefers the look of a shellac finish, there are better ways than French polishing to apply shellac. French polishing takes a long, long, time to build up significant layers of finish. Allowing for dry time between coats, one could spend an entire day French polishing the top of the average sized coffee table. Spraying or brushing shellac to the same surface and then hand-rubbing and polishing could be accomplished in less than two hours.
It’s Not Even French
The “romance” of French polishing will likely remain, especially in the antiques trade. After all, anything French is considered to be artsy-craftsy. I don’t have the heart to tell antique dealers that French polishing isn’t even French; it was developed by the Chinese about 7,000 years ago.
Originally posted 2013-08-26 15:06:00.