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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Expert Tip: French Polishing

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French Polishing pt 1


French polishing - which produces a beautiful deep shine - has always been surrounded by mystique. Yet, with a little practice, any competent amateur can achieve good results

French polish is perhaps the most beautiful of all clear furniture finishes. It can be used to give a special finish to new wooden furniture or to restore old pieces. Dark woods such as mahogany and old oak or fumed oak look particularly attractive when given this treatment. The technique can also be used on lighter woods.

The finish is formed by using a 'rubber' (which can be easily made from cloth and cotton wool) to apply layer upon layer of a resin called shellac, dissolved in spirit, to the wood. It is a time-consuming process but, if carried out correctly, French polishing is well worth the effort.

If you decide to French polish a piece of furniture, bear in mind that the finish is not heat-proof, alcohol-proof or water-resistant. This means that it is not suitable for furniture in regular, daily use. If you want to place objects such as vases on French polished furniture, be prepared to protect the surface with a cloth or a mat.

French polish is a mixture of approximately 25 per cent shellac and 75 per cent industrial methylated spirit. As the polish is applied, the spirit evaporates, leaving a film of shellac. Shellac is formed from the secretion of the tiny lac insect which lives in trees in India and Thailand.

The secretion is processed through various stages, each stage producing a different type of shellac. When these different types are made into polish by dissolving them in spirit, they range in colour from brown to transparent. Choose the type that is appropriate for your particular piece of furniture. The list of the various types of French polish may help you to decide.


Button Polish is obtained from an early stage of the processing, when the resin is set into but ton-shaped lumps. It is used to create an orange tone on ordinary woods and a golden tone on bleached woods.

French polish itself is created from the next stage in the process, in which the softened shellac is stretched, flaked and dissolved in alcohol. It can vary considerably in colour and quality the colour ranging from pale orange to dark brown. It is suitable for use on all dark and light woods, when a light-to-medium brown tone is required.

White French polish is made from bleached shellac: it is a milky-white colour, and should be used on light coloured or bleached woods, when you want to keep a pale colour.

Transparent French polish is almost clear, and is also used for light and bleached woods when you want to retain the original colour. It is made from bleached shellac.

Tinted French polish may be necessary when the article being French polished develops a noticeable difference in shades after a coat of French polish. This often happens where a large surface has been made up from more than one piece of timber. Lighter areas can be darkened by dissolving tinted, spirit-soluble powders in methylated spirit, and adding the coloured methylated spirit to the French polish. Ask the shop assistant for 'powders soluble in alcohol spirit'.


When colouring wood with tinted french polish, thin the French polish with methylated spirit, or ridges will be left where the coloured polish has been applied. Once the right shade has been obtained, French polishing can be carried out in the usual way. It may be necessary to sand the edges of the area where the tinted polish has been applied before you start. Sand very gently, with flour paper, and wipe off the dust.

Ready-coloured black French polish is often available from specialist shops, but rarely from DIY stores.

1 Rubber gloves
2 Clean white cloth (linen or cotton)
3 Screw-top jar
4 Unmedicated cotton wool
5 Sanding block
6 Flour paper
7 Linseed oil
8 Methylated spirit
9 French polish
10 Wax polish
11 Duster

Methylated spirit is used to thin the polish and to remove polish from the rubber.
Linseed oil is applied to the rubber to help it slide easily over the surface of the wood.
Cloth and cotton wool form the rubber (see the next issue for details of how to make the rubber). It is important to use unmedicated cotton wool which does not contain any spirit or alcohol that might affect the French polish.
Flour paper lightly sands the surface between coats.
Rubber gloves protect you hands from polish stains.
Wax polish and a duster can be used to maintain the shine.


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