French Polishing

French polishing is a wood finishing technique that results in a very high gloss surface, with a deep colour and chatoyancy. It consists of applying many thin coats of shellac dissolved in alcohol using a rubbing pad. The rubbing pad is made up of wadding inside a square piece of fabric and is commonly referred to as a fad (amongst many other names).

The finish is considered to be one of the most beautiful ways to finish highly figured wood, but it is also recognised to be sensitive to damage. It is softer than modern varnishes and is particularly sensitive to spills of water or alcohol, which often produce white cloudy marks. However it is also simpler to repair than a damaged varnish finish, as patch repairs to French polish may be easily blended into an existing finish.

"French polish" is a process, not a material. The material is shellac, although there are several other shellac-based finishes, not all of which class as French polishing.

The process is lengthy and very repetitive. 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 commonly lubricated with an oil, that is integrated into the overall finish[1]. This helps to prevent the 'fad' from lifting previously applied layers of shellac. Typically, "softer" oils, such as mineral oil, will produce a glossier and less durable finish whereas "harder" oils, such as walnut oil, will produce a more durable finish.

French polishing became prominent in the 18th century. In the Victorian era, French polishing was commonly used on mahogany and other expensive woods, and was considered to give the best possible finish to exclusive furniture. The process was very labour intensive, however, and many major manufacturers abandoned the technique around 1930, instead preferring the cheaper and quicker techniques of spray finishing nitrocellulose lacquer and abrasive buffing. In Britain, instead of abrasive buffing, a fad of "pullover" is used in much the same way as traditional French Polishing. This slightly melts and 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 it is also worth keeping in mind that the French polish is far more forgiving than any other finish in the sense that unlike lacquers, it can be efficiently repaired.

Please use the contact us page or call us for a quote.