French Polishing is the name given to the process
of coating wood with a solution of shellac
dissolved in alcohol, using a “rubber” made of rag
and cotton wool instead of with a brush. The
alcohol evaporates, leaving the shellac deposited
upon the wood. When applied correctly it
produces what is possibly the finest looking finish
for furniture. Shellac was first introduced into
Europe about the 16th Century, but the term
FRENCH POLISH was not used until about
1820, when the process was developed by a French
BASIC RAW MATERIAL of FRENCH POLISH
Shellac is an encrustation surrounding an insect
known as Laciffer Lacca, which is a parasite living
oh certain trees in India and other Eastern
countries. The insect is about a 50th of an inch
long and has a life cycle of about six months.
The shellac is gathered by cutting the infected
twigs from the trees. In this form it is known as
Stick Lac. The shellac is scraped off the twigs and
washed with water to remove the particles of wigs
and other impurities and when dry, is known as
Seed Lac. This is put into canvas tubes and heated
over a fire; One end of the tube is fixed and the
other is rotated to squeeze the molten shellac
through the hessian as it melts.
The initial shellac
that comes through is clean and small amounts are
dropped on to a cold stone, where it sets in the
form of a thin disc up to about 3 in diameter. This
is known as Button Lac from which Button Polish
is made. The next amount of shellac that oozes
through may contain impurities which would
easily be detected visually it the shellac was in the
form of a button and it is, therefore, stretched into
a thin sheet and crushed, when cold, into flakes,
from which French Polish is made.
Modern processing plants now exist for producing
machine made shellacs, similar to the hand made
White and Transparent Shellac is made by
dissolving the Seed Lac in a hot caustic solution of
water and then bleaching the solution with
chlorine. After bleaching the caustic is neutralized
with an acid, which causes the shellac to precipitate
out of solution.
In this form it is known as Bleached Shellac.
Bleaching shellac alters its chemical properties, so
that unless it is dissolved in alcohol within 3-4 days
after bleaching, it will become insoluble.
Shellac contains a very small amount of wax from
the insect. The wax is insoluble in alcohol and
causes the cloudiness which can often be seen
settling towards the bottom of the container.
Transparent Shellac is made by removing the wax
from the bleached shellac by washing it with a
petroleum solvent, which dissolves the wax but not
French Polish is both a proper and collective noun.
As a collective noun it covers all polishes made
with shellac and alcohol. As a proper noun it refers
to one specific type of material made from flake
shellac dissolved in industrial alcohol. It consists of
approximately 21/2-3 lbs.. of shellac per gallon.
The type of shellac used can vary considerably in
quality and colour, from pale orange to dark
French Polish is suitable for use on all dark woods
and light woods, when a light to medium brown
tone is required. Button Polish is used to obtain a
more orange or golden tone. On light coloured or
bleached woods, where it is wished to retain the
natural colour, White French Polish, which has a
milky appearance, or Transparent Polish, which is
almost clear, should be used.
PREPARATION OF SURFACE
Preparation of the surface for French polishing is
extremely important. Any slight imperfections
which might not be noticeable under varnish or oil
finishes would be apparent under French Polish.
It is essential, therefore, that the surface is clean
and fine sanded. Furniture that is being renovated
should be cleaned to make sure that it is free from
wax and grease. This can be done with white spirit
and fine steel wool. If the finish on the furniture is
in a very bad condition, and is scratched or stained,
it would be best to remove it completely with
Paint & Varnish Remover. If, after stripping, the
wood is still stained, it may be bleached with a
If the wood is open grained and a smooth mirrorlike
surface is required, the grain should be filled,
before French polishing, with Grain filler, or extra
coats of French Polish must be applied which are
then cut back with fine glass or garnet paper until
the grain has been filled with the polish. If the
wood is to be changed in colour, it may be stained
before French polishing, with Wood Dye. This is
supplied in 10 wood shades which may be intermixed
to make a wide range of other shades. If the
grain of the wood is to be filled with Grain filler
and the colour changed, then the filler can be
mixed with the Wood Dye, so that staining and
filling can be carried out in one operation.
It should be noted that wood can only be stained
to a darker shade than its existing colour. If the
wood is required a lighter shade, then it must be
bleached first with a Wood Bleach and
then stained to the required colour.
Holes and cracks should be filled with Wood
stopping before polishing, but it should be noted
that where Wood stopping has been used, it will
always be noticed, as the pattern of the grain has
been broken. The area filled with Wood stopping
can be made less noticeable by painting a grained
effect over the Stopping with artists colours and a
fine artists brush.
APPLICATION OF FRENCH POLISH
There has always been a mystique about the art of
French polishing, but in fact it is a process that can
be carried out by any competent amateur after a
There are several traditional methods of applying
French Polish, but the method that follows is
relatively simple and will produce an acceptable
high quality finish.
The actual process of polishing consists of bodying
in, building up and spiriting out.
The polish in all
three processes is applied with a “rubber” made by
wrapping a piece of unmedicated cotton wool in a
piece of soft cotton or linen rag.
handkerchief or a piece of cotton sheet would be
The actual size of the “rubber” depends upon
the size of the hand and the size of the work being
polished. A large “rubber” is best for say, a table
top, but a small “rubber” would be better for a
small item like a coffee table.
1.   Lay cotton wool in centre of raf, fold front of rag, about 2", over cotton wool and then fold over one corner.
The “rubber” is made
by taking a piece of cotton wool, about the size of
a tennis ball, and moulding it into a triangular
shape which is then laid on a piece of rag, as
shown in the illustration.
2.   Fold over the corner to make a point.
The rag is then folded, as
illustrated, to make a pear shaped pad.
It is very
important that the bottom of the pad is perfectly
flat and does not contain any creases.
If a piece of
stitched cloth has been used, it is also important
that no stitching is on the base of the pad.
3.   Twist end to make shoe shape with flat pear shaped base.
“rubber” should now be held in one hand and the
cloth carefully unwrapped so that the polish is
poured into the cotton wool. On no account
should the polish ever be poured on to the outside
of the “rubber”, nor should the “rubber” be dipped
into the polish. By pouring the polish into the
cotton wool and squeezing it out through the rag,
the rag acts as a strainer and ensures that no
scratches occur on the surface, due to any foreign
body that may have inadvertently entered the
polish. Sufficient polish should be poured into the
“rubber” until the cotton wool is saturated.
4.   Open "rubber" and poor in polish to saturate cotton wool and re-twist end.
rag should then be wrapped round the cotton wool
again to make the pear shaped “rubber” and the
“rubber” should then be pressed on to a spare piece
of wood or cardboard to squeeze out the excess
If a “rubber” is used that is too wet, then
ridges of polish will be left on the work, which
could only be removed by rubbing down with
5.   Squeeze out exess polish by pressing "rubber" on to a card or spare piece of wood.
After the first few applications of polish, the “rubber” will not slide so easily over the surface, due to the dissolving action of the polish on the shellac that has already hardened.
A very small amount of Linseed Oil should then be applied to the base of the “rubber”. The best way of applying the oil is to dab a small drop on with a finger. If too much Linseed Oil is applied, the surface will have a smeary effect, as the Linseed Oil does not dry quickly like the French Polish. Another problem that occurs when too much Linseed oil is used to lubricate the “rubber” is sweating on the surface.
6.   Dab a drop of linseed oil on to the base of "rubber".
The first applications of polish should be made by
rubbing up and down over the surface quickly with
the “rubber” without exerting too much pressure.
As the polish in the “rubber” is used, the sides of
the “rubber” should be pressed with the fingers
and thumb to force more polish out.
As the polish dries it is possible, when coating
large areas, to make several applications of the
“rubber” by going from one end of the work back
to the other. Small items should be left for a few
minutes for the polish to dry, before another
application is made. On no account should the
“rubber” be passed over polish that is not dry, as it
will remove polish that has already been applied.
It is possible that if wood has not been filled, the
first coat of polish may make short fibers in the
wood stand proud of the surface, in which case,
after the polish has been allowed to harden, the
surface should be rubbed with the grain with fine
flour or 9/0 Garnet Paper, preferably paper that
has already been used, so that only a mild cutting
action is obtained.
Further applications of polish are made by using
the “rubber” in a circular or figure of eight motion,
passing quickly and lightly over the surface. It is
important that at all times the “rubber” is slid on
to the surface from the side with a gliding action
and lifted off in the same way. At no time should
the “rubber” ever be lifted from the work in the
middle or applied to the middle, as a mark will be
left, which will be very difficult to remove. For the
same reason the “rubber” should never be left
stationary on the surface, as the alcohol will
immediately start to re-dissolve the polish that has
already been applied.
7.   Slide "rubber" on to the surface and rub in circles or figure of eight movements Never allow "rubber" to remain stationary on work. Remove by gliding off.
After every 4-5 applications of the “rubber” the
work should be left for several hours to harden.
between applications the “rubber” should be stored
in a screw top jam jar to prevent it drying and
A little Methylated Spirits can be
added to the “rubber” whilst it is stored in the jar,
to keep it soft and moist.
If at any time the
“rubber” dries and becomes hard, it should be
discarded and a new one made.
8.   Keep "rubber" in airtight jar between applications to prevent it becoming hard.
Unfortunately, French Polish tends to “sink” in the
grain and it is good practice, therefore, to leave the
work for at least 24 hours before the final spiriting
out process, to make sure that further applications
are not required to fill the pores of the grain where
the polish may have sunk in.
When a sufficient layer of shellac has been applied
to the surface, the final operation of spiriting out is
made and it is at this stage that the final high gloss
finish is obtained.
The “rubber” should be charged
with French Polish that has been thinned with
Methylated Spirits and at this stage the rubber
should be squeezed so that it is almost dry. When
dabbed on to a piece of white paper it should just
leave a damp impression.
The “rubber” is then
moved over the surface, using circular movements,
but finishing off in straight even sweeps backwards
and forwards with the grain sweeping on and off
the ends, as described above. The surface should
then be left to harden and the final process is then
carried out with a “rubber” that contains just a
small amount of Methylated Spirits. One can use
the same “rubber” by pouring in Methylated
Spirits and squeezing it until it is almost dry, or a
fresh “rubber” can be made. The “rubber”, which
should be nearly dry, should be rubbed backwards
and forwards over the surface, with the grain, with
considerable pressure. This action dissolves any
high spots on the surface and as the “rubber” dries.
it has a burnishing effect.
It is important that if at any stage of French
polishing, a hole is worn in the rag, due to friction,
either a new piece of rag is used, or the rag is rearranged
so that the hole is not on the base of the
When French polishing work that may have carved
areas, it is not always possible to use a “rubber”, in
which case the carved areas can be coated by
applying the French Polish with a flowing action,
using a bear hair or camel hair brush.
Quite often, when wood has been stained, a coat of
French Polish will make apparent differences in
shade between one piece of wood and another.
This often happens where a large area has been
made by joining pieces of timber together.
possible to make lighter areas darker by dissolving
aniline spirit soluble powders in Methylated Spirits
and adding the coloured Methylated Spirits to
When colouring wood with tinted French Polish,
the French Polish should be thinned so that very
thin layers of coloured polish are applied to the
surface, otherwise ridges will be left where the
coloured polish has been applied.
When the right
shade has been obtained, French polishing can be
carried out in the normal way, although it may be
necessary to lightly sand the edges of the area
where the tinted polish has been applied.
Before attempting to French Polish an article of
furniture, one should practice on a spare piece
of timber, as it is not until one actually tries out
the method described above that the meaning
of the process will become clear.
It is essential
that the French polishing operation is carried out
in a warm, dry, dust-free room. If polishing is
carried out in damp conditions, then “blushing”
will occur. This is a milky appearance which
develops as the French Polish dries and is not to be
confused with “blooming”, which is a deposit like
the bloom on a grape, which can occur on the
surface of the polish at any time after it has been
applied and which can usually be removed by
wiping with a damp cloth.
A satin or matte finish can be obtained, after
French polishing, by rubbing with 000 or 00 steel
wool and wax polish, or by sprinkling pumice
powder on to the surface and brushing with a soft
• French Polish: Button, Garnet, Black,
White or Transparent French Polish.
• White Cotton or Linen Rag.
• Unmedicated Cotton Wool. (Cotton Waste)
• Linseed Oil.
• Methylated Spirits. (Denatured Alcohol)
• Screw top glass jar.
• Rubber Gloves.
• Fine Abrasive Paper.
• For open grained woods:
• For change of colour:
• For removing old finishes:
Paint & Varnish Remover
• For removing stains and lightening wood:
• For filling screw holes, cracks etc.: