french polishing

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 cabinet maker.


laccifer lacca

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.

shellac stick lac

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.

shellac seed lac shellac button lac made in the traditional way shellac button lac made in the modern way shellac flakes

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 varieties.

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 the shellac.


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 brown.

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 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 Wood Bleach.

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.


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 little practice. 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.

french polishing step 1

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.

An old handkerchief or a piece of cotton sheet would be ideal.

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.

french polishing step 2

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.

french polishing step 3

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.

french polishing step 4

The “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.

french polishing step 5

The 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 polish.

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 abrasive paper.

5.   Squeeze out exess polish by pressing "rubber" on to a card or spare piece of wood.

linseed oil should be applied

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.

french polishing step 7

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.

french polish

After every 4-5 applications of the “rubber” the work should be left for several hours to harden.

In between applications the “rubber” should be stored in a screw top jam jar to prevent it drying and becoming hard.

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 “rubber”.

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.

It is possible to make lighter areas darker by dissolving aniline spirit soluble powders in Methylated Spirits and adding the coloured Methylated Spirits to French Polish. 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 shoe brush.

Materials required: • 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:
Grain filler

• For change of colour:
Wood Dye

• For removing old finishes:
Paint & Varnish Remover

• For removing stains and lightening wood:
Wood Bleach

• For filling screw holes, cracks etc.:
Wood stopping