The process of French Polishing, and when it’s a good option as a finish for your wooden furniture.
French Polishing is a wooden surface finishing technique which has been in use for 150 years. It leaves a high gloss characterised by chatoyancy. Chatoyancy offers depth in the finished wooden surface, much like looking into the depths of certain stones such as Tiger Eye.
French Polishing is labour intensive and can therefore be quite expensive, but used in the right context, adds value to your wooden surface – especially for quality exotic timbers such as mahogany. These examples are Jarrah, which has a reasonably open grain. The client wanted to preserve the grain effect in the surface, but traditionally, grain would be filled by successive applications of French Polishing or by an initial coat containing pumice powder which would work itself into the grain and fill it.
The process of French Polishing begins with a combination of shellac and some form of alcohol – Earthwood typically uses methylated or white spirits or isopropyl alcohol – roughly two thirds shellac to one third alcohol – which is then poured onto a wadding of soft cloth or cotton (cotton balls work well) wrapped in an outer pocket of soft cotton cloth. The wad is then twisted closed and a little olive or walnut oil is picked up on the rubber (polishing wad), or fad as it’s also known, to facilitate smooth rubbing, and application to the wood surface begins.
Coat after coat, with drying intervals between, is rubbed into the surface until the classic French Polished gloss appears. This can be as many as 20 to 30 coats and requires considerable elbow grease and years of experience to perfect the knack.
French Polishing is a dying art; largely because it is time consuming and therefore expensive, and also because it is not as hard-wearing as modern lacquer finishes, some of which can resist heat, water and alcohol. French Polishing is softer and is easily damaged by heat, alcohol and water, but it is also very easily repaired, whereas lacquers require complete removal and re-application. However ‘soft’ the French Polished surface may be, it is also surprisingly marr-resistant. This means that a cup slid across the table is likely to keep sliding rather than marking the surface. Probably French polishing is not the ideal choice for a daily-use dining table, but it is perfect for sideboards, and other less constantly hard-used surfaces.
Experience teaches many nuances in French Polishing. Ask if you’re interested to know more.