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French Polishing – Everything You Need to Know

7 min read
French Polishing – Everything You Need to Know

Shellac, which is applied in layers by hand, could be the secret to shining your most valuable pieces of wood furniture. This labour of love can be used to embellish any wooden item with a high-gloss finish.

You’ve probably seen wood with French polishing techniques if you have ever been impressed by the glossy finish of antique wooden furniture, or wooden instruments such as guitars or violins. You may appreciate the beautiful finish, but you might also be grateful for the hard work that went into it. Although it can be time-consuming and takes practice before you get the best results, this method is time-honoured for achieving a lustrous finish that showcases wood grain to perfection.

What is French Polish?

French polishing, which is not a product, is a process of a french polisher applying shellac on wood furniture, musical instruments or decorative accents in many thin layers, usually well over 100. This results in a high glossy, glass-smooth, richly highlighted wood grain with a rich depth. French polish has been around since the 1600s but is now less popular due to its labour-intensive process.

Although you may be tempted to take shortcuts and cheat, you will not be using sprays, brushes or sponges to achieve a true French polish look. You won’t be using polyurethane or any other hard-and-shiny modern wood sealers. To apply shellac, you will need a cloth dabber and a few basic supplies.

Shellac is a substance that the lac bug, a species of a scale insect from Asia, secretes. It can be used on any kind of wood. However, it will be easier to achieve a glossy, perfect French finish on hardwoods with closed grain, such as maple, cedar, and spruce. You will need to add pumice powder to the grain if you are using it on open-grain woods like walnut, mahogany, or rosewood. This is an additional step in an already lengthy process.

There are many other ways to finish wood with a glossy gloss, including varnish, polyurethane and high-gloss paints, but none of them has the same depth and richness as French polish.

The Pros and Cons Of French Polish

Before you begin the lengthy process, it is important to consider the following benefits and drawbacks of French polishing. It is not the best technique for wood furniture and accents, but it can be beautiful.

French-polished shellac has a positive side. It is strong and requires very little polishing after drying. Shellac is flexible and resists cracking, scratches, wear, and even drops on a shellacked table. Shellac is also non-toxic and can dry quickly. Shellac won’t yellow like a varnish over time and can be easily patched up to fix any French-polished pieces without leaving visible signs of damage. Shellac can be used over maple or light-coloured woods, such as maple.

The downside is that shellac can burn if it’s exposed to high heat, such as a hotplate set on a surface without a trivet. If it is exposed to liquids or high humidity, shellac can develop white rings or patches. It’s therefore dangerous to French polish coffee tables or other furniture that may collect condensation or drips. You wouldn’t want to French polish anything that is too close to high-humidity areas like the kitchen or bathroom.  Before you start your French-polishing project, make sure to check the weather forecast and postpone if it rains or is humid. Shellac can also be damaged by alcohol so it is not the best material for counters or furniture at your home bar.

Your own experience should be taken into consideration. French polishing may not be the best option for you if you’re new to woodworking or don’t have time or patience for a long process. You can stain or varnish your piece and seal it with glossy polyurethane. Although the final project will not have the same depth or rich gloss as French polish it is easier and quicker.

Tips for French Polishing Wood

  • Sanding is the first step. Start by sanding your piece of wood. You might use medium-grit sandpaper to start, but you will need to finish with a finer grit such as 400. Use a damp cloth or a tack cloth to remove sawdust.
  • Mix your shellac. While you can save time and effort by purchasing pre-made shellac (like Zinsser’s Clear Shellac from Home Depot), the insect-derived finish is best when it is fresh. Many woodworkers prefer mixing their own shellac. Start with 3 ounces of shellac flakes, such as these from Old World Shellac (Amazon) mixed in 16 ounces of denatured alcohol. For the easiest use, store your shellac in an ounce glass jar. You can also pour small amounts into shallow bowls to make it easier to reach as needed.
  • Get your dabber.  You will need a pad that has an absorbent core to slowly disperse shellac as you apply it. You will need a wad of cotton gauze, wool, or cotton balls the size of a golf ball. This ball should be placed in the middle of a 6-inch square made of cotton fabric. An old white teeshirt is ideal. Use a small amount of the shellac to coat the centre wad. Then, use string or twist-ties for tightening the tee shirt fabric around it. This will create a fabric “dabber”, which is easy to grasp.
    Use an eyedropper to apply a few drops of pure olive oil to the fabric-dabber’s surface. This is important because otherwise, the shellac can become sticky.
  • Begin with your sealer coat.  To apply the first coat of shellac to your wood piece, glide the dabber in the same direction that the wood grain. You should use sweeping strokes and even movements to move your dabber along the wood. This will avoid any damage or stops in the centre of the wood. Instead, stroke the edge of the dabber before you lift it.
    In this way, apply three coats of shellac. Between coats, let the shellac dry for several minutes. Apply another drop of olive oil to your dabber if it starts to stick or drag.
  • Pumice powder can be used to fill in the spaces between grains.  This step can be skipped, but it is important if you work with walnut or other open-grained woods. The best French polish is achieved by filling the grain with ultrafine FFFF-grade pumice (such as this CQ concepts product on Amazon).
    Use a new dabber to moisten the surface with denatured alcohol. Next, add a small amount of pumice powder to the dabber. Use firm pressure and small,  circular motions to work the pumice powder into the wood grain. Do not follow the grain of the wood as this will push the powder out. Continue applying pumice powder to the wood until it is completely smooth (i.e. Without wood grain texture
  • In earnest, learn French polish.  Return to your original shellac dabbing pads. You can open it and apply a little shellac to its inner wad. Then, you can retie the dabber. Finally, add a few drops of olive oil to the surface of the dabber. Apply the shellac to your wooden piece and work the dabber in small circles. Use firm pressure on the pad but not too much. Keep the dabber in motion. Add another drop of oil to the pad if the dabber becomes stuck or “grabbed” on the wood. To maintain thin and even applications, add more shellac to the inner wad of your dabber.
    Keep adding thin coats of wood shellac until the entire surface is covered. Shellac is fast drying so you can apply several coats during this session. You’ll eventually see a clear, smooth layer of shellac.
  • Spirit the finish. Spiriting is required to remove any oily residues that may have formed on the shellac’s surface as it dries. Use a dabber to apply a few drops of denatured alcohol and then move the dabber across the wood piece in even strokes. Allow the wood to dry for at most an hour before you move on to the next step.
  • Continue to do so as often as you need. It usually takes six to eight repetitions of the French polishing or spiriting steps described above before you can achieve the glossy finish you want. Between each session, let the wood dry completely.
  • All imperfections should be removed. Now your wooden piece should be shiny and smooth with a rich color to the shellac. There may still be small imperfections in the wood, usually at places where the dabber has slowed down or stopped. You can inspect the finish with good lighting. If you find any imperfections, use 1200-grit sandpaper to smoothen them. You can remove any residue by lightly moistening your dabber using four to five drops of denatured alcohol, and then wiping off the wood’s surface.
  • Apply a coat of furniture wax to finish. Finish the project by buffing it with some wax paste furniture polish.
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