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French polishing London – Traditional furniture hand finishes


French polishing is a wood finishing technique that results in a very high gloss surface, with a deep color.

French polishing consists of applying many thin coats of shellac dissolved in alcohol using a rubbing pad lubricated with oil.

The finish is considered to be one of the most beautiful ways to finish highly figured wood, but it is also recognized to be fragile.

It is softer than modern varnishes and lacquers 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.

See also: french polishing doors

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What is french polish ?

The popular perception of French polishing is that it is an impossibly skilled craft taking many years of obsessive practice to master, and beginner should not even bother trying because it is far too involved for more mortals, and any attempt is bound to end is absolute failure.

French polish is a naturally occurring substance. It is produced in Asia where it is harvested from a particular type of aphid-like insect (Lacczfer lacca).

This insect attaches itself to certain trees and, as part of its life cycle, exudes and eventually entombs itself in a thick, toffee-like substance.

This substance, along with the rest of the beetle and any bits of tree, are harvested and collected into muslin bags. These are then heated, and the toffee-like substance is squeezed from the bag and drips on to a slab of cold marble to form glass- hard ‘buttons’ (hence ‘button polish’ – the name of the least adulterated version of French polish).

Further treatment yields different forms of ‘toffee’.

This toffee—like substance has the interesting property of becoming liquid when mixed with methylated spirit. In this form it is known as French polish.

When the liquid French polish is spread thinly over wood the meths evaporates, leaving a thin layer of the hard toffee-like substance behind.

History of french polishing

Since ancient times this liquid, sometimes called shellac, has been used for all manner of things, most notably as an ingredient in many wood varnishes.

Legend has it that around 1820 an ingenious and anonymous French cabinetmaker developed the method of application which is now called French polishing.

From that time on, until the 1940s, the bulk of all furniture, both mass—pr0duced and smaller scale, was finished with some form of French polish finish.

It may therefore strike you as rather peculiar, when I tell you that this widespread universal finish is the least practical of finishes to apply to your furniture.

Pros and cons

It is easily damaged by scratching; it will decompose and be marked by heat; water or damp will turn the polish white; alcohol will dissolve it; and young children and uppity teenagers should be kept at least three streets away. It is interesting to note that many of the household accoutrements of the Victorian age were designed to protect the fragile French polish on their furniture.

Items such as tablecloths, lace doilies, coasters and table mats, were all designed to protect French polish from destructive forces. But even with these obvious drawbacks, in those days almost everything wooden was French polished, including doors, picture rails, skirting boards, right down to the wooden legs of seafaring gentlemen.

Application can be a long—winded process. To achieve the famed piano finish can take many hours of painstaking work. Consequently, it is very rarely applied in commercial work today. It is not practical to use on furniture that will receive a lot of hard wear such as coffee tables, desks and bar tops.

Because of its weakness in the face of water, it cannot be used in the bathroom, kitchen or out of doors. So why on earth do we bother using something so impractical?

Well, for many craftspeople there is no other finish to compare with the beauty and colour of a well-applied French polish finish. Among some craftspeople it has achieved an almost idolatrous status. Also, when dealing with antique furniture, you may need to retain its correct period finish. In this case it would be aesthetically wrong to apply anything but a traditional French polish finish.

And finally, it is comforting to think that in a hitech world, when millions of pounds are spent on research into ever more sophisticated finishing products, the skilled use of a couple of bits of old rag and some cotton wool, still provides a finish that is every bit as good, if not better, than that obtained by the most expensive modem spraying equipment.

In short, although it contains many negative aspects, it is still the way for the small-scale crafts- person to achieve the very finest of finishes.

How to french polish ?

The method of applying French polish that I am about to explain is not the only one. With some thing as old as French polishing there are bound to be variations, and I like to refer to these different methods of application as recipes. lust as there are many different bread recipes, there are many different French polish recipes.

The recipe I am about to describe to you has evolved over many years of teaching absolute beginners how to French polish. It is not the quickest way to apply French polish, nor is it the simplest. However, it teaches you the basic principles of French polishing and produces a classic high-gloss French polish, sometimes called a mirror finish’ or ‘piano finish’.

I show you the high-gloss finish because it is the most difficult form of French polishing. Many other French polish recipes are derived from this one. If you master this recipe, the others will be easy and you will be able to build up your repertoire or recipe book of different French polishes by means of trial and error.


french polishing london

french polishing


French polishing chair:

Traditional vintage style chair finished in french polish

French polishing chair


French polishing handrails:

To view more example works of polishing handrails please follow this link: handrails restoration

French polishing handrails


French polishing box for jubilee 

This is restored french polished wooden box for jubilee

french polished wooden box for jubilee and gold


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