Article: How To French Polish Furniture
In this article we will show you the technique of French Polishing. Generally considered to be the most prestigious and desirable of all the clear finishes, french polish is the best looking, but in many ways the least practical.
The simple principle of French polishing is to build up a lustrous finish with thin coats of polish. Few tools are needed and a small stock of materials can be purchased either ready mixed or in a raw state for home mixing. French polish is not overly difficult, but does require time and patience.
By some considered to be the most prestigious and desirable of all the clear finishes, french polish is the best looking, but in many ways the least practical. Its depth and brilliance are unequaled by varnishes or lacquers, because the surface it forms is actually wafer-thin, and gives grain pattern and color a particular clarity, almost a transparency.
The simple principle of French polishing is to build up a lustrous finish with thin coats of polish. Few tools are needed and a small stock of materials can be purchased either ready mixed or in a raw state for home mixing. French polish is not overly difficult, but does require time and patience. At minimum, several days and possibly up to a full week are required to complete the polishing process. If you are not willing to allow this much time for finishing, French Polishing is not the way to go, as it cannot be rushed. It is also important to note, that French Polish in general is not an alcohol resistant finish.
The essential components of a polishing kit (shellac, denatured alcohol and linseed oil, with a polishing pad for application) have hardly changed over hundreds of years. To achieve the smoothness of a grand piano, the preparation has to be flawless. The polish will show any imperfections, so surface preparation is critical. Don't shortcut on your wood prep!
Shellac, Denatured Alcohol, Raw Linseed Oil, 9 " Washed White Cotton Square, 6" Square Of Batting.
MAKING YOUR POLISHING PAD ( Rubber):
The polishing Pad is used to apply the French polish. Start by folding a 6 inch piece of batting in half.
Fold over the ends to make a point.
Fold the long ends towards the center and tuck them in.
Work the batting into a pear shape. It is important the sole is flat when held between the fingers. The idea is to produce a firm core to the polishing pad.
Place the batting core on the corner of a 9 inch square piece of lint free cotton with the sole of the batting facing downward. The cloth must not be colored or starched.
Turn the cloth over and hold the core between index finger and thumb to let the folds of the Cotton cloth drop down to the sides. Make a fold to form the point.
Make another fold and turn the ends together under the core, folding the cloth and forming a point.
Pull the excess cloth across and start to twist together to tighten.
Make the final twist, bringing all the loose ends together, and leaving nothing hanging. When not in use, the polishing pad must be stored in a sealed container.
2lb cut Shellac is what we normally use as our pure polish. That means 2 lbs of dry flake shellac dissolved in 1 gallon of denatured alcohol. If you use pre mixed shellac, check the label to see what lb cut the product is, and dilute accordingly if needed. Last I checked, standard Bulls eye shellac out of the can was a 5 lb cut, so you would need to reduce the amount you need (quart is a good start) down to a 2 lb cut. If you dissolve dry flakes in alcohol (preferred method), be sure to strain the mixture after it is all dissolved before putting it in your polishing bottle.
Charging The Polisher:
Holding the polisher in one hand, open up the linen covering and pour pure polish onto the pad liberally. Re-wrap the polishing pad as before. Squeeze out any excess polish by pressing the polisher onto a scrap piece of wood.
Spread an even coat of polish over the entire surface with the charged polisher. Alternate long even strokes going across the grain, then with the grain. Press down firmly to force polish into the pores, thus sealing the surface.
Avoid jerky motions and do not raise and lower the polisher vertically. When the polisher feels dry, recharge it with a few drops of polish, but keep the movement constant and even. Pauses will cause polish to build up in ridges called "whips".
Repeat this process 3 or 4 times, making sure the entire surface is covered each time. Leave to dry for 24 hours, storing the polisher in a closed jar. Make it a habit to always store the polisher in an air tight container when not in use, even during a coffee or restroom break. If left out, the polisher will harden, but taken care of it can last up to 6 months.
The surface, although dry, will still be rough at this stage. Rub down lightly with fine 320 grit silicone carbide sandpaper. Sand lightly with the grain. Dust off with a damp cloth or tack rag when done.
Recharge the polisher with pure polish and apply again to the whole surface. Use straight strokes, along and the across the grain. Repeat once or twice more.
Now, begin making circles approx. 4in. in diameter. Each one should overlap the last. Repeat this over the entire surface two or three times. Alternate the circles with figure eights in a continuous gliding movement in the direction of the grain. Gradually increase the pressure.
Now, you are starting to see a glossy sheen begin to build. The polish will dry more rapidly at this stage, so the polisher needs extra lubrication. Dip a finger into the linseed oil and dab it directly on the polisher. Use sparingly, just enough to keep the polisher on the move. The polish may have a tendency to streak at this stage, due to the pressure on the preceding coats, or to much polish. If this happens, stop for at least one hour. The streaks won't disappear, but they will stabilize.
Now, begin to use 50/50 polish. Dilute your pure polish with an equal amount of denatured alcohol. This will speed up the drying process. Continue the circles and figure eights, recharging with polish as needed. You can leave the polish to dry overnight between complete "circuits". Stop when the surface is completely smooth and glossy. With practice you will be able to judge the moment....allow to dry 24 hours.
Make a second polisher, which must be kept specifically for this job. Charge the second polisher with denatured alcohol and glide it over the surface in circles and figure eights to remove any traces of oil and to give the surface a high gloss finish. Leave to dry one week.
Dulling the Finish / Cutting the shine:
A satin or flat finish is popular these days and easier to maintain. After a week, you can dull the finish with pumice powder or fine (0000) steel wool and wax. The pumice can be applied strait to the surface and worked with a shoe brush. This is a specialized short hair brush . Dip the brush into the powder, using only small amounts at a time. Follow the grain and make sure all areas are treated evenly.
When dulling with steel wool and wax, do not use to much wax. Once the surface is dry, wipe off the excess wax with a dry soft cloth to produce a satin finish. If the shine is still to high, try using 000 steel wool for a duller finish.