French Polish Basics

French polish finishes are simple in theory, but require time and practice to perfect. March 13, 2009

My customer brought me a sample that I have to match and I think it's a French polished finish. How do I achieve this? Should I do a regular stain and lacquer and when it's done, brush with something that will give that polished look? What I tried is too rough, I think, because I get something similar, but with too many scratches.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor B:
You have got the wrong idea about French polishing. You can stain as usual, but you should not use lacquer - use French polish for the whole job. You don't brush the polish on, you apply it with a rubber (as we say in England) made from wadding and cotton. It is a complicated process which takes years of practice to master. There are books which may help, but it takes a lot of practice to get a good result.

From contributor H:
French polish is, in the short form, shellac, but that's where it ends. As stated, it takes years to master. You can get close with spraying shellac and doing a rub out, but it's not the same. It may be close enough for your client.

From contributor S:
French polish is the name of a technique that was used to apply and polish a layer originally and most often associated with shellac, but can be used with other resins.
Lacquer, as in contemporary nitrated cellulose, was really developed to recreate the look of a French shellac polished end without the intensive labor required to produce a true French shellac polish. While the spray is actually much faster, it has never produced a look as exquisite. It takes a little learning, but can be mastered fairly quickly by a person who has a passion for learning. There are many books available that explain the basic principles.

From contributor G:
It's not a quick process, and if you are going to do this job, bid it time and materials.

From contributor M:
I usually reserve French polish for the best pieces in particular antiques. French polish brings out the character of the wood better than any other finish, in my opinion. However, it does have its down side - it shows water rings from carelessly left glasses and in general does not take well to water or any kind of alcohol.

As most folks do not know how to care for this type of finish, I usually try a look-alike finish. By all means lacquer the piece, but use a grain filler. Behlen now makes a water based one, so you need not worry about linseed oil in the filler affecting the lacquer. This should produce a finish that is not hungry looking, as French polished finishes are. I usually use a gloss lacquer as it is a harder finish but generally ends up too glossy. So I then rub out the finish with steel wool and a product called wool wax, again made by Behlen. Use 4 zeros steel wool dipped in water with a blob of wool wax until you have a nice even semi-matte finish. Dry off with a clean rag.

From contributor C:
There's a good French polish company that sells a product - first class stuff - called Friction Polish (French polish is really a misnomer). Easy to use and comes in dry form so you can make up a little or a lot. I think a very detailed instruction tape on its use, showing all the steps, is available also. The kit contains the shellac and all other ingredients in dry form - you supply the alcohol or other solvents, to dissolve them. This way you know you'll be able to obtain the same results time after time. My results with it were excellent.

There are some minor down sides to a shellac finish, I agree. That said, though, it remains the easiest film to repair that exists (as for a film forming resin coating).

Thinking on the green side of finishes, it has one of the least hazardous thinners/solvents of any finish (ethyl alcohol) - as well as long term stability that goes far beyond any modern coatings available.

Some lacs also have a portion of the plasticizer removed, which raises both their melting points and scratch resistance (though it does make them more brittle). You can add certain oils to overcome those affects.

What you need to be careful of is buying pre-made shellacs off the shelf which, as they sit, etherify in the container and lose their good properties fairly rapidly. A fresh shellac has much better water resistance than one that's set around for a time. Try to remember that early in the last century the most common floor finish was shellac, which was able to be mopped and suffered much abuse year round. When done properly with the best fresh material, you can still get excellent results, just as was done then.
The proof of its superior qualities is the fact that only the most high end companies still use it in their antique reproductions and it's still the finish of choice for all museum quality and historical societies.

Seeing what the future holds for our industry, I recommend everybody re-familiarize themselves with this method and material as well as oil finishes - they actually can do 90% of what all finishes need to as to natural wood finishing needs.