French Polishing Meditation

Posted by on Dec 15, 2012 in Blog | No Comments

Polishing a set of four different boxes.

Today I have been French polishing some jewellery and cuff link boxes ready for delivery before Christmas.

Most finishes rely on the repeated application of many thin layers, thus building a “body” to the finish. French polishing is the extreme example of this, rather than being a finish in itself it’s a procedure for laying repeated thin coats of shellac finish using a cloth rubber charged with the polish. This builds up a layer of polish on the surface that gives a rich luster to the wood which is difficult to achieve with any other finishing technique.

The polish consists of shellac flakes dissolved in alcohol. Shellac comes in different colours, button gives a golden brown tone while garnet is rich dark brown. I’m using garnet on the burr walnut boxes and button on the lighter thuya burr, both bring out the quality of the burr beautifully.

French polishing takes a while to get the hang of, but it’s a bit like riding a bike, once you’ve got the hang of it you never lose the knack.  I learnt the knack on a City and Guilds restoration course at Leeds College of Art about twelve years ago. The secret is about getting just the right amount of polish on the rubber and using the correct hand pressure when applying it so that no surplus polish is left as swirls on the surface. Patience is also important. The polish is applied using a circular motion, repeating this many times in a polishing session, finishing with a careful spiriting off. The finish is then left for 24 hours allowing the polish to sink into the surface. The surface is then cut back using a fine abrasive and the process repeated possibly more than once. The aim being to fill the pores of the timber to leave a perfect blemish free surface.

All that pfaffing about is certainly worth it! French polishing gives a finish that  is unlike any other for richness and depth of tone. It’s a pity it is not more resistant to wear and tear, I would not recommend it for  a dining  table top, but it’s excellent for more decorative objects like jewellery boxes.

The other nice thing about French polishing is it’s meditative aspect! The repetitive nature of the finish application and the concentration required on that repetition makes it a very mindful process which you can lose youself in. I teach French polishing on my finishing course and a number of the students have commented on it’s relaxing meditative qualities.


Cotton rubber used to apply the shellac polish.

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Thankyou, Chris.


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