In spite of the modern advances in finishing technology (or perhaps because of it) the mystique of French Polisihing endures. Antique dealers speak of French polishing as if it represents the pinnacle of finishing mastery. Antiques dealers are fond of saying that French Polishing is a rare and difficult art to master.
Nothing could be further from the truth. With a little practice, anyone can learn the technique and it can be mastered with just a few hours’ practice. Moreover, once one understands the process and why it was developed, one will understand why French polishing fell out of favor. Today’s restorers will tell you that French Polishing is a very beautiful but very bad finish.French Polishing Gloucestershire offers excellent info on this.
The Essentials of French Polishing
French Polishing is a process used to apply a coat of liquid shellac (shellac mixed with alcohol) onto wood. The shellac is applied with a pad made from a ball of wool wrapped in fine cotton or linen. Shellac is poured into the pad, absorbed by the wool, and squeezed out as the pad is moved across the surface of the wood. The skill in the technique is to apply the shellac evenly, leaving no pad marks. Depth of finish is achieved by repeatedly applying thin coats of shellac. To fill the grain of the wood, pumice is sprinkled onto the surface prior to each layer of shellac. It is helpful to apply a little mineral spirits to the pad to keep it lubricated and help keep the finish smooth.
So Why Not Just Use A Brush?
Brushes will leave brush marks in a clear, shiny shellac finish. Even today, modern spray and application systems will leave an uneven surface. Brushes and sprayers distort the liquid finish; after application, the surface must be leveled. Today, uneven finish surfaces are leveled and polished with fine sandpaper and abrasives.The result of the abrasive rubbing process is called a hand-rubbed finish. In the seventeenth century, sandpaper was made with fish scales and sand and was hardly fine enough or consistent enough to rub out and polish furniture finishes. Three hundred years ago, French polishing was the only way to get a beautiful finish onto a piece of furniture.
The Drawbacks of French Polishing
French Polished surfaces are very beautiful but very fragile. Shellac is soft, so it scratches easily, and it is not resistant to heat, cold, or moisture. Most of the old wives tales about never placing drinking glasses on furniture were developed over hundreds of years of dealing with shellac finishes. If you like the look of a shellac finish and insist on having one, there are better ways than French Polishing to get the same result. The polishing process takes a long, long, time to build up significant layers of finish. Allowing for dry time between coats, one could spend an entire day French Polishing the top of the average sized coffee table. Spraying or brushing shellac to the same surface and then hand-rubbing and polishing could be accomplished in less than two hours.
Its Not Even French
The romance of French polishing will likely remain, especially in the antiques trade. After all, anything French is considered to be artsy-craftsy. I dont have the heart to tell antique dealers that French polishing isn’t even French; it was developed by the Chinese about 7,000 years ago.