The mysterry of French Polishing – a brief history

When I started restoring furniture the phrase ‘French Polishing’  evoked a certain amount of magic and mystery, a process steeped in history and to be honest a little bit scary in so much as, how could I ever get to a stage where I could use this ‘potion’ to effect a finish that leads to a great restoration project.

The answer is in reality is down to understanding the history of the product and from this you understand how it works when applied to furniture and then with patience and care you can get to the position where this is the last part of a restoration journey that results in fantastic result for the furniture in the restorers care and that meets and often exceeds clients expectations.

The History BitFrench polishing is a process that, as we know it, has been around using pretty much the same method for 200 years but its use can be traced back as far as 250 AD and was used extensively  in India on lathe finished wood turnings before the end of the 16th century. So its been around for a while !

Fench polishing

Resin build up – the ‘Lac’ from the insect nest

What is it ? – The key ingredient in French Polish is shellac – shellac is made from the secretion collected from an aphid like insect found in Thailand and India, the insect produces the ‘lac’ to protect its larvae and this is collected and refined with an end process that results in a thin film of shellac resin being formed and then this is then turned in to flakes once dry and then reconstituted to a liquid with a solvent base to make the polish form of the liquid that we still use today.

Fench Polishing

Shellac Flakes created from resin prior to making in to a solution

Why French Polish – as the term indicates, it was used extensively in France by Victorian era furniture makers to add a highly polished surface to many furniture pieces.

The How Bit – The process involves a specific combination of different application techniques to apply the shellac in a thin uniform layer.

The process is  lengthy and repetitive and is achieved by applying thin layers of shellac with a material pad called a rubber or a brush (called a mop). The thin coats are cut back between layers often with fine wire wool before the next layer is applied. Each coat must be fully dry before the next application, to avoid lifting out the softened finish.

Fench polishing

Polishing a restored project

The end result of often up to 20 coats, is a phenomenal finish that compliments the furniture piece beautifully.

Why Use It ? – In an age when synthetic material use and type has never been so diverse and this includes furniture polish and lacquer finishes, why use a product that is as old as the hills and relies on the vagaries of insect reproduction to create it ? – the answer here is two fold – the history bit is a clue, for restoration work to use a product that has a history that is often as old as the furniture it is being applied to is very sympathetic to the application – ask a restorer and they tell you it just feels right to use it ! But it also has many properties that also make it the correct product to use  – these include;

  • UV resistant – and it does not colour with time
  • It will withstand exposure to water for short time periods – especially if maintained
  • It is not a ‘brittle’ product so does not scratch like hard modern finishes
  • It will adhere to almost any surface
  • Its non-toxic and hypoallergenic
  • It is odourless once the carrier solvent has evaporated
  • It is an all natural product harvested from the insect secretions and as such is from a renewable resource

French Polish – what’s not to love ! – interested in getting a piece of furniture re-finished please get in touch.

Fench polishing

Restored table with 8 coats of polish

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