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What is French polishing?

by Jason Snook
French Polishing

French polishing is a wood finishing method that enhances the appearance and durability of timber. The method uses a mixture of shellac (a naturally occurring resin from the lac bug) and alcohol. This mixture is applied to the surface using a cotton cloth called a fad. Multiple layers of shellac are applied until a rich shine is achieved.

Since the process of French polishing is quite time-consuming, it has largely been replaced with quicker, modern methods that use lacquers and varnishes. However, French polishing still provides a few advantages. Indeed, there are plenty of furniture repair companies that still offer the service.

The French Polishing Process

French polishing is often used on antique wooden furniture like chairs and benches. In the previous centuries, it was commonly applied to musical instruments like pianos, guitars and violins. It can also be used on wooden staircases, cabinets, drawers and so on.

The method is often reserved for premium quality woods with darker hues such as rosewood, mahogany and walnut.

Before anything is applied to the wood, the surface of the timber must be repaired and sanded down. Most antique restorers should be able to provide you with repair services as well. Let’s have a look at some of the reasons why restoring old furniture can be the way to go.

After that, the shellac and alcohol are mixed and the stain is slowly applied to the surface with a fad. The layers are applied with strokes that go along the grain.

With each coat, alcohol must be sprayed on the surface so that the next layer of shellac can bond with the previous one. New layers can’t be added until the previous one has completely dried. If the timber is open grain, the microporosities are filled in with pumice powder to ensure a smooth finish.

After applying four to five layers of shellac, the timber is then sanded down with 1200-grit sandpaper and furniture wax is applied to further protect the surface.

Since this process is arduous and time-consuming (sometimes taking a couple of days), it’s best that you hire a professional to do it for you. Making a mistake during this process could ruin your antique furniture for good.

Pros of French Polishing

  • Highlights the grains

Perhaps the biggest benefit of French polishing is how it enhances the appearance of your timber furniture. It brings out the grains and patterns on the wood and gives the material a nice shine. Compared to modern methods that involve varnishes and lacquers, French polishing can bring out richer hues on the wood surface.

This makes French polishing a great option for both classic and modern home decors. Whether you’re using the method for your furniture or for simple accents, it will be a great aesthetic addition to your home.

  • Protects the wood

Since the shellac finish is quite flexible, it is quite resistant to dents and minor scratches. Even if the surface does get damaged, it is easy to make the necessary repairs. Even better, the repairs are often seamless and won’t leave an obvious blemish on the timber.

  • No odour and non-toxic

Unlike certain varnishes and paints, the shellac used in French polishing is non-toxic. Additionally, it doesn’t have a strong odour. This is perfect if you have vulnerable pets or children in the house.

Cons of French Polishing

  • Can’t handle the heat

If you were to place hot cups or plates on the surface of the shellac finish, it will begin to burn. Because of this, it’s not ideal to use shellac for kitchen benchtops, dining tables and so on.

  • Can get damaged by moisture and alcohol

French polished surfaces are also vulnerable to alcohol and excessive moisture. This makes shellac unsuitable for areas that are prone to condensation. This includes, bathrooms, kitchens, the floor in the laundry room and so on.

That was just a little summary on the process of French polishing. Though it’s considered by some as an outdated method, it still offers a lot of value on both the aesthetic and practical side of things. If you’re interested in French polishing your furniture, be sure to contact a local antique restoration company near you.

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