This Is How To French Polish Your Furniture In Simple Steps

You should probably have heard about upcycling furniture. It’s an inexpensive way to renovate your old pieces. Of course, you can paint your kitchen cabinets, your laminate furniture or even your wood stairs. But when it comes to wooden furniture, what possibilities do you have? There are wood preservers to protect them, or you can use masonry paint. But, what can you do if you want your old wood tabletop to shine like it used to be?

A blond woman french polishing a wooden furniture

There are many ways you can repair and restore your furniture. You can apply varnish, polyurethane, high gloss stains, and paints. However, none of these can produce the depth and lustre of French polishing. Hence, this article will show you how to french polish your furniture and bring back its lost shine. 

What is French polish

French polish isn’t a product you can buy from a craft store. In fact, it’s a wood finishing method of applying shellac to wood furniture, musical instruments, or decorative items. Shellac is a substance secreted by the lac bug, an insect native to Asia. French Polishing is a technique where you apply many thin layers of shellac, about 100, to get a highly glossy, smooth mirror-like surface that highlights the grain of the wood.

French polishing technique dates back to the Victorian era. However, around the 1940s, cabinet makers and restorers abandoned this method due to the mass production of manufactured furniture. But, despite the impressive glass result, french polishing is no longer preferred because of the labour-intensive process. However, this tough polishing technique produces a shining result that no other mass production method can. If you want a french polish finish on wood surfaces with closed grains, like maple, spruce and cedar, then shellac is perfect for you. But, if you want a high gloss finish on an open grain wood, such as walnut, mahogany and rosewood, then you’ll have to fill the grain with pumice powder.

How to french polish furniture

Needed materials and tools:

  • Shellac flakes
  • A solvent, like denatured alcohol (methylated spirits)
  • Olive oil or mineral oil
  • Sandpaper 
  • Wool or surgical gauze or wadding
  • FFFF-grade pumice
  • Cotton cloths and tack cloths
  • String
  • Gloves (vinyl or nitrile)
  • Containers with tight lids
  • Furniture wax
  • Squeeze bottle

A man uses a finishing pad to french polish a wooden surface

Steps to follow:

1. Preparing the surface

The first and most important step in all woodworking projects is preparing the surface, removing any imperfections covered by varnish or finish wax, and cleaning it off any dust build-up. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Start with medium-grit sandpaper and finish using fine-grit one, such as 400 or fine (0000 grade) steel wool. Sand the entire surface to remove old finishes, paint, or varnish. If the surface is an open grain wood, then fill the grain with a suitable grain filler.
  2. Once you finish sanding, wipe the sawdust off the surface with a tack cloth. Then, dampen a cotton cloth with water and wipe the surface. This way, you will raise any loose wood fibres or hairs.
  3. Sand again with 400-grit paper to knock down the loose fibres. 
  4. Next, wipe again with a tack cloth and then use a damp cloth with denatured alcohol. The solvent will remove every single sawdust without discolouring the wood. 

2. Make the finishing pad

French polishing doesn’t require any paintbrushes and rollers. You need to make the pad, which is very easy. You just need a wadding or gauze wrapped in a piece of cotton fabric (an old cotton T-shirt would do the job), known as a fad.

Here’s what you need to do to make the fad:

  1. Make a small ball of gauze (about the diameter of a quarter) and place it in the centre of a 15 by 15cm piece of cotton fabric.
  2. Fold the four corners up to form a teardrop shape.

And that’s all! Your fad is ready to act as a shellac reservoir.

3. Make the shellac

Now it’s time to make the shellac

Shellac flakes

  1. Mix 85gr of shellac flakes with 475gr of alcohol
  2. Then, pour the mixture into a well-sealed container.

Keep the mixture into the container and pour small amounts into a shallow bowl while working. 

4. Apply the sealer coat

You can now start french polishing a few coats that will serve as a sealer coat for your wood. 

  1. Get the fad you have formed and get the wadding.
  2. Soak it into the shellac and squeeze it. 
  3. Then, place it again into the centre of the fabric and tie the four corners together with a piece of string. This way, the fad will leave a thin layer of shellac finish on the wood surface
  4. Because shellac is very sticky, pour a few drops of olive or mineral oil(linseed oil will also do the trick) onto the outer part of the pad before each use to help it slide across the wood. To apply the first coat, move the pad following the grain.
  5. Wait a few minutes and then apply the second coat.
  6. Wait for a while and apply a third coat the same way. 
  7. Keep the pad into a container and wait for the surface to dry thoroughly.

5. Fill the grain

Once the shellac is dry, you need to fill the grain using pumice.

Someone wearing rubber gloves polishes shellac with pumice into a wooden surface

  1. Get the pad’s core and clean it of any shellac.
  2. Wrap it with a clean fabric and pour 10 drops of the solvent.
  3. Then, press the pad onto your hand to lay even the liquid and add some pumice using a salt shaker.
  4. Work the pad onto the wood with circular motions. Don’t follow the grain, as any open pores won’t be filled with the pumice
  5. Continue until the pores are all filled, and you’re left with an ultra-smooth sealing coat.

6. Apply the French polisherBodying

  1. Soak the core pad into the shellac and wrap it with a new fabric.
  2. Add a few drops of olive oil to the cover and apply thin layers on the surface, working in circular motions.
  3. Apply almost a hundred thin coats making sure you let the coats dry between each application and that you reload the pad with shellac and oil. Shellac dries faster than other finishes, such as lacquer. Thus you won’t have to wait a lot. It usually takes 5-10 minutes for each application to dry.
  4. Wait for a few hours for the French polisher to dry and place the pad back in the airtight container.
  5. Once it has dried, pour a small amount of alcohol into the core and spirit the wood surface. Spiriting will remove the oil left when applying the shellac.
  6. Repeat the spiriting process 6-8 times.
  7. Afterwards, check the surface. If you notice any blemishes, sand them with 1200-grit wet/dry sandpaper and few drops of oil.
  8. Finally, remove the sawdust using a small amount of alcohol.

7. Make it ultra shine

Your furniture polish is done. You should now have a breathtaking, mirror-like surface. You can leave it as it is, but if you want to maintain and protect the finish you should apply good quality beeswax.

To apply beeswax you need to:

  1. Add a small amount of beeswax onto a clean buffing cloth.
  2. Apply it on the piece of furniture following the wood grain using a small amount of pressure.
  3. Once the whole process is done, let it dry.
  4. When the wax is dry, remove any excess with a new cloth. 

A French polished wooden tabletop

Don’t be afraid to french polish your furniture. Compared to the other methods, it might be a time-consuming and labour-intensive project, but the final result will impress you. Follow our guidelines and keep your wooden furniture in pristine condition.

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