Care and Repair: French Polish

French polish: to an antique furniture enthusiast, the name evokes visions of 18th Century mahogany tables with a finish as glossy and deep as a mountain lake at mid-day.

French polish: to an antique furniture enthusiast, the name evokes visions of 18th Century mahogany tables with a finish as glossy and deep as a mountain lake at mid-day. To a restorer, it represents a technique that takes years of practice to master. To an antique dealer, it represents higher prices and prestige. To the general public, the term is confusing; often, it is placed alongside Pledge and Old English as a product used to make one’s furniture bright and shiny.

When an antique dealer says that an item has been painstakingly French polished, what does she mean, and why should that information be important to an antique buyer? An understanding of French polishing can add to one’s appreciation of antique furniture, so let’s look a little closer at the subject.

To begin, French polish isn’t a maintenance product that is rubbed onto furniture to make it shiny and dust-free. French polish is a finishing product, like varnish or polyurethane. The combination of the polish ingredients and a very specific application technique is what yields such spectacular results. When done correctly, nothing compares to French polishing for sheer beauty.

The polish itself is made from dry shellac flakes dissolved in denatured alcohol. Shellac flakes come in four grades, each producing a different color. The various alcohol solvents yield different results as well; most French polishers prefer ethanol because it results in a more flexible film. Common wood alcohols like methanol will cause shellac to become brittle and crack prematurely. Off-the-shelf shellac thinners from a hardware store usually contain higher methanol and water content than is desirable for a fine finish; such products keep shellac from fully drying, and may cause cloudiness (blushing) in the finish.

French polish is applied using what is variously called a charger, a rubber, an applicator, or a pad. This device is home-made; generally, a handful of white wool is placed into a large uncolored square of muslin or cheesecloth and formed into a tight ball that will fit comfortably into the palm of the hand.

French polish is neither sprayed nor brushed on. Brushed finishes are prone to leaving brush streaks, and sprayed finishes can have a host of problems depending on the spray pressure used and the condition of the furniture surface. French polish is applied using what is variously called a charger, a rubber, an applicator, or a pad. This device is home-made; generally, a handful of white wool is placed into a large uncolored square of muslin or cheesecloth and formed into a tight ball that will fit comfortably into the palm of the hand. The applicator is then “charged” by pouring polish onto the pad until it is damp but not soaked. A gentle squeeze of the hand should cause a small amount of polish to discharge from the pad. The pad is gently squeezed as it is rubbed in a circular fashion over the surface. This technique will leave a very thin coat of shellac on the surface; multiple coats (perhaps dozens) are needed to build depth into a finish. The percentage of shellac to alcohol may vary with each coat.

Finishing raw wood requires a different preparation than restoring an antique with an existing finish. Both processes share the polishing pad technique, however.

French Polishing strokes.

French polishing is tedious and expensive work. Eli Rios, a Manhattan-based furniture restorer, says that restoring an existing finish on an 18th Century commode requires as much as 40 hours’ work. David Linker, a French-trained polisher with a shop in Brooklyn, says that restoring the finish on a dining room table could take up to 120 hours of work.  Keep those labor times in mind. If an antique dealer tells you that an item has been “completely restored and French polished,” the item’s cost should be commensurate with the restoration costs (refinishing shop hourly rates will be roughly equivalent to an auto repair shop’s rates). To ensure that the piece has been shellac finished, rub an inconspicuous spot with a cloth dampened with denatured alcohol; if the finish is shellac, it will rub off.

Remember that just because an item is finished in shellac doesn’t mean that it has been French polished. Modern finish spraying equipment, power buffers, and polishing compounds can create a French polished look in about a third of the time it takes to actually French polish. How would you know which technique was used? If all you are going for is the beauty of the piece, it doesn’t really matter; one will be just as beautiful as the other. But, genuine antiques should be finished with authentic-to-the-period finishes and techniques. When the price of an item stretches credulity, a finishing expert should be called in to examine the finish with a magnifying glass to determine if the item has actually been French polished.    

A few other thoughts need to be addressed before leaving the subject . Shellac finishes don’t stand up very well to today’s lifestyles. They are sensitive to water, humidity, and alcohol. The practice of using coasters under drinks came as a result of the sensitivity of shellac finishes. Despite the beauty of a high-gloss shellac finish, it should not be used on your day-to-day furniture.  


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s website at resaleretailing.com or visitWayne’s blog.

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