French Polishing


for restoring a finish!

By Andrea Daley

French polishing is commonly used in the restorative process of antique finishes. French polishing, originally used by the French in the early part of the 18th century, was used to achieve finishes that were of extremely high gloss. These finishes stood apart from the brushed shellac or varnishes, they had a smooth, elegant look, which revealed the beauty of the woods. For the restorer who specializes in restoring antique finishes or the restorer who travels behind the moving companies, handling claims, it is a must to master its technique. The principles of the traditional method and the process of padding in a repaired area are the same. For instance if you were to repair an 18th century finish on a buffet or a recent Ethan Allen coffee table, the process would be the same. You would make up a padding pad, fill it with a vehicle, (lacquer or shellac) and with the continuous technique of skimming over the top of the surface to release a thin coat covering of the vehicle on the part in need of repair. Without going into the details of the products and formulas I will impart my information from my experiences to make quality repairs or to rejuvenate a finish. I use both; the shellac made from the flakes, and the commercial padding lacquers that are so prevalent in the commercial market. I have been stung one too many times by using shellac that had gone by its shelf life. I always prefer to use shellac from flakes and have a fresh batch on hand. I can control the cut with denature alcohol with the need of the application for a quicker drying time or a slower drying time. Shellac is always compatible with the old finishes, and is a sealer for the new ones. Some times a quicker process can be obtained by choosing one of the padding lacquers; sometimes I use a combination of them both. All in all these products will work but it’s the technique that enables the restorer to perform a quality, partial restoration to a damaged item. I will address the technique in regards to performing a spot repair and to restoring the entire finish.

The information is not about creating a French polish finish. It is about making repairs or refurbishing an existing finish. If you wish to obtain details on the traditional method of French Polishing then I highly recommend the information from two experts who are among our members: Bob Flexners, his book Understanding Wood Finishes and Jeff Jewetts, his video on Hand Applied Finishes:Appling Top Coats. Both are excellent sources on the whole process which covers all the details of being able to create a French polish finish.

Things you must know before using this technique:

Some general information about padding

How to make a Pad

What are blending pigments

When a surface needs wood filling

The importance of removing all previous oils and waxes

How to use aerosol spray cans

Familiar with companies that carries touch-up supplies

If you are not familiar with the above then I suggest making your concerns known to the Association of Restorers and we will help you obtain the information. All these procedures and products are offered as information through our conventions. Also check our newsletters and the wesite for printed information.

PARTIAL REPAIR – this pertains to an area that has been damaged, filler has been added to and then has been sanded evenly. For example an area approximately 3 x 2 inches of removed finish that has been sanded down to the bare wood. If the wood has large open pores then a wood filling process is necessary to fill the pours. The following procedure is not recommended for dull finishes. This is for original French polished finishes.

1) Prep the area: Clean off all waxes from the surrounding area, fill in the pours by either sanding off with 400 grit sandpaper and then rubbing with 0000 steel wool. If fill is still needed then spray heavy body sanding sealer on the area, from an aerosol spray can. Sometimes a 2-3 hour drying time is needed in-between coats. Sand and repeat until finish is same as the surrounding area.

2) Paint over the existing damaged area, blending in the colors to match. For detailed information on this procedure attend one of the conventions and the class on Color Matching. Remember to build up with color allowing a see through appearance with each layer to achieve depth. Do not create a “build up” of paint. Also gold powders can be added to reflect the depth. I use shellac as the vehicle to carry the paint. Coloring at this point needs to be put on as a stain, in thin coats.

3) Next seal the area painted with a shot of sanding sealer from an aerosol can.

4) Start applying a finish with the French polishing or “Padding” method.

(To make a pad: use an absorbent cloth on the inside and wrap a linen cloth on the exterior to form a 2-3 inch pad.) Pour an amount of shellac or padding lacquer on the pad and start swiping over the repaired area. (I always start with shellac to seal and then finish with a clear padding lacquer. These commercial padding lacquers have more durability than shellac.) If you go too hard you will lift the previous color. Start real soft and build up. Once you are able to clear coat over the top with out removing any of the existing color, then apply a light shade of a dry pigment. Place a color on your finger of the opposite hand that will be doing the padding. After a swipe then quickly rub the pigment on to the area and come back with the padding technique. Continue this process using colors that will blend in the area. Once the area is concealed and the colors match, then continue with a build up of a padding lacquer.

5) After it sets approximately 20 minutes, then go back over with the final coat, blending the clear coat into the existing finish. If the damage is on an the edge, then no more finishing is necessary. If the section that is damaged is on the top of the item; then you may have to wait 24 hours for it to cure, so you can rub out any unevenness in the repair.

6 (Optional) As long as you have enough build up of finish, you can apply a fine rubbing compound to bring up a high sheen. 3M makes a fine rubbing compound called Finess-it II. It can be purchased in automotive paint stores. Apply it to the cloth and start rubbing with pressure to even out any streakiness in the finish. Keep buffing while letting up on the pressure till you achieve a high shine. If it is a satin finish then you can rub it out with 0000 steel wool.

If the item is an antique then stay with the basic shellac. The amber tones will blend in well with the existing finishes.

REJUVINATING A FINISH – This method applies to re-coating an entire finish. There may have been repaired areas, crazing in the finish, worn or dull areas or other distress marks. This method will bring up a high shine as the same traditional method of French polishing.

1) Make sure the entire surface is free of all dirt and waxes. Use mineral spirits to wipe over the entire surface. Some times the use of steel wool may be needed.

2 Sand out all uneven sections in finish, making sure not to break through. Finish off with 400 sandpaper. It is important that sand marks go with the grain.

3) Make all necessary repairs

4) Go over entire surface again with mineral spirits or paint thinner. As a final cleanser, I use a product called Minwax Furniture Cleaner. It is a water base detergent cleaner so you have to be careful not to use it wet. Spray it on to a cloth and then with the damp cloth go over the entire finish. Sometimes I use a widow cleaner for the same purpose. It must have just enough ammonia to clean off any extra residue that the mineral spirits did not remove. Then I buff with a soft cloth followed by a tack cloth to remove any lint.

5) Paint or touch up all damaged areas following the above method for partial restoration.

6) Begin laying a base of the finish on with the shellac by the padding method. Continue building up so all the surface scratches are unnoticeable. Possibly passing four or five times over the same area, using all the traditional moves of French polishing or padding. Do not worry about the streaks at this point. Let set overnight approximately 16 hours.

7) Sand lightly with 400 sand paper. Tack cloth off any lint or dust and apply another application of shellac using the French polishing method. If the finish is free of all mars, and surface imperfections, then let sit again overnight. If not then repeat the step the following day. Finish with a padding lacquer as your last application. Again this is more durable than shellac.

8) When the finish does not show any of the flaws or repairs and it has been built up then let it set again for 16 hours. Then compound the entire finish using the method in the above procedure. Always apply the compound to the cloth first and then to the finish. Rub out the finish to the desired sheen. The more you compound the shinier the finish. If you wish, a cream polish can be used over the entire surface as the last step.