French polishing is a traditional wood finishing technique known for its exceptional lustre and rich colour. It involves the application of shellac using a process that requires skill, patience and attention to detail. However, is it truly feasible to achieve professional-level results by attempting French polish at home?


Understanding French Polishing

French polish is a meticulous technique that creates a high-gloss finish on wooden surfaces. It enhances the natural beauty of the wood whilst protecting against moisture and wear. Traditionally, shellac, a resin obtained from the secretions of the lac beetle, is used as the main ingredient in French polishing.


Can You Do French Polishing Yourself at Home?

While French Polishing is a delicate and time-consuming process, it is indeed possible to achieve satisfactory results at home if you are willing to invest the necessary time and effort. However, it’s important to understand that mastering French polishing may require practice and determination.


Key Factors to Consider Before Embarking on a French Polishing Project:

French polishing in areas like London demands a high level of skill and attention to detail. The technique involves building up numerous thin layers of shellac, which requires patience and precision. If you are a beginner, it’s advisable to start with smaller projects and gradually work your way up to larger pieces. 


Proper preparation is crucial for a successful French polishing project. The wood surface should be clean, smooth, and free from any previous finishes or debris. Any imperfections or blemishes on the wood will be highlighted during the polishing process, so it’s essential to ensure the surface is adequately prepared. 


To undertake French polishing, you will need specific tools and materials, including shellac flakes, denatured alcohol, a polishing mop or pad (often made from a wad of cloth), fine abrasive paper, and lint-free cloths. These materials may be readily available from woodworking supply stores or online retailers. 


French polishing involves applying thin layers of shellac using a circular motion with the polishing mop. This technique allows the shellac to dissolve into the previous layer, creating a seamless build-up of the finish. It’s crucial to practise the technique on scrap wood before starting on your final piece to familiarise yourself with the process. 


French polishing is a time-consuming process that requires a controlled environment. Dust, temperature, and humidity can significantly affect the quality of the finish. Ideally, the area should be well-ventilated, free from dust, and kept at a constant temperature and humidity level.


Step-by-Step Guide:

Materials and Tools Needed:

  1. Shellac flakes (Optional, buy French polish instead)
  2. Denatured alcohol 
  3. Polishing mop/pad (often made from a wad of cloth)
  4. Fine abrasive paper (sandpaper such as 320 or 400 grit)
  5. White spirit
  6. Flexible dough scraper/old credit card
  7. Metal polish or automotive paint polish compound
  8. Wire wool
  9. Iron
  10. Veneer hammer or the softened end of a hardwood block
  11. Lint-free cloths 
  12. Dust mask 
  13. Gloves (to protect your hands)
  14. Shellac stick (optional)


Step 1: Preparation 

Ensure that the wood surface is clean, smooth and free from any previous finishes or debris. 


Food and paint splatters can be removed at this stage with the careful use of a flexible card/dough scraper or old credit card. Remove any dust or debris from the surface using a soft brush or cloth. 


Gently sand the surface with fine abrasive paper to achieve a smooth texture whilst not scratching any underlying polish or wax. Again remove any dust or debris from the surface. 


During this stage look and listen for any loose veneer. You can do this by tapping the wood. Loose veneer gives a distinct hollow sound compared to the rest of the surface.


Clean the surface with a damp cloth (water and mild detergent). Dry with a clean cloth.


If the surface is not pristine by this stage then clean the surface again but with white spirits this time. This will remove any remaining dirt and old furniture wax. Leave the furniture for a while so that the spirits can evaporate.  


If you believe that the surface has had previous French polishing done then ideally a layer or two of the old French polish should be removed to a point where there are no longer any blemishes left. Blemishes that don’t lie too deep in the polish can usually be removed with some metal polish or automotive paint polish compound. Apply a small amount to the blemished area and rub gently with a clean cloth.


Step 2: French Polish Preparation (Optional)

Measure the desired amount of Shellac flakes based on the size of your project and place them in a jar. Add denatured alcohol to the jar, covering the flakes completely. A typical recipe is mixed at a ratio of 250g shellac flakes to 1 L methylated spirit but this can be adjusted to achieve the desired consistency (thinner or thicker). 


Seal the jar tightly and let it sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours. During this time the shellac flakes will dissolve into the alcohol creating French polish solution.


Step 3: Removing French Polish and Fixing Loose Veneer 

The following steps if not completed with care and skill can cause real damage to the furniture therefore it is recommended to practice on wood with little to no value before applying them to any special items. After practising you could carefully consider if there may be a need for experts such as Schryver to be called in. 


To cut back or completely remove French polish denatured alcohol can be applied to the surface with wire wool, dissolving the polish. Gently rub the damp wire wool on the surface.


Loose veneer can be fixed by reactivating the existing glue. Place some plain brown paper over the area and apply some gentle heat using an iron (set to rayon/low/1). Rub the veneer down with a veneer hammer or the softened end of a hardwood block whilst still hot. If this doesn’t work, wet the veneer a little first and then repeat. If still unsuccessful, inject new flue under the veneer and the clamp with greaseproof paper over the top to prevent the clamp from sticking. 


Step 4: Applying the First Coat

Put on gloves and ensure that the workspace is well-ventilated. To make a polish mop/pad pack some cotton wool into the centre of a square of lint-free cloth. Fold up all the corners of the square, pull tight, and twist. 


Dip the polishing mop/pad into a small amount of French polish solution. Check that the pad is damp but not wet underneath. Remove any excess polish by dabbing it on paper. To lubricate the pad add a drop of linseed oil. 


Apply the polish to the surface in circular motions, applying even pressure. Start from the centre of the surface and work outward. You need to move quite quickly and not let the pad rest on the surface as it will stick. Once fully covered, sweep in straight strokes with the grain across the whole surface. 


Allow the first coat to dry completely, which usually takes several hours. Be patient and avoid touching or disturbing the surface.


Step 6: Filling Dents, gouges and grain (if required)

Pick a shellac sick that is colour matched to the area of damage. Clean any dirt or loose material from the area. Melt the end of the stick with a flame and dab the flowing shellac into the depression. The shellac will harden extremely quickly and can be trimmed flush to the surface with a chisel and sanded smooth with fine abrasive paper. 


To achieve a glossier finish pores in the surface will need to be filled in. The easiest way to do this is to use fine pumice powder. Sprinkle pumice powder sparingly over the surface. Use a polishing pad/mop charged with thinned shellac (e.g. one part to four parts methylated spirits) to work over the surface in small circular motions. Wipe off the excess pumice with a dry cloth or brush, and lightly wipe over with a damp (with methylated spirits) cloth. Repeat until the surface is smooth to your point of satisfaction. 


Step 5: Building Up Layers

Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with fine abrasive paper to remove any imperfections or roughness. 


Apply subsequent coats of French polish using the same circular motion. Aim for thin and even layers, ensuring that each layer blends seamlessly with the previous one. Remember to recharge the polishing pad/mop before it starts to drag too much or stick. Repeat this process until you achieve the desired level of floss and depth. 


Allow each coat to dry thoroughly (roughly 20 minutes should be sufficient) before applying the next. Multiple coats are usually necessary to achieve the classic French polish finish. 


Step 7: Spiriting Off, Polishing and Buffing

After the final coat has dried, finish the gloss surface by ‘spiriting off’ to remove all traces of the linseed oil. Use a new polishing pad charged with just methylated spirits to lightly pass it along the grain of the surface. Repeat a few times, using a new area of the outer cloth. Allow the spirits to evaporate off.


Use a soft lint-free cloth to gently buff the surface creating a high gloss. Continue buffing until you achieve the desired level of shine and smoothness. Remember to work carefully and avoid excessive pressure as this can heat the surface and cause the polish to stick or smudge.


Step 8: Maintenance

French polish is a delicate finish, so it is essential to handle the polish surface with care. Avoid placing hot or wet objects directly on the surface to prevent damage. Regularly dust and clean the surface using a soft, dry cloth.


French polishing can be a rewarding and satisfying endeavour for those who are passionate about woodworking and have the patience to master the technique. While it may require practice and experimentation, achieving professional-level results at home is possible with the right tools, materials and techniques. 


However, if you have valuable or antique pieces that require restoration or extensive polishing, it may be wise to consult a professional with experience in French polishing to ensure the best outcome. 


Remember, the key to successful French polishing lies in practising the technique, paying attention to detail, and having the patience to build up layers of shellac gradually. With dedication and care, you can transform your wooden surfaces into beautifully polished works of art right in the comfort of your own home.