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Briwax French Polishes at Briwax-OnLine.com (Click Here)

French Polishing Technique

In the Victorian era, French Polish was used more than any other finish to impart a high gloss to furniture made from Mahogany and other fashionable wood of the day. Consequently, as a restorer you will almost certainly have to deal with the prospects of refinishing French Polish. Unfortunately, the sheer quality of a French-polished surface and the mystique that has surrounded the technique for generations have tended to make it a daunting process for the amateur. Traditional French Polishing does take practice to master, but the actual method of applying the polish are relatively straightforward. The key to a successful finish is not to rush the work, but build up a translucent film with a number of thin coats applied over several days.


Preparing for Polish

As with any finishing process, it is essential that the French-Polishing is carried out in a dust free environment, with good lighting. Ideally, one would always have a separate room for applying finishes rather than having to work in the main workshop, but this is a luxury most amateur restorers cannot afford. A more realistic approach is to keep the shop clean as possible and make sure you vacuum the workbench before you begin polishing, remembering to allow plenty of time for any dust to settle. Keep the room warm and dry, Damp conditions may cause milky "blooming" to develop as the polish dries. However, do not use a fan heater to warm the workshop, as this will disturb the dust again, portable Gas heaters release a large amount of moisture into the air so these are not suitable either. Prepare the surface of the wood thoroughly and apply any wood dyes prior to polishing. Although they are not essential, disposable gloves will keep your hands clean and protect your skin from solvents.


Types of French Polish

All French Polishes are made by dissolving Shellac in Methylated spirit or denatured alcohol, but there are several varieties to choose from. Standard French Polish is perfectly adequate for most jobs, but dark red-brown garment polish is some times preferred for restoring old mahogany furniture. Use milky white French polish or even transparent polishes for finishing pale colored woods. Most D.I.Y shops stock French Polishes, or you can obtain them from a specialist supplier.


Making a Rubber

French Polish is applied with a Rubber, A pad of upholsterers wadding or cotton wool wrapped in a 225 to 300 mm (9 to 12 inch) square of white cotton.

  • Folding the wadding, Tear off a 150 to 225 mm (6 to 9 inch) square of wadding and fold it in half. Fold in the corners of the rectangle to form a triangle.
  • Forming the pad. Fold in the outer corners of the triangle to make a pointed sausage-shaped pad with a smooth sole.
  • Placing the pad. Place the pad of wadding diagonally across the center of the cotton square.
  • Folding the cloth. fold one half of the cloth to cover the point of the pad.
  • Wrapping the pad. Wrap all the triangular corners of the cloth over the center in turn to form a neat package.
  • Twisting the Fabric. Gripping the wrapped pad in one hand, twist the loose fabric together to make a firm rubber.
  • Gripping the rubber. Fold the twisted ends of the cloth over the pad to fashion a hand grip, leaving a smooth, crease-free sole.


Charging the Rubber

At the beginning of the job, and each time the rubber begins to run dry, you should pour polish onto the wadding, Never dip the rubber into the French Polish, and do not pour it directly onto the sole.

Wetting the Pad Unfold the cloth and pour on enough polish to wet the pad without actually saturating the wadding. Refold the rubber and press it against a piece of scrap wood to squeeze out any surplus polish. Smear a drop of linseed oil or mineral oil onto the sole with your fingertip, this will lubricate the rubber.

  • Index

    Applying the Polish

    Polish distributed by stroking the rubber across the wood. You need very little pressure with freshly charged rubber, but as the work progresses , press harder to encourage the polish to flow. Sweep the rubber smoothly on and off the surface; never let the rubber come to rest while in contact with the work, or the sole will stick to the shellac. Recharging the rubber occasionally as it becomes dry, and add another drop of linseed oil or mineral oil if the sole begins to drag on the surface of the wood. Whenever it is not in use, store the rubber in a screw top air tight jar to prevent it from drying out and going hard. Begin by sealing the wood with a slightly thinned polish on a pad of wadding, using overlapping parallel strokes.

    1. Filling the grain with polish. The first few applications of full-strength polish are sufficient to fill close grain wood. Make overlapping circular strokes with the rubber until you have covered an entire panel to the edges.
    2. Distributing the polish evenly. Polish the same area again, this time using a figure of eight strokes, this combination of different strokes will distribute the French Polish evenly. Again make sure you work right to the edges of the panel.
    3. Finishing with parallel strokes. Finally go over the panel once more, now using straight and overlapping strokes. Leave this the first combination of strokes to dry for about half an hour, and then repeat the whole process three or four times.
    4. Rubbing out the blemishes Leave the polish to dry overnight, then lightly sand out any blemishes or dust particles that have become embedded in the surface. Use very fine ready lubricated silicon-carbide paper, rubbing along the grain only, and wiping off the dust with a clean duster.
    5. Bodying up. Give the wood another four or five coats of polish, with half hour breaks between applications, and then leave it to harden once more. Gradually build up a protective body of polish over three to four days, until you are satisfied with the overall color and appearance.
    6. Spiriting off Any linseed-oil or mineral oil streaks should be removed by "spiriting off". Dampen the pad with a few drops of meths, sweep the rubber on and off the surface using straight strokes, adding meths if the rubber begins to drag. Repeat the process every two or three minutes until streaking disappears, occasionally changing the cloth to help remove the oil.


    Gloss or Satin Finish

    After spiriting off, leave the surface to harden for half an hour and buff it to a high gloss with a dry duster. Put the work aside for about a week until the polish has completely finished the hardening process.

    1. Burnishing. If you are dissatisfied with the shine of the fully hardened polish you can buff it, using a proprietary burnishing cream or finish reviver.
    2. Flattening Some restorers prefer a slightly flattened finish to a high gloss. Cut back the surface slightly with 0000-grade wire wool dipped in wax polish. Rub lightly along the grain until the polish is matted evenly, then wipe over with a duster.


    French-Polishing Carved Wood

    It is not practical to polish carved work with a rubber. Instead, use a squirrel hair brush to paint slightly thinned shellac on to carving, not too thickly in case it runs. If you cannot buy a special brush, make do with a soft paintbrush. When the polish has hardened, spirit off the high points with a rubber and burnish with a duster. Do not rub too hard, or you will wear through the polish.


Brushing French Polish

The furniture industry invariably employed traditional French Polishing methods, but other trades would sometimes resort to a simpler method of applying shellac, brushing it onto the work. Special brushing French Polish contains a retarding agent that gives you enough time to paint it onto the wood: if you tried this with standard French polish, the surface would be covered with brush marks.

  1. Building a protective coat. Apply the first coat with a paintbrush, allow to dry for about 20 minutes, then rub down with silicon-carbide paper. Repeat the process twice more.
  2. Rubbing with wire wool. Applying soft wax polish to the now hardened shellac with a 0000-grade wire-wool pad. Rub fairly gently along the grain, making sure you cover the whole surface evenly.
  3. Finishing with a soft duster. Finally bring the polish to a shine by burnishing with a soft, clean duster.

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