We apply the term french polisher to describe craftsmen who are skilled in the art of finishing furniture. It is a generic term, as a french polisher will have a broad and wide ranging base of knowledge for achieving the exact finish for a particular piece of furniture.
French polishing as it was told to me as an apprentice was an adaptation of a process developed in France in the early 1700’s, ‘Vernis Martin’ or Martins Varnish (said with a slight Devonian accent I find is best). The invention of the four brothers Martin, they were granted a four year monopoly on their secret recipe which French cabinet makers of the time tried to imitate. The result of this alchemy over the following decades and in to the early 1800’s developed in to what we now know as French Polish.
The application of French Polish is quite an art and still holds a large element of mystery to many. It is a skill that is impossible to master without the apprentice succumbing to many very frustrating months of ‘hands on’ polishing and in my case being told to “Wash it off and do it again!” So for those that have never attempted it, and the many who think it is just a case of applying a number of ‘coats’ of shellac varnish with fine sanding between applications resulting in a piano like finish, believe me it is nowhere near as simple as this. Although not wishing to contradict myself it is a way of ending up with a passable finish.
Now I’m not going to waffle on in great detail about the process’s of polishing but a little knowledge will help... The primary ingredient of French Polish is shellac. A tiny female Lac beetle secretes this amber coloured waxy resin as it gorges on the sap of trees. Found in India and Thailand this insect is farmed for its protective covering of shellac but only after it has finished its life cycle. You see, we are very ‘green’. The flake shellac is then dissolved into a solution by adding industrial alcohol/methylated spirits. The French Polisher would apply this to his chosen piece by the use of a carefully folded ‘fad’ which is a large palm sized piece of cotton wadding which has been soaked or ‘charged’ with polish and meths. Similarly a Beautician would apply it to your finger nails for a small fortune!
Directly applied to the surface, the fad under controlled pressure releases the polish and in a short amount of time your once dull piece of wood will come to life and glow with a slow build up of shellac. Once dried the polish is lightly sanded, the French Polisher then can adjust the colour of the finish by carefully applying diluted spirit stains, again in the same manner as applying the polish with a ‘colour fad’. The next major process is the use of a ‘Rubber.’ A 7-9 inch square piece of pure cotton sheet is again skilfully folded around the freshly charged fad and applied to the surface with great care. The polisher really has to know his stuff now and with the use of polishing oils and effort; a beautiful glass like finish will be achieved on to which a variety of further dulling and waxing techniques can be applied.
There are many different variations of French Polish and the French Polisher has to have large variety of skills under his belt/apron but essentially they are all based around the same core processes. French Polish is a natural organic product and takes time to harden off, so if you are planning to have something polished or re-polished for whatever reason, please bear in mind it can take up to 4 or more weeks to harden off.
Check out our comprehensive step-by-step guide called How To French Polish which is also accompanied with an instructional video.