The popularity of French polishing has declined to the point where my daughter-in-law thought it was a term for swatting up on your French language skills, but most local Victorian and Edwardian housing stock would have been full of the stuff – what is it?
French polishing dates back to the 15th century and was used on wood with intrinsically beautiful graining, especially hardwoods like mahogany, to bring out the natural colour and beauty of timber. French polishing started to be widely practised early in the 18th century when the tools and techniques used today were refined by the French – hence the name French polishing.
The main ingredient of the polish is shellac, a resin secreted by the Lac beetle that lives on trees in India and Thailand. The resin flakes left on trees are collected and mixed with alcohol to make a liquid which is applied then to wood. This liquid is much thinner than varnish and is applied in many layers with a tool called a rubber. This is a pad made from soft cotton, similar to cotton wool, covered in a premium grade cotton material. The polish is added to the cotton pad inside the rubber and the cotton material placed on top. This simple tool, used correctly with a little oil as a lubricant, will work the shellac deep into the timber and through different techniques and hand motions will slowly build up a beautiful film of polish on the surface, with no brush or spray marks. Unfortunately this eco-friendly technique has its down side too; it melts at a relatively low temperature, which means a cup of tea on a table will leave a ring mark behind. On the plus side, unlike other wood finishes, these marks are easy to restore and blend in with the old, unspoilt surface.
Maybe we should give this technique another try – instead of sending our stained coffee tables and desks to a re-cycling establishment we should have a go at a bit of DIY French polishing. Let me know if you do.