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French Polish Furniture Finish

The Martha Stewart Show, January 2011

French polish is a furniture-finishing technique that gives wood surfaces a glossy, luxurious sheen. The process is time-intensive, but antique restoration specialist Christophe Pourny says it's well worth the effort to achieve that one-of-a-kind shine.

French polishing involves layering liquid shellac -- insect resin dissolved in alcohol -- over the wood surface in many thin coats. Shellac is applied with a soft rubbing cloth in a figure-eight motion, which slowly fills in the pores of the grain.

If you want to shine up a piece of furniture with a French polish finish, first test that the finish is truly French polish: Squirt a bit of denatured alcohol onto your finger and rub the side of the piece. If it dulls, it is French polish; if it doesn't, it's polyurethane.

Christophe shares a simple, step-by-step French polish process that anyone can do.

Tools and Materials

  • Container
  • Shellac flakes
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Rubber gloves
  • Linen cloth
  • T-shirt scraps
  • Ground pumice stone
  • Canvas or other heavy cotton cloth
  • Unwoven cotton mesh or old sweater wool
  • Baby oil
  • Steel wool (optional)

French Polish How-To
1. Fill a container with desired amount of shellac flakes. Add denatured alcohol until flakes are completely submerged. Set aside overnight to allow flakes to totally dissolve.

2. Protect hands with rubber gloves. Apply a very thin layer of shellac to wood with a piece of linen cloth. Shellac will dry immediately.

3. Make a dusting pouch by filling a small scrap of T-shirt with ground pumice stone. Tap this pouch on the wood, sprinkling the entire surface with pumice.

4. Make a buffing pad by filling a square of canvas (or other heavy cotton cloth) with cotton mesh (or old sweater wool) and tightly bunching the ends together. Dampen pad with a little denatured alcohol.

5. Using a figure-eight motion, work pumice into the grain of the wood. Repeat sprinkling the ground pumice stone and buffing with the alcohol-dampened pad until the wood takes on an obvious shine and smoothness.

6. Make another pad by filling a T-shirt scrap with cotton mesh and bunching tightly. Dampen the pad with shellac and tap on base of palm of hand to evenly distribute shellac on pad. Apply shellac to wood in a circular motion, keeping the pad moving to avoid spots or splotchiness on the wood.

7. When pad starts to stick, carefully lift off the surface of the wood and apply one drop of baby oil to the pad and repeat the shellacking process.

8. Once the desired finish is achieved, remove oil and residue by applying 4 or 5 drops of denatured alcohol to one last clean pad (made with T-shirt material stuffed with cotton mesh) and, working from one end to the other, run pad over wood, just skimming the surface.

9. If shellac is removed or finish is marred by the alcohol or uneven shellacking, simply sand the surface of the wood with a piece of steel wool and build up finish again using T-shirt pad and shellac.

Shellac available at Woodworker's Supply and art supply stores. Ground pumice available at art supply stores such as Pearl Paint and Da Vinci Artist Supply. Cotton mesh (cheesecloth) and denatured alcohol available at The Home Depot.

Comments (4)

  • 12 Dec, 2013

    This is a very high level description useful to help the potential patron understand the basic process. But for the would be practitioner, the late George Frank's "Classic Wood Finishing" gives in-depth instructions. It should be understood that every polisher develops his/her own technique based on the wood species, workpiece to be polished, and even temperature/humidity . To answer an earlier comment, 4f pumice is the correct granulation - available at any hardware or big box store. Enjoy!

  • 12 Dec, 2013

    One of the (many) beauties of French Polishing is that it can applied to both old and new work as the shellac-based polish adheres to just about any clean, dry surface. It's also one of the more forgiving finishes. Mistakes can generally be corrected with a rubber lightly dampened with alcohol.

  • 27 Jan, 2011

    I went to DaVinci Artist supply and the pumice they have is Gold leaf pumice powder. Is that the correct product? I want to add this finish to an antique table, but I am a bit nervous about using the pumice.

  • 24 Jan, 2011

    Thank you for having this segment in your show. I am very interested in wood finishing and I'd love to try this technique for my next project. Could you please add more information/details on how much time is needed between each step? It seems that the whole process takes about 2 weeks. Also, I assume this method is used on unfinished wood only? I'd appreciate it very much.