Many people assume that the term French Polish/French Polishing refers to a material used in wood finishing but French Polishing is actually a technique. Using a fad/rubber (made up of a ball of wadding wrapped in fine cotton) many layers of shellac polish are applied in small circles and figures of eight to produce a rich coloured, high gloss finish. The rubber is lubricated using oil, this is to help the rubber flow over the surface and prevent the previously applied Shellac layers from lifting.
Shellac is a resin produced by the female Lac bug (Kerria Lacca), collected from the trees found in the dense forests of Thailand and India. Once the shellac is collected, it is processed into flakes, which when added to ethanol becomes liquid shellac. There are many different shellac finishes, not all are categorised as “French polish”. Records have been found, that reference the use of shellac from 3000 years ago, although the material was confined to the Far East until the early 1700, when traders introduced shellac in its natural state to Europe.
French Polishing became a dominant finishing process in the 19th Century throughout the Victorian era. During this time, French polishing was mainly used on expensive woods such as Mahogany. In the early part of the 20th century, French polishing was neglected due to the time constraints involved in mass production. Instead a new technique of spraying nitrocellulose lacquer was developed. Although spraying nitrocellulose lacquer is a quicker technique of furniture finishing, the surface is costly to repair when damaged. French polished surfaces enable the restorer to efficiently repair any damage and blend this into the original finish.
Today, a French Polisher covers many more aspects of wood finishing than just traditional French Polishing. Styles and trends determine the procedures and materials used in our modern world. The mass production of furniture, flooring, doors and all other forms of timber, means that many wood finishing trades have had to adapt.
French Polishing is now treated as a dying art. It is an art that few people have endeavoured to achieve and even fewer have mastered.