A love for the French

A look at the mercurial art of french polishing

May 1, 2024

Noble traditions

In a world of mass production and rapidly changing trends, there’s something inherently captivating about the old art of French polishing. This period finishing technique is steeped in tradition and artisanal skill and has graced some of the most exquisite furniture pieces throughout history. But it’s not just the past that makes French polishing intriguing; it’s the beauty and craftsmanship it brings to the present and the promise of a timeless legacy it holds for the future.

Artichoke period finishing

At Artichoke, we take pride in our craftsmanship and dedication to the art of architectural joinery. Our team of skilled artisans and joiners is committed to creating bespoke solutions that stand the test of time. While we’re known for our exceptional attention to detail and the ability to enhance traditional materials, we specialise in offering a unique touch to entire projects. One such area is period polishing and more specifically the art of French polishing. For more on the Art of Artichoke finishing – read our other notebook entry here.

An elegant interior featuring a large wooden double door with paneled details, set in a matching wood-paneled wall. two wall lamps are mounted beside the door, illuminating the space.

Bringing out the beauty of the wood

Until Elizabethan times most furniture was either painted or left bare. When walnut came into use, and later mahogany, however, a clear finish was needed to show off the beauty of the wood. 

Walnut has a natural oil and, when the wood is heated and rubbed vigorously, it takes on a lovely brown sheen. For wood without this natural oil, several coats of linseed oil were applied, and then the surface was burnished, to darken the wood and bring out its natural grain.

Colour was given by adding red lead, ochres, or alkanet root in the first coat of oil. Beeswax was a further improvement and sped up the oiling process, especially if a little copal varnish was added. A recipe for this polish was given by Sheraton:

“Take beeswax and turpentine in an earthenware pan, heat and stir together, add a little red lead and ochre to the desired colour, take off the fire and add a little Copal Varnish, mix well.”

A large wooden cabinet with glass doors filled with neatly organized kitchen items including jars of grains, spices, and condiments, reflecting a tidy, rustic kitchen setting.

French polishing – a more modern method

The modern method known as French polishing was introduced early in the 19th century, and used shell dissolved in spirits. This was applied in very thin coats laid on carefully with a pad of cotton wool (called a “rubber).

French polishing became so popular that much of the older, painted furniture was stripped of its paint so that this technique might be applied.

It provides surfaces with a high gloss shine that is second to none. It enhances the deep rich colours of the darker, fine-grained woods. Artichoke’s team of experts often performs the highest quality French polishing for our client’s projects.

The process

French polish is a liquid mixture of Shellac resin and alcohol. The mixture is applied using a polish mop or a pad of wadding wrapped in cotton called a Fad.

The first coat is applied with the grain of the wood using the polish mop; then sanded using a fine abrasive paper. A polish rubber is used to apply further Shellac coats very lightly either with the grain of the wood or in a figure of eight. Each layer is applied with slightly more pressure than the last.

The long-lasting and durable finish of French polish is created by layering the Shellac creating a perfectly flat film. This is also what creates the high shine and flawless finish.

Colours

There are a lot of different shades of French polish available, with custom colours created using powder spirit stains.

Button polish is a yellowish colour and gains its name from the large discs (buttons) that it is made from. Garnet is a brown polish; Orange is a golden brown and White and Transparent are both clear. However, white polish can give a milky appearance to some high-gloss work.

As a sustainable finish

Because of its use of natural ingredients and relatively low VOC emissions, French polishing can be considered a more eco-friendly finishing method compared to some synthetic alternatives. 

But its environmental impact varies depending on factors such as sourcing, application methods, and the need for regular maintenance and refinishing. At Artichoke we use sustainably sourced materials and minimise waste in our finishing process.

A wooden bookshelf embedded in a wall, filled with books, small potted plants, and decorative items. the shelves are backlit, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere.

In summary

French polishing requires more time and is a delicate process. Done well, it brings a beauty and depth to the wood unachievable by modern methods. Keeping these skills alive and applying them is one of the ways in which every Artichoke commission is a one-off. Every project designed, made and finished uniquely for our clients. For examples of how our finishing looks in situ, please do browse our Interiors pages for individual images and descriptions.