French polishing is a process of wood finishing by means of which a highly smooth, glossy surface is imparted to furniture and decorative wood-work. This finish not only gives beauty to an otherwise dull surface, but also preserves and protects the wood itself. The satin-smooth surface of polished furniture is attractive to the eye and to the touch, and as the french polisher is the last in the production line to handle an article before being manufactured, on his skill and judgement depends much of its ultimate appeal.
The process of wood finishing has undergone many changes since the first attempts to improve the finished appearance of cabinetwork. In the beginning, the wood worker finished his own cabinets, usually by rubbing repeatedly with compositions of linseed oil and wax and turpentine. As the practical value of vegetable dyes for stains, and of gums for glazes and protective purposes, became more widely known, wood finishing became a specialist’s job, and was gradually taken out of the hands of the cabinet-maker.
Early in the 18th Century a finishing process, involving the application of a solution of shellac in alcohol with the aid of a pad or “rubber”, was introduced. The French are credited with the introduction of this method, and it became known as “French polishing”. Although various modifications of the original method subsequently took place, the name was retained, and is now accepted as referring generally to wood finishing in cabinetwork.
During the 19th Century, and in the early part of this century, French polishers did not have industrial chemists to assist them in the preparation of materials. By trial and error they were obliged to develop knowledge of the properties of the materials that were available to them. Each tradesman had to be capable of producing a complete finish himself, and so each developed formulae and methods of application best suited to his own particular type of work. It is generally conceded that they were masters of their craft; and their individual skills have never been surpassed.
Since about 1920, revolutionary changes have occurred in the materials and methods used by trades devoted to the finishing of metal and wood surfaces. These have been brought about by the development of industrial chemistry, particularly that of the nitrocellulose lacquers, and the use of spray equipment for applying them. The chemist has progressively offered new, and in most cases, better materials. Many polishers, who jealously sought to protect their own peculiar trade knowledge and skill from this new mechanical method at first passively resisted the introduction of the spray application of nitrocellulose lacquers. This resistance was followed by an over-concentration on spray finishing, as the merits of that process became known. However, experience has shown that while the spray process has a definite place in industry it has not, and will not supersede Frensh polishing as a means of wood finishing.
Have a look at the french polishing classes for details.
If you are interested in learning this fine art, email Neville to find out about courses that are available.
The book, French Polishing by Neville Beechey, can be purchased for AUD $29.95 (plus $6.45 shipping) email Neville.
Neville Beechey PO Box 275 Colac 3250 Victoria Australia