French Polishing


Filling the wood grain.

Before you start, you may have to fill the grain of the wood, especially if the old polished surface has been stripped off. Most woods are pitted and porous, this varies with the different types. Some woods like maple, are tight grained, where as oak is quite open. If left untreated the polish will sink into the pores and cavities and the final surface will be uneven.

When applying the fillers, use one that matches the colour of the wood. First spread it over against the grain. Wipe off the filler leaving only the remains left in the pores and cavities, leaving the surface even. Give a light sanding using fine sandpaper to get a smooth surface.

Making a Rubber

Stages 1 to 8 show how to make a 'rubber' - a pad of cotton wool or wadding wrapped in a 8" to 12" square of cotton sheet.

Follow the diagram through the different stages until you end up with a firm pad ready to charge with French polish.

When charging the pad or rubber, unfold and pour the polish directly onto cotton wool. Never dip it into the solution or pour directly on to the bottom or sole.

Reform the cloth and make it into a tight pad as shown in stage 7.
Making a French Polishing Rubber


Although this is fairly straight forward, it will need some practice before becoming proficient. Start on a small surface first, perhaps a small occasional tabletop.

Have your rubber ready, as described in the diagram above. When finished you can keep the used rubber in an airtight container like a lidded jam jar, for use another time. There are various colours in French Polish that you can use, the standard one gives a medium brown polish. If you don't want to darken the wood further then use a light or clear polish or button polish.

There are 3 basic operations when polishing:
  • 1. Bodying in.
  • 2. Building up.
  • 3. Spiriting out.
Before starting, remove all knobs and handles so that you have a clear surface to work in long sweeps when applying the polish. Work in a dust free room that is warm so that the polish dries quickly. A cold damp room will result in a poor finish that will smear and become dull.

This entails laying a fairly lavish amount of polish over the new surface, so that a skin is formed. Open out your rubber and pour some polish into the inside of the pad, so that the polish oozes out when squeezed. Work quickly as it soon dries.

Bodying in.

Gather up the corners of the rubber and rub along the surface. First across the grain as the polish gently oozes from the pad, cover the whole surface until nothing is missed. Watch the corners! Change to a circular movement, then to a figure of eight until the rubber is exhausted of polish and the surface begins to shine.

    Rubber Directions:
A shine at this stage is not what you want. What you want is body. Recharge your rubber with polish and continue with your circles and figures of eight. Being careful not to get ridges in the polish when it dries. Apply the next coat when the last is touch dry, otherwise you will lift the previous coat if still tacky.

Continue this procedure until a number of coats have been applied. This is bodying-up and will give you the firm finish to build on for the next stage. Leave now until the following day when it will it has dried hard, leave in a warm dust free room. It can be left until you have the time to continue with the next coating.

Before starting rub a pad of fine steel wool over the surface to smooth out any pinpoints. Wipe clean with a duster. Apply the polish lightly this time with the grain and then against, then in circles and figures of eight as before. Don't forget the corners. If the rubber sticks a little put two or three drops of linseed oil onto the outside of the rubbers polishing surface, it should now float over smoothly. Continue doing this until the surface has an even depth, Then leave for 24 hours. Remember the more even coats applied the better the finish will become.

Again run over the surface with steel wool 0000 grade and wipe away any dust.


Moisten inside with polish, not as much as last time as you just want a skin applied now. Add a few drops of linseed oil onto the surface of the rubber as before. Apply a thin coat, if it starts to stick, apply a little more polish inside your rubber and a few drops of linseed oil to outside of the pad. The finish you are making should still be dull. If it is shiny you are putting too much polish on.

To avoid marks slide the rubber from the side and lift off at the other end at the edge. Don't lift off in the middle, always the edge. Continue until the surface is smooth and deep and looks good. Except one thing it is smeary. Leave it now for at least 5 or 6 hours.

Spiriting out

This last stage gives you the final finish.

Make a new rubber as before and damp it down with methylated spirits and leave it in an airtight jar for 15 minutes, so that the spirit permeates evenly.

Afterwards, wipe the surface with the new rubber and the smears will disappear. Finally with a clean cloth burnish the whole surface using some pressure.

Be careful not to use too much spirit, as this will dissolve away too much polish. Leave for 2 or 3 days until completely dry.

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