French Polishing is the hand application of shellac as a top coat for fine antique furniture. Shellac is a natural insect resin that is farmed from the Lac bug from Indonesia. Shellac itself has many other uses including coatings for candies and even the outer coverings of orally prescribed pharmaceutical drugs. The technique of French Polishing was used traditionally from the 1820’s to 1940’s until the introduction of synthetic lacquers took over. This lost art has a myriad of uses however for the trained finisher and restoration artist.
A traditional French Polish consists of dozens of layers of melted shellac applied by hand.
As the layering progresses a rich amber high gloss brings out the natural deep luster of wood grain, color, figure, and chatouyance. Alone a French polish is an exquisite finish that can’t be duplicated by any synthetic chemical means or spray gun applications. However, it is a labor intensive finish that takes days to complete by a highly trained artisan. In my case, I trained extensively for two to three years before learning how to manipulate its viscosity and application correctly to achieve a close to mirror finish.
The payoff for learning this arcane finishing technique is that an artisan can create an authentic antique finish, preserve historically significant finishes without removing them, and repair any damaged layers to pieces. Shellac is also used to create custom color matches using pigments to replicate stains, and top coat toning using dyes. Shellac also seals wood between coats to wonderfully control the application of color. By itself, a shellac finish is incredibly stable and can be found on period pieces hundreds of years old.
For an example of French Polish, please review this case study of this Tiger Maple Bench.