An Insight into Waxing and French Polishing

Waxing and French polishing are restricted in their use today to small craft studios. Sourcing of materials for traditional practices is more difficult, but still possible, and using these techniques on simple projects is a welcome and challenging alternative to mass-produced finishes.

Completing any joinery project about the house will cause you to consider a choice of decorative and protective finishes, although experienced craftspeople may well have pre-selected a finish and therefore sourced a wood accordingly. Wood finishes on simple shelving and panelling jobs can vary from straightforward clear varnishes, entailing minimal effort; to more time-consuming decorative effects. Many of these can be produced using modern paints and varnishes in a variety of combinations, and all materials can be found in high street stores. While this has the advantage of convenience, it gives no historical perspective to colours and finishes painstakingly crafted by hand in days gone by.

Waxing Furniture

Waxing Furniture
Waxing Furniture

This was once a very popular finish. Waxing protects the wood but slightly darkens the surface of the wood, and the oils in the wax stop the wood from becoming dry. A rise in popularity of French polishing sent waxing into decline, but today the versatility of this finish is recognised; and clear, neutral, white and coloured waxes can be found in art suppliers and hardware shops. Original waxes were easy to apply and gave a lustrous finish not dissimilar to eggshells; today’s waxes contain a colour that can be worked carefully into the wood grain and slowly polished off the relief surface. White wax, for example, worked into the raised grains of rich coloured wood with steel wool, giving a limed finish.

French Polishing

French Polishing
French Polishing

This is a considerably more difficult application than waxing and although it is a finish which is popular among traditional craftspeople, particularly on bespoke furniture, it is rarely seen elsewhere. Second-hand furniture pieces inherited or sourced from antique shops may be finished in this way and it may be of interest to know a little about the basic technique for restoration purposes or even as a matching finish for a bookshelf or bookcase project. French polishing will seal and fill in the wood grain, stabilizing the surface and resulting in an easy-to-clean hardwearing finish. Kits are available from specialist suppliers.

The pluses of French Polishing are multiple as it is durable, easy to maintain, flexible (so it resists scratches, cracks and wear-and-tear) and non-toxic. It also has some cons as it is not heat, humidity and alcohol-friendly.

DIY Project –How to Do French Polishing?

Things Required for French Polishing

Things Required for French Polishing
Things Required for French Polishing

The following things are required for French polishing-

  • Ball of Lint-Free Wadding
  • Cotton Cloth or Rag
  • Fine Glasspaper
  • French Polish
  • Linseed Oil
  • Methylated Spirit

French Polishing – Step-by-step Process

Surface Preparation for French Polishing
Surface Preparation for French Polishing
  1. Sand the item to be French polished with fine abrasive paper to ensure a smooth surface.
  2. Prepare the surface by fading, applying a thin continuous film of polish to seal it.
  3. To make a rubber, you need a ball of wadding and a square of clean, lint-free cotton cloth. Place the wadding in the centre and fold over the top two corners to form a point.
  4. Gather the rest of the cloth, so the reverse shape looks like a pear. The pointed end will reach into corners as you polish.
  5. Apply polish with the rubber by working with the grain.
  6. Finish off by bodying up and applying polish with small circular motions.

Polishing a Surface

Polishing a Surface
Polishing a Surface

French polishing involves layering thin films of shellac onto a wood surface. It is difficult to master, so practice first on a piece of hardwood.

Sand the surface smooth with fine glasspaper, and remove the dust. Form a key between wood surface and polish by ‘fadding’ (the fad is a folded piece of lint-free wadding dipped in polish), covering the surface with a thin film of polish.

 Allow the surface to dry completely and then sand down with fine glasspaper again, removing dust. Then apply polish with a rubber over the surface, working with the grain. A ‘rubber’ is used instead of a brush to keep the surface as flat as possible. It is made from lint-free wadding wrapped in a square of cotton rag.

Place the wadding in the centre of the rag and fold over the two top corners. Fold over the rest of the rag into a ball shape and shape the top point so that the reverse side is pear-shaped.

Open the rag and pour French polish onto the wadding until it is fully ‘charged’, refold and gather the rag, squeezing polish through to the rag face in the process.

Apply polish by passing the rubber over the wood surface, from end-to-end, with the grain squeezing the rag ends so that polish comes through, in a continuous moist film. Slide the rubber on and off the surface, making sure the polish runs all join up. Wait until the polish is dry before applying a second coat. After three coats, allow to dry and lightly sand down.

Finish bodying-up by polishing in small circles over the surface. If the rubber starts to stick to the polished surface as you work, use a little linseed oil to lubricate the rubber face. As the shine begins to appear, the bodying-up process is over, and the surface needs to dry overnight. Lightly sand the surface and again remove any dust. There are various types of linseed oils used in paints and varnishes. Click on the below link to know about them-

Finish by applying polish in the same way, using long gliding strokes with the grain, exerting less pressure each time, and allowing the surface to dry for about half an hour. Now add a little methylated spirit to the rubber, diluting the polish that is left, and pass lightly and quickly over the finished surface, removing any traces of linseed oil that may remain.

Make sure the finishing rubber is not too wet, glide on and off the surface as before and don’t stop the stroke on the surface, as this will ruin the finish.

An Interesting Fact

French polish is a common finish on quality period furniture. It produces a hard, glossy finish that allows the beauty of the grain to shine through, but it requires skill to apply it properly.

Enjoy your DIY French Polishing Project and do share your experiences with Gharpedia Team!

And as a DIY lover, you must visit the Gharpedia Exclusive DIY category, where you will find amazing and different types of DIY projects for your home…

Image Courtesy: Image 2, Image 4, Image 6

Author Bio

Huta Raval – An English Literature and Journalism Topper, Huta Raval has graduated from the L D Arts College, Ahmedabad. Post serving for 23 years in the NBFC and Public Library Sectors her desire for ‘writing the unwritten’ brought her to the creative field of content writing. Her clientele comprises of NGOs, Blogging Platforms, Newspapers, Academic Institutions, et al.

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