French polishing is one of my favourite DIY projects. I’m sure I’ve bored many people at parties (and those joining my restoration demos at ‘ladies nights’ at my favourite hardware store) by extolling the virtues of shellac. You may have a small piece of timber furniture you might like to try it on, or perhaps you have a piece that’s already been French polished but has seen better days and needs to be refreshed.
Shellac is easy to apply and dries quickly, so it won’t become laden with dust like slow-drying polyurethane. Best of all, it won’t stink your house out for days with the smell of strong solvents, and once dry it’s completely non-toxic. It comes in a range of natural shades.
You don’t have to do the full French polish involving hours of fine ‘skinning in’ using a shellac-soaked cotton pad to get a good effect— you can get a good finish easily by applying three coats of shellac with a good-quality brush. A few more coats will simply add to the lustre and the high shine French polish is famous for.
There are some very good premixed shellacs on the market, but I find the premixed stuff has a limited shelf life so I prefer to buy the flakes, which will last almost indefinitely, and mix my own as I need it.
WHAT YOU NEED
- shellac flakes and methylated spirits,* or premixed shellac
- furniture wax
- 400 grit wet and dry sandpaper and/or fine steel wool
- good-quality paintbrush
* Try to get industrial-grade metho if you can as it has a lower water content, which is important to help the shellac dissolve properly.
WHAT TO DO
- In a large clean glass or plastic jar, tip in 250 gm of shellac flakes and add 1 litre of methylated spirits. A rough rule of thumb is to half-fill the jar with the flakes and then add the liquid until the flakes are covered.
- Stir your mixture intermittently over a 24-hour period and you’ll have your fresh French polish mixture. Tip the mixture into a storage jar, preferably a dark-coloured plastic one. Filter it through some old stocking or a piece of cheesecloth to remove any impurities.
- Apply the shellac to the wood. Shellac can be applied with a special pad called a rubber (cotton wool covered in linen), especially if you’re trying to achieve a high-gloss finish, and it can also be sprayed on. For most projects, however, using a brush is the best way to start. It is by far the easiest way to use it, but the brushing technique does vary slightly from what you may be used to with ordinary polyurethane and water-based finishes. Don’t apply too much pressure; allow the mixture to flow from the tip of the brush and work in long, continuous strokes along the direction of the grain. Each new stroke should only overlap the edge of the last slightly, and once applied the polish should not be rebrushed. Specialty brushes are good because they hold a lot of the mixture and allow a lot of shellac to be applied before having to recharge the brush, though any natural fibre brush will also give you a good result.
- The shellac dries quite quickly, and between coats it’s important to give it a sand with 400 grit wet and dry sandpaper; you can use fine steel wool instead of sandpaper to cut back the detailed areas if you like.
- To shield the shellac finish from moisture and wear and tear, you can give the piece a coat of beeswax furniture polish applied with 0000 steel wool and buffed off with cheesecloth. The wax is a ‘sacrificial’ coating that will further protect and waterproof the finish below, so it’s important to reapply from time to time.