First and foremost French Polishing is a trade, not a particular finish. There was a time when French Polishing was tied to applying the Shellac based wood finish, French polish, to timber but with so many different types of finishes made available, in recent years, it has come to mean something much broader. The trade of French polishing is now a term for wood finishing in general, this, of course, includes finishing with French Polish but it also includes oiling, waxing and sometimes Lacquering and varnishing. Surrounding these finishes, it involves treating timber to achieve different effects such as staining timber different colours, bleaching wood to make it lighter and colouring & tinting to even the colour of timber. There is also the repairing of damaged timber and finishes; this might be a scratch on a door, heat marks on a table, or a dull finish on a wooden floor.
French Polishing has become a very broad term and each French Polisher has their own approach to wood-finishing (see the paleamber approach), some are primarily sprayers who use spray lacquers and varnishes, some concentrate solely on wooden flooring. Whatever area we choose, at the heart of the trade, there should be one key aim and that is to make each timber, be it veneer or solid, look it’s absolute best. French Polishing is about exposing the true beauty of the timber. Not only is it about the look and feel of the timber, it’s also about catering for the practical use of each individual item to be finished; the best finish might well be French Polish and that is always our preference but in some instances it could equally be oil or wax for a natural look or lacquer for something that needs to be very hard wearing, maybe even a varnish for outside timber. Each project requires understanding of how the timber will be used, where it will be situated (in areas of moisture, strong sunlight) and what look is to be achieved. Sometimes, when one finish is not appropriate, we can even use multiple finishes side by side to achieve a long lasting and great looking finish. As an example the Oak staircase in the right hand picture has been finished with three different types of finish, French Polishing on the handrail and newel posts (brings out the fantastic figure of the rich Oak and feels great to touch), AC Lacquer for the top of the stringers and sections that touch the floor (these will get kicked over time so need to be very hard) and finally water borne Lacquer for the staircase treads (provides non slip and waterproof protection). Each finish has there own properties and uses and if used carefully and correctly can be used side by side to produce a fantastic result.
The trade requires a real understanding of each unique timber and how stains and finishes affect each type. It also involves a good understanding of furniture and other timber constructions (doors, staircases, floors, etc.) as a finish will make or break the look of any piece. We would never, for instance, use Lacquer or varnish on an antique piece of furniture as they are modern finishes and would ruin the piece. We might use Oil or Lacquer on a bathroom surface where French polish would not be appropriate (see Finishes for Bathroom and Kitchen Timber).
A very important point is that we keep French Polishing as a name for our trade and have not simply started to call it Wood Finishing. It’s important because above all finishes we will always chose French Polish and for good reason. Our trade has a long history and the techniques and materials have been perfected over hundreds of years, producing the best possible way of applying the finest finish available. More about this in our next post Why Use French Polish?