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French Polishing Oak Lawn IL

What is French polish? It’s simply shellac and a little oil applied with a pad. The oil acts as a lubricant when you apply the finish. French polish is available as commercially made products, also labeled as padding lacquer or friction polish.

The Home Depot
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Chicago Ridge, IL
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French Polishing

French Polishing

Six Easy Steps to a Beautiful Finish

by Alan Lacer

French polish adds extraordinary depth to gorgeous wood. This finish is perfect for bowls, vessels, lamps and other turnings that aren’t handled often or are exposed to moisture, alcohol or heat. It’s easy to apply: Just hold a cloth moistened with the finish directly to your project as it spins on the lathe. 

What is French polish? It’s simply shellac and a little oil applied with a pad. The oil acts as a lubricant when you apply the finish. French polish is available as commercially made products, also labeled as padding lacquer or friction polish, but I prefer to make my own from flakes, which guarantees freshness. You can achieve a variety of effects because shellac is available in a range of colors (see “Buying Shellac,” below). Here’s how you can mix your own French polish, choose different colors, apply it and rub it out. 

Sand with Fine Grits

Thoroughly sand all surfaces of your project to eliminate torn grain, spirals and ridges. Start with 120-grit and progress through 150-, 180- and 220-grit sandpaper (Photo 1). If sanding scratches still show, continue with 320- or 400-grit sandpaper. Maple and cherry often require these finer grits. After sanding, remove the dust using an alcohol-moistened paper towel.

Photo 1: Sand your piece to eliminate flaws and sanding rings. Remove sanding dust using a paper towel moistened with denatured alcohol held against the workpiece while it’s spinning.

Mix the French Polish

You can use shellac flakes or premixed liquid shellac to make French polish. Either way, your goal is to make a 1-1/2-lb. cut, which is the equivalent of mixing 1-1/2 lbs. of flakes with 1 gal. of denatured alcohol. That’s far too much finish for most projects, however. If you use flakes, dissolve 1-1/2 oz. of flakes with 1 cup of denatured alcohol. Premixed liquid shellac comes in a 3-lb. cut. To make approximately a 1-1/2 lb. cut, thin it with an equal amount of denatured alcohol.

The final ingredient of French polish is an oil, which acts a lubricant to prevent your applicator cloth from dragging or sticking. Add 1 tablespoon of mineral oil for every 3 liquid oz. of 1-1/2-lb.-cut shellac (Photo 2).

Photo 2: French polish is a mixture of shellac and oil. Little oil is needed; it acts as a lubricant for the shellac.

Apply the Finish

Adjust your lathe to run at a moderate speed, about 500 to 800 rpm, slower for large-diameter turnings. Make an applicator for applying the French polish from a densely woven, soft, white cotton cloth that has been washed many times to remove all lint. Soften the pad with alcohol before dipping it into the French polish.

Shake the French polish to suspend the oil, as though it were an oil-and-vinegar salad dressing. Turn on the lathe, saturate the cloth pad and flow on the finish (Photo 3). If the cloth grabs, add a half teaspoon of oil. Let thi...

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