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Not-So-French Polishing

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Not-So-French Polishing

A new twist on an old method of applying shellac.

By Richard Tendick

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You’ve spent weeks, or months producing that perfect table from a very special wood, and now it’s time to apply the finish. What do you reach for? If it’s durability you’re after, use poly. But if beauty is more important, I’d recommend shellac.

Lacquer can yield equally stunning results, but it’s best applied by spraying. Spraying requires specialized equipment and a lot of cleanup with strong solvents. It may not even be legal in states with tough air-quality standards. Shellac is far simpler. All you need is a good brush to apply it and denatured alcohol for cleaning up.

Traditionally, shellac was applied by a process known as French polishing. In this technique, you use a cloth pad to apply dozens of very thin layers of shellac, without sanding between coats. You achieve a high-gloss finish by gradually thinning the shellac. It’s very low-tech, but no matter how well you master the technique—and that can take a while—it’s a time-consuming process.

Today, using a synthetic brush, it’s possible to achieve that same build much faster, also without sanding between coats. You achieve the final look—satin or gloss—by using modern abrasives. It’s still a shellac finish, but I call it Not-So-French polishing.


1. Prepare the surface by sanding up to 220 grit with an orbital sander. Make sure the surface is free of mill marks and scratchs by examining it under a raking light.

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4. Apply the shellac using a high-quality brush to minimize ridges. This brush–my favorite type– has Taklon bristles.


6. Sand with very fine wet/dry paper, using mineral spirits as a lubricant.


8. Use automobile polish to obtain a higher gloss. You can also use steel wool and wax to create a satin finish.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October/November 2010, issue #150.

October/November 2010, issue #150

Purchase this back issue.

Purchase the complete version of this woodworking technique story from AWBookstore.com.