How to French Polish Wood

Updated February 21, 2017

French polishing is a technique used to finish wood. The wood finish results in a deep wood colour with a high gloss surface. French polishing consists of coating wood with a shellac solution that's been dissolved in alcohol. The solution is placed on the wood using a rag instead of a brush. After the wood polish is applied, the alcohol evaporates during the drying process, leaving behind only the shiny shellac coating. French polish can be used on all light, medium and dark woods.

Prepare the wood surface for polishing by cleaning the wood. Place a small amount of white spirit in a bowl. Dip a piece of fine steel wool in the bowl, then rub it on the wood. Rub vigorously to remove dirt and imperfections from the wood. Allow the wood to air dry.

Purchase a French polishing kit. The kit contains premixed shellac and burnishing liquid. Although you can mix the shellac at home, it's extremely important that the mixture is made correctly and, unless you have previous experience mixing or working with shellac, you're better off buying the kit.

Lay the wood to be stained over newspaper or a paint cover to protect the surface under the wood.

Pour the shellac into a bowl or container. Dip a paintbrush into the shellac. Paint the shellac into the wood in long, even strokes. Apply one layer of shellac.

Allow the shellac to dry for 30 minutes. While waiting, place a piece of plastic or paper over the bowl of shellac to keep it from drying out.

Apply a second layer of shellac. Follow the directions in Step 4. Allow the shellac to dry for one hour.

Rub a sheet of silicon carbide sandpaper lightly over the shellac layer by hand. Lightly sand the entire surface.

Soak a 12-by-12-inch square of white cotton fabric in denatured alcohol. Wring the cloth to remove excess moisture.

Soak a small piece of cotton wool in the shellac. Place the bit of cotton wool inside the white cotton fabric. Bring the four corners together and twist them, so the cotton wool creates a ball inside the white cotton fabric.

Press the ball on the wood. Press hard enough so the shellac drips out of the cotton wool, through the fabric and onto the wood. Coat the wood with a thin layer of shellac using this fabric. Work in a small circular motion until the surface has been coated. If you feel your applicator drying out, open it up and resoak the cotton wool in shellac. Apply three to five layers of shellac, depending on your preference.

Allow the shellac surface to dry for at least 12 hours.

Pour the burnishing liquid in a small bowl. Dip a cotton rag in the mixture. Rub the rag using plenty of force or pressure to work it into the wood, following the wood grain. Continue until the wood is coated in the burnishing liquid.

Use a clean cloth to buff or polish the wood in a circular motion.

Things You'll Need

  • White spirit
  • Fine steel wool
  • Newspaper or paint dropcloth
  • French polish wood kit
  • Paintbrush
  • White cotton fabric
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Silicon carbide sandpaper
  • Cotton wool
  • Cotton rag
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About the Author

Kallie Johnson began her writing career in 2009, contributing to various online publications. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She enjoys writing home and garden topics and considers herself an expert on do-it-yourself home improvement topics.