How to Do French Polishing

Updated April 17, 2017

French polish has been an age-old technique for wood finishing since the turn of the 1800s. Its uses vary depending upon the piece, but French polish excels when it comes to classic clocks, musical instruments and other applications that require a fine, satin-smooth finish. Shellac remains the main ingredient in French polish, and the workpiece must be prepared in a certain way, as well as the actual application. French polish can be used as a standalone finish, or can be applied over an existing finish. Proper preparation and steps account for the quality of any French polish procedure.

Mix a fresh batch of your own shellac in a container. Use 1 pound of shellac flakes to 1 gallon of denatured alcohol to create enough solution for a large project. For smaller projects, mix 56.7gr of flake in a pint of denature alcohol. Seal the lid on the solution and let it dissolve over a 24-hour period.

Place your workpiece on a clean workbench. There should be no dust or debris in the immediate area. This process requires proper ventilation and a mild temperature -- not extremely hot or cold. Line the workbench with newsprint. Dampen some steel wool with furniture cleaner and clean the workpiece on all sides. Use cotton rags to wipe off all residue, and change them frequently. Cotton T-shirts work fine for this. Dry the piece with a rag to remove any cleaning fluid film.

Make a pad applicator by cutting out a 1-foot square section of cotton T-shirt fabric. Roll up a small ball of gauze and place it on the cotton section. Use an eyedropper to wet the gauze with your pre-mixed solution of shellac. Fold the ends of the cotton pad up and squeeze the gauze inside to saturate the cloth. Use an eye dropper to apply two drops of olive oil to the working end of the cotton pad.

Run the pad over the workpiece surface using sweeping motions. Make circles and figure-eight motions, applying a thin coat over the entire workpiece. Do not stop your application motion, since it will stain the molecules in the wood in one spot. Let the shellac dry for 3 minutes.

Open the cotton pad and add more shellac to the gauze. Squeeze out the excess. Place two more drops of olive oil on the pad, then rub the workpiece down again. Let the coat dry for 3 minutes. Apply four or five more coats in this fashion.

Sand the workpiece surface with 400 grit sandpaper. Follow up another sanding, using 800 grit sandpaper, to achieve a finer, smoother surface. Do not bear down hard on the surface, since you will remove shellac depth. Wipe the surface with a clean cotton rag or a professional tack cloth.

Fashion a new pad with cotton and gauze. Wet the gauze with shellac and squeeze it, but leave the gauze a little wetter than before. Apply two drops of olive oil on the pad with the eyedropper. Use your circular and figure-eight motions to apply the shellac over the entire workpiece surface. If the pad begins to drag, add a few more drops of olive oil to it.

Apply multiple coats of shellac. Change out your cotton pad after six to eight coats. As you progress with layer after layer, begin using more downward pressure on the pad. Apply dozens of coats to build up the shellac layer; you will begin to see a depth in the finish, almost a three-dimensional look. You can apply up to 100 coats, if you wish.

Store the piece in a place that has no dust or extreme temperature if the project lasts more than one day. This completes the "bodying" process. Let the piece dry for 24 hours or more.

Fashion a pad and gauze applicator, as you did before. For the "stiffening" process, leech the oil out of the shellac layers. Lightly wet the gauze with shellac and add six to eight drops of denatured alcohol. Do not add any oil to the pad this time. Rub the piece down with your circular and figure-eight motions, applying medium pressure. Let the piece dry for 2 to 3 hours.

Rub the workpiece down, using the stiffening process six to eight times. Let each session dry for 2 to 3 hours. Examine your finish under a bright light; looking at it from all angles. Use the stiffening process to remove any slight ridges or raised surface. Let the piece dry for 24 hours or more before handling. Dry-polish the workpiece with a clean cotton rag -- this will harden the surface and bring out a deep lustre.


You can use "rottenstone" as an abrasive powder to put a final finish on your workpiece, if you wish. Simply sprinkle rottenstone on the workpiece as you would salt. Use your cotton pad and a drop of olive oil to rub it into the surface. Be prepared to spend several days on a fairly large piece. Take your time. French polishing is extremely labour-intensive.


Wear a particle mask and gloves if you are sensitive to shellac fumes.

Things You'll Need

  • Shellac Flakes
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Mixing container with lid
  • Work bench
  • Newspaper
  • Steel wool (fine)
  • Furniture cleaner
  • Sandpaper (400 and 800-grit)
  • Cotton pads (old T-shirts)
  • Gauze
  • Olive oil
  • eyedropper
  • Tack cloth (cotton)
  • Rottenstone
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About the Author

Chris Stevenson has been writing since 1988. His automotive vocation has spanned more than 35 years and he authored the auto repair manual "Auto Repair Shams and Scams" in 1990. Stevenson holds a P.D.S Toyota certificate, ASE brake certification, Clean Air Act certification and a California smog license.