Maître Ébéniste ~ Master Cabinetmaker
|Miller's Pocket Dictionary of Antiques defines French Polishing as the "Process
of applying a solution of shellac to a timber surface leaving a high gloss
finish": This statement is obfuscation. Though it is true that many so-called
"French-Polishers" use shellac flakes in modern chemo-solvent solutions, they
demean the art that requires unadulterated lac, the effluvium of the lac
beetle. The once prestigious Fine Woodworking magazine published an article
(2002) by a self-declared English "master" who stated that he always rubbed the
wood with linseed oil before polishing! Linseed oil, with time, irreversibly
darkens wood. Conservators know all too well the damage that linseed oil can
inflict. Many books published in England and the United States that mention
French Polishing usually give incorrect information, even when writing in
"historical" detail. Most furniture historians writing in English attribute
the origins of French Polishing to 18th century France, some attributing it to
the Martin brothers. Though the Martin brothers developed pigmented lac
finishes known as vernis martin, a preparation in imitation of Chinese lacquer
preparations, they were not the originators of French Polishing. To date, no
writer in English has explained the presence of lac on a few rare furniture
examples dating from the Italian Renaissance.
London Joiners Ltd. practices the art of French Polishing by the traditional French method, using button lac, Siam seed lac, and their own preparations derived from sun-bleached seed lac. London Joiners Ltd. never use factory refined blond flakes (as do others; see Connoisseur, January 1990), or pre-mixed imitative preparations. Nor do we use any denatured or other alcohols that contain water or other substances. Another application technique known as Italian Lac Polishing, taught to the owner of London Joiners Ltd. W. Godziemba-Maliszewski by a Florentine master, is a method known to very few practitioners of lac polishing, the details of which cannot be divulged. The master who taught Godziemba-Maliszewski has sworn him to secrecy (see the Caramoor interview). Both methods were used in Paris in the 18th century where craftsmen from several nations worked to the French taste at the workshops of the great French ebenistes, and others, such as the legendary Alsatian Bernard Molitor. The Italian method results in an extremely high build of lac and is appropriate for certain pieces. The French method uses less lac and greater pressure on the surface, indeed work hardening the wood. The French woman who taught Godziemba-Maliszewski had deltoids and muscles on her right arm that were visibly larger than her left - and this distinguishes true French Polishing, by which, according to her, "when the pad is nearly evacuated of lac you should feel as though you are bearing all your weight on the table". It is important to carefully assess a piece to determine the method it warrants. English furniture historically has far less sheen than do French pieces, and American furniture even less. Sheen can be lessened by a rottenstone and oil rubbing technique, and brought up later to a degree of satisfaction by using a wax polish such as Pate Dugay. As to assessment, there are pieces that should never be lac polished at all, which will be further explained in figure 1 below.
Two blocks of natural beeswax are shown, on which a reed polishing quill, the oldest method of polishing wood, is shown. Such quills have been found in ancient Egyptian burial vaults, and in Samarian kurgans. Quill polishing was widely practiced in England and Holland from the 14th to the early 18th century, the end of the great oak period. In England polishers favored the reeds from the area northeast of Cambridge. The reeds were bound with twine, filled with molten bee's wax to which was sometimes added brick dust or ground walnut hull. The working end was then either trued to flat for table polishing, or cut to various shapes for lathe polishing. Great pressure was used in bearing down on the oak, (and some walnut pieces from the following period, and, exceptionally rare, the even later early mahogany period), the lapidary action of the polishing quill resulted in degradation of the reeds, which filled, along with brick dust or other fillers, the open grain of the wood. It also work hardened the surface of the wood and imparted a compressed layer of highly polished wax. When restoring or conserving furniture from the periods mentioned, the quill methods will give the historically accurate finish. The piece of oak in the photograph, from the floor of a Connecticut attic, was polished thus. The patina on it is perfect to the oak period of English and Dutch furniture. See also the Conservation and restoration part of the London Joiners web site for an example.
Asian harvesters collecting lac, a substance produced by the lac beetle, from foliage and tree surfaces where the beetle leaves its effluvium. London Joiners Ltd. uses only lac in its primitive state, though such is sometimes sun-bleached. Photo by Edimetia, Paris.
Two of the lac buttons are Kusmi. The third, from Kazakhstan, bears a Soviet star. The dark amber pile in the left of the photo is the highly prized Siam Seed Lac, which contains small parts of the beetle and minute brush particles stuck in the effluvium. Not shown is Red Lac, which is extremely rare, and which seldom comes on to the select market (we have four pounds). The pile of blonde flakes is commercial, highly refined, altered, deserving to be called shellac, and is never used by London Joiners Ltd.
Lac polishing of an extremely rare slab of tortoise shell and quilted mahogany. London Joiners Ltd. has the last of the wide boards from the legendary tree. See the rare woods section of this web site for a discussion of this amazing wood.
This is an old blueprint mounted on a board, then left to the sun to alter the color. The piece then had a clear vernis martin brushed on, then a crackle finish of gum Arabic. Venitian red was then rubbed into the cracks. The top finish is French Polished. London Joiners Ltd. can produce unique finishes. Furniture or other objects may in effect be wallpapered, with extraordinary end results.
|Fig. 7 - 8 - 9|
London Joiners Ltd. were commissioned by the Roger Winthrop Hotel in New York City to develop and execute a luxuriant finish for their newly renovated mahogany rooms. An antique appeal was desired, yet which met the standards of the NYC fire code. London Joiners Ltd.'s solution was to impart a two part catalyzed finish that had a high fire retardant rating, and a very hard surface when cured. This was then lightly abraded and French Polished to a luxuriant finish. The color of the wood was enhanced by the natural chemical techniques known to the textile dyers of Flanders. London Joiners Ltd. never use pigment stains that merely lay on the surface and retard the depth and clarity of wood. On the mahogany at the Roger Smith Winthrop Hotel cream of tartar was used as a mordant and then extract of cochineal with other substances. It takes about 70,000 abdomens from the Cochineal insect to make a pound of red dye. The base substance, with other mordants, produces a wide range of reds and oranges and tobacco like colors. The colors produced are light fast, which is unique as red is normally a fugitive color. The "redcoats" of the British in India never faded because they were dyed with cochineal. (See also the Surfaces interview on this web site.) Photos by Norman McGrath.
|Contact London Joiners:|
|23 Westchester Avenue|
Pound Ridge NY 10576
914 764 4216
|94 Dodgingtown Road|
Bethel CT 06801
203 798 2534