French Polishing

Traditional French Polishing still practiced at London Joiners, Ltd.

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. Denatured or other alcohols that contain water or other substances are NOT used. Another application technique known as Italian Lac Polishing, taught to the owner of London Joiners Ltd. W. 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 Maliszewski has sworn him to secrecy (see the Caramoor interview on Antiques). 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 Polishing method results in an extremely high build of lac and is appropriate for certain pieces. The French Polishing method uses less lac and greater pressure on the surface, indeed work hardening the wood. The French woman who taught 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.

French Polishing - Wax Reed

Fig. 1 – French Polishing – Wax Reed

Fig. 1
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.

French Polish applied to a slab of missouri black walnut

Fig. 2 A slab of Missouri Black Walnut.

Fig. 2:  French Polishing a slab of Missouri Black Walnut. Note the chatoyant depth imparted to the wood, as though one is looking down into the grain and not just at the surface.

French Polishing - Lac Harvest

Fig. 3 Lac Harvest in Asia, Photo by Edimetia, Paris.

Fig. 3
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, when French Polishing though such is sometimes sun-bleached. Photo by Edimetia, Paris.

French Polishing - Examples of Lac

Fig. 4 French Polishing – Examples of Lac

Fig. 4
Two of the lac buttons shown to the left are Kusmi. The dark amber pile in the lower left hand corner 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 (London Joiners, Ltd. is in possession of four pounds of the extremely rare Red Lac.). The pile of blonde flakes in the upper right hand corner of Fig. 4  is commercial, highly refined, altered, deserving to be called shellac, and is never used by London Joiners Ltd. when French Polishing.

French Polishing a rare piece of Tortoise shell quilted mohogany

Fig. 5 -London Joiners, Ltd. French Polishing a rare piece of tortoise shell quilted mahogany.

Fig. 5
French 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 full discussion of this amazing wood.

Wood Finishing - Other Finishes - London Joiners, Ltd.

Fig 6. Old Blueprint mounted on board… Click to enlarge

Fig. 6
Pictured below [Fig 6.]  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 to your specifications or can suggest finishes for your piece. Furniture or other objects may in effect be wallpapered, with extraordinary end results.

 

 

Roger Smith Winthrop Hotel, Lexington Avenue, New York City, NY.

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. Read more about the process and French Polishing used at this famous art hotel in the heart of Manhattan. Here:

Roger Smith Hotel Commissions London Joiners to French Polish Mahogany.

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