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How To French Polish

Preparation and Bleaching of Wood Prior to Staining and the Main Types of Stain Available.

In preparing surfaces for polishing it is essential that the surface be as smooth as possible. This can be achieved by the use of a steel scraper followed by a good rubbing down with No.1 sandpaper. It should be remembered always to paper in the direction of the grain; should the surface be papered across the grain the wood may not appear to be scratched but the scratches will quickly become apparent when the polishing begins. Sometimes it will be found that a section of the timber is darker than the surrounding surface and regardless of the colour of the stain to be used it is advisable to bleach this section first to tone it in with the rest of the work. The staining can be carried out much more easily if the surface is in a uniform colour to start with. The bleach is made by mixing oxalic crystals with hot water to the ratio of 2 ozs. crystals to one pint of water and applied hot by means of a clean brush. It might be found necessary to repeat the operation several times before the required tone is obtained. An important thing to remember is that the surface is liable to turn a bad colour if repeated to often. If the treatment is not successful after three applications of bleach it should be left and coloured with polish. When the surface is quiet dry, the areas that have been bleached should be neutralised by a weak vinegar solution, allowed to dry and well papered down with No.0 glass paper.


There are various types of stains that can be used, the three main types having either water, spirit or oil as the medium. In the case of the oil stain, unless one is careful it is possible to apply too much stain and when the polishing is completed the contours of the timber will not show clearly and the general appearance will suggest a smeared effect: also there is a danger of the oil sweating through the polish film to the surface. In the case of spirit stain, whilst it gives a good clear colour, the spirit tends to evaporate and dry off quickly making it difficult to achieve an even finish, although the trouble should not arise on a small item such as a tea tray. I am in favour of the use of water stain wherever possible. Many people will argue that this type of stain will raise the grain of the wood and therefore necessitate additional rubbing down and filling, but this can be avoided by damping the surface with warm water and rubbing well down when dry before applying the water stain. To give a depth of colour it is best to apply two coats of stain as opposed to completing the whole of the work in one operation and this will mean that the stain should be mixed much weaker to allow for the additional darkening by applying two coats. It should also be noted that the second coat should not be applied until the first coat is thoroughly dry. When the stain is dry (an interval of eight hours should be given in the case of water stain) the surface should be lightly papered down and dusted off and a coat of polish brushed on to seal the surface. Care should be taken to see that the polish is well brushed into the surface. By applying this coat of polish and water that may be used in the filling of the grain afterwards will be prevented from turning the stain patchy and also from raising the grain.


For the filling process fine filler such as Tetron is mixed with water and rubbed across the grain with a piece of coarse cloth. A point to remember is to place a quantity of dry filler beside the work and then by dabbing with a wet cloth the plaster can be transferred to the surface of the work in small quantities. Should a quantity of filler be mixed up beforehand, it is likely to set too quickly to use. Some professionals prefer to mix their filler with other mediums, such as methylated spirit, linseed oil or Russian tallow, but the easiest and most commonly used filler is the type already mentioned. When the filling is completely dry it should be rubbed down with No.0 glass paper, dusted off and oiled with linseed oil. The purpose of applying the oil is to kill the action of the filler and to render the filler more or less opaque. If the filler was not treated in this manner the filling would show as small whitish streaks once the polishing had commenced. One very important point to remember here is to use as little oil as possible and any surplus should be wiped off the surface with a dry cloth. Should any oil be left on the surface it would sweat out once the polishing was completed and spoil the finish.
It is possible to purchase ready-made fillers requiring only the addition of thinners to render them workable. These are usually coloured and do not require oiling, after use, so It can be said that these type of fillers enable the work to be carried out more quickly, but they are expensive.


This operation is the first of the actual polishing process and the polish is applied by the use of a rubber consisting of wadding and a piece of clean, soft cloth (see Fig.2). The wadding is charged with polish and the cloth is then wrapped round the wadding as shown in Fig.2, and passed over the surface, working in the direction of the grain. By squeezing at various intervals the polish contained in the wadding will be forced through the cloth to the surface of the rubber. Care must be taken to see that the correct amount of polish is discharged at one go and that the rubber must be kept moving to avoid sticking to the work. This operation is repeated until the surface becomes sticky, when it must be put aside and allowed to harden before any more work can carried out. When the surface is hard it should be rubbed down lightly with No.0 glass paper, and the whole process repeated again, this time working in circular movements so that the rubber is traversing across the grain as well as with it. If the rubber becomes sticky a few drops of linseed oil should be placed on the surface of the rubber, keeping in mind that the oil is for lubrication of the rubber only and bears no relation to the degree of polish. Continue until a suitable amount of polish has been worked into the surface and once again set aside and allow to harden.

Colouring Up

Sometimes after the work has been bodied-up it will be found that it is still too light in colour. This may be remedied by the use of coloured polish. It is usual to mix equal parts of polish and methylated spirit, adding a small quantity of dry colour until the required tint is obtained. The coloured polish should be applied by the use of a camel hair mop (Fig.3) and worked quickly over the surface, using long even strokes. It would be advisable to study the work carefully before the colour is applied, as the application of the thinned polish will tend to make the surface rather soft and the chances of going over the work again will rarely occur. The colour must harden before being lightly rubbed down with flour paper and a coat of polish applied with a mop. This is to seal the colouring and to ensure that it does not rise up when the final application of polish is worked into the surface with a rubber.


This is a similar process as described for bodying-in and should complete the filling of the grain. Once again a few drops of oil may be used to assist the manipulation of the rubber, which should be worked out dry before charging with a fresh supply of polish in order in order to try and work out oil that may be present in the polish film (Fig.4). When this process has been repeated several times the work should be put aside for a few days to harden off. The work when taken up again might be found to have sunk somewhat, when it should be lightly papered down and the bodying-up process repeated. This process is usually repeated four or five times, but for the average type of work two applications are usually considered necessary. Once again the work should be left aside to harden off.


When the work is taken up again, it will have a slightly smeared effect and this can be removed by the use of methylated spirit. For this process a fresh rubber is made and slightly charged with methylated spirit. Only a small quantity is required and if there is any doubt as to the wetness of the rubber it should be placed aside for a few hours and allowed to dry off slightly. The rubber should then be worked over the surface quickly, using long even strokes and taking care not to go over the same area to many times. The result should be a clear and even polish with the appearance of depth of colour.

Wax Polishing

On large surfaces such as doors and panelling a high gloss can appear rather harsh and in a small room the general effect is to make the room appear smaller, but by using a wax polish the general appearance is a dull sheen. Many people only stain the surface of the work and then apply the wax polish. This is allowed to harden and then burnished to give what is virtually a wax polish finish. In the correct method of polishing the surface should be prepared previously outlined and then stained. In the case of panelling it is advisable to use a lighter stain, set with a coat of polish applied by the mop. The filling process should then be carried out and oiled as already stated and the work well bodied-in, using a lighter coloured or transparent polish until a reasonable thickness of film appears on the surface when it should be left to harden off. When the work is quiet hard it should be lightly papered down and dusted off. A good white wax can be obtained quiet cheaply which will require thinning with a little turpentine. Apply to the surface with a piece of coarse cloth. When the whole of the surface is the wax it should be lightly rubbed with fine wire-wool grade 000. This will ingrain the wax into the polish, although care should be taken not to break through the polish film, and it is then left to harden. When the work is quiet hard it can be burnished up by rubbing with a clean cloth or by the use of a soft brush.

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