French polish highlights the beauty of hardwood

March 21, 2009|By PAT LOGAN/Creators Syndicate

Dear Pat: Will you please explain how to apply a French polish on old woodwork that needs to be refinished? I have heard it is very beautiful and might be a good choice for some natural cherry woodwork? - Keli H.

Dear Keli: Old cherry woodwork is absolutely beautiful, so take care in refinishing it. It is a stable, durable species of hardwood. So, even if it looks bad now, you will mostly likely be able to bring it back to its original beauty.

With the natural durability of cherry, a French polish finish is a particularly good option. The most durable finish for hardwood is gloss urethane, but that would detract from the beauty of cherry. Just mention to your children to go somewhat easy on it and keep it clean and free from sticky grit.

Proper preparation of the wood surface is critical. The beauty of a French polish is the illusion of depth it creates. To attain this appearance, a mirror-smooth wood surface is required before the finish is applied. Cherry, being such a hard wood, can be finely sanded to a very smooth surface.


When you strip off the old deteriorated finish, use a very mild chemical stripper so the wood surface is not damaged. It could take several chemical treatments to soften and remove all the existing finish. Try to limit the amount of hard scraping to reduce the possibility of gouging the surface.

Follow this with medium sandpaper to a fairly smooth finish. Fill in any deep scratches at this time with matching wood filler. It might be necessary to tint the filler yourself to get a perfect color match. When the filler is set, do further sanding with fine sandpaper.

Finally, slightly dampen the wood surface by placing a damp cloth over it. This raises the grain before your final sanding with extra-fine sandpaper. If you have some tinted wood filler left, rub it into the surface with a lint-free cotton cloth to fill all the minute pores and scratches.

When the wood surface seems mirror-smooth, apply a sealer. This sealer will keep the grain from coming up again when you begin the actual French-polish finish. When the sealer dries, finish sand the surface with very fine sandpaper with a light coating of linseed oil.

A true French polish finish requires about 10 to 15 coats of clear shellac. It is rubbed on to the wood surface with a fad, which is a wad of cotton or gauze. Wrap the fad with a lint-free cotton cloth. Try to eliminate wrinkles in the cloth. When it is soaked with shellac, it will apply a very thin layer with each coat.

Mix alcohol and shellac together to form a watery solution. Saturate the fad with the solution and wrap it with the cotton cloth. Rub this into the wood. If you are doing a large piece, it could be necessary to unwrap the fad and add more shellac solution to cover the entire surface.

Let each coat of shellac dry, then lightly sand with extra-fine sandpapter between applications of shellac. When you feel you have applied enough coats and created the deep look you desire, add some linseed oil and fine pumice to the cotton cloth and lightly polish the surface.

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