Heritage Crafts

French polishing

The application of layers of shellac and oils to provide a high gloss finish to wood.
Currently viable
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Nationally in buildings and on furniture from the 18th century when finer timbers were Imported in higher volumes. Compared to European timbers they could be turned to a finer degree and their close grains meant that the shellacs held up well and to a high sheen (in both solid timber form and veneers)
Area practiced currently
Throughout the UK in varying sizes of polishing companies. Wherever there are buildings of significance and their owners wish to restore correctly then there is a need for French Polishers.
Origin in the UK
18th Century


French polishing became prominent in the 18th century. In the Victorian era, French polishing was commonly used on mahogany and other expensive timbers. It was considered the best finish for fine furniture and string instruments such as pianos and guitars.

Furniture and timber work was, before the import of the fine timbers, usually limited to Oak, Elms and Chestnuts. They were very open grained and the way of sealing them was with beeswax. When the finer timbers came in the beeswax finish did nothing to bring out their beauty.  A technique was introduced that was being used in France (where they too were bringing timbers back from their empires). Thus the purchaser of the items of furniture, doors or panelling had a choice of a traditional beeswax polishing….. “French polishing”… The term French polishing does not exist in France.


The most traditional way is by using differing types of shellac (button polish, garnet polish, white polish, transparent polish to name but a few) that give differing colours. They are first applied by a “polishers mop” (A brush that traditionally used squirrel hair or bear hair).  The hairs in a mop, unlike a paint brush, hold the thin and fine material within – If you dip a paint brush into polish it all just drips out. This allows you to “Charge” your mop and then spread it evenly on the timber.  The first 1 or 2 coats are applied in this way in order to get volume of material onto the wood.   It can then be “Cut back” using very fine sand paper…. THEN you switch to a French polishers “Rubber” with is a cotton wading surrounded by a piece of fine cotton. When this is dipped in the polish it “Charges” the rubber and then you can wipe this over the surface of the brushed coats.  The “New coat dissolves the coat underneath and forces the polish into the grain of the timber..  Over time you end up with a glass-like finish but unlike materials such as varnish you do not get a thick build.
There are many many variations to the above including using oil in the polish to allow it to glide over the previous coat wile “Choking” the grain. The oil then needs to be “Spirited off” there is pumice powder that you can add to speed up the choking


Allied crafts:

Issues affecting the viability

  • Throwaway furniture is more common nowadays and less timber panelling is used within larger buildings.
  • Banks and other public that required the skills of the French polisher have closed.
  • Modern alternative products have become more common – why pay a French polisher when a decorator can put on a coat of interior stain?
  • The price of antiques has dropped so people are more likely to replace an item rather that restore it.
  • Dichloromethane (paint stripper) has been banned, meaning removing old finishes takes longer and costs more. The use of water-based products, which are less flammable to apply and do not give off organic solvents, has increased.

Support organisations

Training organisations


Craftspeople currently known

Crafts businesses:

  • Terry Waters French Polishing
  • SJM French Polishing
  • McQuade French Polishing
  • Martin Allen French Polishing
  • Barwood
  • Alan Farr French Polishing

Individual craftspeople:

  • Andy Stonebridge
  • Tom Moss
  • Andy Morrison
  • Lloyd Morrison
  • Chris Oshea
  • Stuart Munn
  • Kevin Munn
  • Amanda Champion
  • Ian Stephens
  • Chris Chinnery
  • Nigel Curtis
Suppliers of French Polishes

Other information




National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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