Good Furniture needs the best finishing which is well within the grasp of all of us - and that includes French polishing!
Wood finishing is an interesting subject - hundreds of products, each doing a different job and all combined with a mystique built up over years. The end result leaves many thinking that they will never be able to achieve a professional finish.
It really is all a matter of attitude. If you feel you cannot do something you never will. But if you persevere, practice, and learn by experience, you will soon be achieving fairly good results.
Occasional furniture usually means 'decorative furniture', which in turn means well finished furniture. Surprisingly, though, achieving a basic decorative finish is not that difficult, one of the easiest methods of all being wax polish. As always, however, there are pitfalls which must be anticipated.
The main problem areas are, first, putting the wax on too thickly. This allows it to build up in corners often leaving the furniture looking dirty. The second problem is not wiping all the wax off leaving the surface looking dull. A coat of French polish or sanding sealer beneath the wax will give a higher, longer lasting sheen and will also help resist finger marking.
So, what of French polishing, the subject that has fuelled most of the myths concerning polishing wood? Well, I have realised two main things over the last few years. First, when people want to progress past simply waxing or varnishing wood, they look to French polishing as the next stage up.
Second, although many want to achieve a more sophisticated result, they do not really want to spend years learning how to French polish. Fortunately, there are some techniques which help. Knowing what to expect at each stage is essential to correct polishing, so observing what is happening on the surface of the wood is of paramount importance. You must try to understand what it is you are trying to achieve and understand what it is you are looking at. For example, no matter how much you sand wood, you will never be able to make it completely smooth. If you take the edge of a razor blade and examine it under an electron microscope, the impression left with you is that it resembles a mountain range. It obviously follows that as wood must be 'less smooth' than the edge of a razor blade, any finish applied will have no choice but to follow these small undulations. Once this is understood, the problem becomes easier to solve. To begin with, sand the wood until it is smooth to the touch - very fine-grained timbers will require fine papers to achieve the best results. Work carefully and make sure there are no scratch marks or obvious hollows in the surface. The whole theory of decorative finishing is that of laying on many thin coats of polish onto the surface. Each one is re-flattened by cutting back. A second and perhaps less well understood part of the whole process is not so much the laying on of the polish as the pushing of the polish into the wood. It is this 'pushing' that fills in these small irregularities leaving a perfect groundwork for subsequent layers of polish. To add to the problem, if you apply polish using a paint brush, it is inevitable that visible brush marks will occur unless the hair is very fine. It is for this reason that polishing mops were developed. Unlike a brush, during use they are immersed in the polish to allow the head to become fully charged.
Before applying the polish, take off the excess by wiping the mop head against the side of a jar. As a tip, it is a good idea to pour the polish into a jam jar and after drilling a hole in the top, push the conical handle of the mop through. Seal up any gaps between the handle and the jar. When the lid is put back on the jar the mop should sit immersed in the polish. Do not let the mop head touch the bottom or sides of the jar. Excellent results will be achieved applying French polish-based products when working with a good quality mop. The final coat can be waxed or burnished using a cream to pull out a higher shine. If you choose the latter method, you must ensure the polish has cured for a few days first. Even though mops give excellent results, problems can be encountered on high gloss finishes. After applying nine or ten coats of polish in the belief that more coats are bound to increase the depth of shine, a frustrating dullness will often appear. This is known as ropiness and is caused by the polish building up in fine ridges. It is a serious problem.
De-nibbing - cutting back between coats will help but will not remove it altogether.
The polisher's rubber
After experimenting and scratching your head for a few hours the answer becomes obvious: "Of course, if the polish could be put on even thinner ... perhaps using a cloth, perhaps with a pad inside so that you don't have to keep dabbing up with polish every few seconds ... " You've guessed it! You are on the way to discovering the French polisher's rubber, a tool designed to apply thin coats of polish. Yet for many beginners this is where the trouble really begins! The main problems connected with French polishing are also part of human nature. After realising that French polishing is a time-consuming affair, the tendency is to try to put on too much polish either in one go or in one polishing session. If the surface feels 'fragile' leave well alone for a few hours or even days before continuing. Books give advice such as working in 'figure of eight' movements and circles. The reason for this is the need to cover the area uniformly and to help push the polish into the wood. This is also the best method of avoiding the ropiness that we spoke of earlier. Incidentally, it is perfectly acceptable to apply the first coats of polish with the mop and then, when the need arises, move onto using a rubber.
Another problem area is at the very final stage of spiriting off. This is where beginners can damage a surface by applying too much methylated spirits, softening the polished layers below. Often this is compounded by not leaving sufficient time for the polish to harden off first. Yet another troublesome area is in the use of oil which acts as a lubricant. You will be able to see oil visible on the surface as dull smear marks. If you are a beginner, try to practice without the use of oil at all - you will still be able to get fantastic results - but remember, don't try rushing or speeding the process up. Take your time and if the surface feels tacky, leave well alone.
As French polishing is a slow process, one alternative is spraying. The main drawbacks here though is that as the fine mist lies on the surface and is not pushed deep into the wood as with hand finishing, the 'look' of a finished article can have a certain lack of character about it. You will also need some pretty sophisticated equipment and must be turning out regular work to make it a practical proposition.
To recap: waxing gives good results; sealing and waxing give a much faster sheen; applying French polish (or modified French polishes) by mop will give superb, fully professional results (that is, as long as you choose a good mop and products with top quality ingredients) but will not give a full piano finish. For a high gloss, especially on smaller decorative pieces, why not experiment with French polishing? There is nothing quite like a well-polished, highly figured piece of wood to halt you in your tracks, and it is a great confidence booster to know it was your hand that produced it.