How to Apply a French Polish

French polish is a high-gloss finish for wood that consists of shellac. It is difficult to apply and requires a lot of work, but the end result is worth the effort. A French polish is popular on guitars and other wood string instruments because it sits on top of the wood instead of soaking into it, which would change the way the instrument sounds. It's also a popular finish for furniture because of its mirror-like shine.


  1. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 1
    Begin with a clean, perfectly smooth wood surface and a clean, dust-free, warm room. Any imperfections in the wood or dust that settles onto the surface while you're working will show up in the polish. A cold room will cause the polish to be cloudy.
  2. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 2
    Mix 3 ounces of shellac flakes with 1 pint of denatured alcohol. Keep the mixture in a tightly sealed container, pouring small amounts into a shallow bowl as you work. Although you can buy shellac already mixed, the fresher it is, the better the results will be. Use gloves when working with shellac.
  3. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 3
    Soak a wad of gauze in shellac, then place it inside a cotton cloth (a piece of an old bed sheet or white tee-shirt works well). Tie up the ends of the cloth with string to make a sort of handle. Squeeze the pad to force most of the shellac out.
  4. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 4
    Add a few drops of olive oil to the pad. You may want to use an eyedropper to keep from adding too much. The purpose of the oil is to keep the pad from drying out and sticking as you apply shellac. If the pad does start to stick, add another couple of drops of oil.
  5. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 5
    Apply the shellac to the wood surface in a gliding or sweeping motion, working one small area at a time, perhaps 2 square feet. Gradually change to circular, then figure-8 motions. Each sweep will leave a thin layer of shellac, and your goal is to leave about 100 of these layers in one boding session.
    • The shellac will dry quickly, so using an improper motion will leave an imprint of the pad on the surface.
  6. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 6
    Build a fresh pad, then add a few drops shellac and several drops of alcohol to the cloth. Begin your stiffing session by sweeping the pad in even strokes from one side to the other to smooth out any unevenness in the shellac. Take care not to remove any shellac.
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    Allow the work to sit for a couple of hours so any oil can come to the surface. Then repeat the stiffing session to remove the oil. This is a separate step called spiriting.
  8. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 8
    Let the work sit for several hours so it can dry completely, then repeat the boding, stiffing and spiriting sessions. You will do this several times to build up a thick shellac surface on the wood.
  9. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 9
    Polish the surface with rottenstone and olive oil. Place the rottenstone in a salt shaker and sprinkle it on the surface, then apply a few drops of olive oil to a fresh pad and rub the entire surface until you're satisfied with its appearance.
  10. Image titled Apply a French Polish Step 10
    Finish with a thin coat of furniture wax to help protect your French polish from damage.


  • A French polish can be applied over finished wood as long as it doesn't have an acrylic or similar coating that leaves a layer of plastic.


  • Denatured alcohol is flammable.
  • Furniture with a French polish is beautiful, but easily marred.

Things You'll Need

  • Shellac flakes
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Olive oil
  • Gauze
  • Cotton cloths
  • String
  • Vinyl or Nitrile gloves
  • Containers with tight lids
  • Furniture wax

Article Info

Categories: Furniture and Cabinets