Not-So-French Polishing | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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A new twist on an old method of applying shellac.

You’ve spent weeks or months producing that perfect table from a very special wood, and now it’s time to apply the finish. What are you looking for? If you are looking for durability, use poly. But if beauty is more important, I would recommend shellac.

Lacquer can produce equally amazing results, but it’s best to apply it by spray. Spraying requires specialized equipment and a lot of cleaning with strong solvents. Shellac is much simpler. All you need is a good brush to apply it and denatured alcohol to clean.

Traditionally, shellac was applied with a process known as French polishing. In this technique, a cloth pad is used to apply dozens of very thin layers of shellac, without sanding between coats. A glossy finish is obtained by gradually diluting the shellac. It’s a very low technology, but no matter how well you master the technique, and this can take some time, it’s a time-consuming process.

Today, using a synthetic brush, you can achieve the same build much faster, even without sanding between coats. Get the final look, satin or glossy, using modern abrasives. It’s still a shellac finish, but I call it a not-so-French polish.

Prepare the surface

1. Prepare the surface by sanding to 220 grit with an orbital sander. Make sure the surface is free of marks and scratches by examining it under a grazing light.

Shellac is almost perfectly transparent. It will not obscure defects, so the surface of the wood should be sanded almost to perfection. Fortunately, this rule doesn’t usually apply to an entire piece of furniture. It is only horizontal surfaces, for example a floor, that require such special treatment. Vertical surfaces such as legs and rails will not reflect light or attract attention like a magnificent floor does. You don’t have to sand them to the same high level or apply as many coats of finish as you do for a top.

2. Hand sand with 220 grit paper. With a magnifying glass, look for swirl marks left by the orbital sander. Continue sanding until all swirls are gone.

Although there are many ways to create a perfectly smooth surface, the same test applies to each method: look at the surface under a grazing light (Photo 1). The tiny swirls created by a random orbit sander may not be noticeable this way, so I take it a step further and use a magnifying glass (Photo 2). I guess if it looks good under magnification it will look great without it too!

Build the finish

3. Dilute the shellac with an equal portion of denatured alcohol. On dark woods like this walnut, use amber shellac.

You can make shellac from flakes and denatured alcohol, but I usually buy cans of Bulls Eye premixed shellac, which is available at most hardware stores. This shellac is available in two shades: clear and amber. I generally use clear shellac on light woods and amber on dark woods. I have found that diluting the premixed shellac with denatured alcohol reduces the size and quantity of brush marks so you don’t have to sand between coats. To start, mix shellac with an equal amount of alcohol (Photo 3). This diluted mix will keep for at least a year, so you can make as much as you want.

4. Apply shellac using a high quality brush to minimize ridges. This brush, my favorite type, has Taklon bristles.

Now, a word about brushes. The good ones are worth the money – around $ 35 for a 2-inch brush. While you can certainly apply shellac with a cheaper brush, it will leave uneven ridges that take a long time to smooth. A good brush leaves a flatter surface. I used two types of high quality brushes: Badger hair and Taklon (Photo 4). While a badger brush can hold more finish, I think Taklon is better because it leaves a smoother surface.

Go back to the table. First, place it face up and brush the edges all around. Some shellac will probably drip under the top; wipe off excess with a rag or finger. On the top itself, start each stroke about 2 ″ from the top end, then pull the brush towards that end and out of the top. Return the brush to where you started and pull it to the other side. Return to this wetland with quick back and forth swipes to cover any spots you missed and even out the film. Don’t overwork shellac – it dries very quickly. Stop when you start to feel the drag of the shellac drying. Continue this process at the top, overlapping each step by about 1/4 ″.

You can coat the top in about an hour, but you don’t have to wipe the brush between your coats – one of the benefits of using shellac. When you are done with a coat, hang the brush in a can of denatured alcohol. Hang so the bristles don’t touch the bottom of the jar and use enough alcohol to completely cover the bristles. Before applying a new coat, shake the brush and rub it a couple of times on a piece of wood, then do it.

5. Apply another coat after about an hour, no sanding required. Wear at least twelve hands. Set the top aside to cure for at least a week.

Cover the top up to twelve times (Photo 5) or until you get the amount of build you want. You can take your time; there is no need to do it all in one day.

The underside of the top should receive an equal number of coats. You can apply these coats as you go, or wait until you’ve put the last coat on the top side, then flip the work over and start from the bottom.

Finish the finish

Although shellac dries to the touch very quickly, it takes much longer for it to harden enough to be sanded with fine paper. If you sand too soon, the paper will clog and the surface will be very uneven. Wait at least a week before sanding the finish.

After this time, the lower parts of a project can be treated differently than the upper part, just like in sanding and hand making. Rub these parts with 3/0 or 4/0 steel wool, then follow with a coat of paste wax and polish.

6. Sand with very fine wet / dry paper, using mineral spirits as a lubricant.

A top requires special care. I have found that the best way to sand shellac on a surface and achieve the final sheen, whether satin or glossy, is to sand with wet / dry paper and a lubricant. I use white spirit as a lubricant, which requires good ventilation and a respirator, but I’m still looking for something less hateful. However, only a small area needs to be processed at a time to minimize the amount of white spirit that evaporates.

7. Dry the suspension and examine the surface. If you see shiny spots, keep sanding until they’re gone.

Start with 600 grit wet / dry paper, wrapped around a rubber, cork, or felt sanding block. Sprinkle a small puddle of white spirit on the surface and begin to sand lightly in a circular motion until you create a paste (Photo 6). Work your way to the surface and apply more mineral spirits as needed. Periodically dry the slurry. Let the white spirit dry, then examine the surface. Sand until a consistent and opaque appearance is obtained. If you see shiny spots (Photo 7), continue to sand until they are gone.

Switch to 1000 grit wet / dry sandpaper and repeat the process. When you remove this paste, the surface will be a little more shiny. Switch to 1500 grit and repeat. The surface will now have a rich, satin appearance. If that’s what you want, stop here.

8. Use automotive polish to achieve greater shine. You can also use steel wool and wax to create a satin finish.

If you want a mirror-like finish, switch to car polishes, such as Meguiar’s Swirl Remover and Show Car Glaze (see Sources, right). Using a soft cloth, spray a small amount of Swirl Remover on top and polish in a circular motion (Photo 8). When the top has a consistent shine, switch to Mirror Glaze and repeat.

Shellac is a brittle finish and is easily scratched. To keep scratches to a minimum, especially on a mirror finish, apply a layer of paste wax.

SOURCES

• Homestead Finishing Products Deluxe Taklon 2 ″ brush (scroll down).

• Meguiars Swirl Remover and Show Car Glaze

The beautiful claro walnut used in this article comes from Artisan Lumber, based in Lunenberg, Massachusetts (www.artisanlumber.com).


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