French Versus Wax Polish

Here at Thakeham Furniture we specialise in pieces with an original ‘patina’; but a question we are often asked is: how was that finish originally achieved? Would the piece have been French polished or wax polished back in the 18th or 19th centuries?

It is not widely known, but ‘French Polish’ was not introduced until about 1820 in England. It’s a method of application, rather than a type of finish: a pad of upholsterers wadding is soaked in a mixture of shellac dissolved in meths. This is then wrapped in a soft, washed cotton cloth – together this is known as a French polish ‘rubber’. The rubber works the polish into the grain of the wood in a circular motion, and numerous coats are applied, each one being rubbed down with fine wire wool in between. The finish is completed with a thin layer of wax.

Previous to this, most furniture from the walnut or early mahogany periods would have been finished with one of two methods – either with a mixture of beeswax softened in turpentine, polished off with a cloth. Or, for the more expensive pieces, a laborious method of polishing using linseed oil with brick dust. This is described by Sheraton, in his ‘Cabinet Dictionary’ of 1803, as ‘The general mode of polishing furniture’ … ‘which will infallibly secure a fine polish by continued rubbing’.

The Victorians took to French polishing – it creates a very bright, glassy shine, which does bring out the colours of the wood. However, it is also very easily scratched, and is particularly sensitive to spills of water or alcohol. In the workshops here, we only really use French Polish on items from the 1820s onwards, or for pieces such as dining tables which look so lovely with a rich shine; on most pieces we use our own beeswax based polish to enhance and preserve the original patina.

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