My customer brought me a sample that I have to match and I think it's a French polished finish. How do I achieve this? Should I do a regular stain and lacquer and when it's done, brush with something that will give that polished look? What I tried is too rough, I think, because I get something similar, but with too many scratches.
From contributor B:
You have got the wrong idea about French polishing. You can stain as usual, but you should not use lacquer - use French polish for the whole job. You don't brush the polish on, you apply it with a rubber (as we say in England) made from wadding and cotton. It is a complicated process which takes years of practice to master. There are books which may help, but it takes a lot of practice to get a good result.
As most folks do not know how to care for this type of finish, I usually try a look-alike finish. By all means lacquer the piece, but use a grain filler. Behlen now makes a water based one, so you need not worry about linseed oil in the filler affecting the lacquer. This should produce a finish that is not hungry looking, as French polished finishes are. I usually use a gloss lacquer as it is a harder finish but generally ends up too glossy. So I then rub out the finish with steel wool and a product called wool wax, again made by Behlen. Use 4 zeros steel wool dipped in water with a blob of wool wax until you have a nice even semi-matte finish. Dry off with a clean rag.
There are some minor down sides to a shellac finish, I agree. That said, though, it remains the easiest film to repair that exists (as for a film forming resin coating).
Thinking on the green side of finishes, it has one of the least hazardous thinners/solvents of any finish (ethyl alcohol) - as well as long term stability that goes far beyond any modern coatings available.
Some lacs also have a portion of the plasticizer removed, which raises both their melting points and scratch resistance (though it does make them more brittle). You can add certain oils to overcome those affects.
What you need to be careful of is buying pre-made shellacs off the shelf which, as they sit, etherify in the container and lose their good properties fairly rapidly. A fresh shellac has much better water resistance than one that's set around for a time. Try to remember that early in the last century the most common floor finish was shellac, which was able to be mopped and suffered much abuse year round. When done properly with the best fresh material, you can still get excellent results, just as was done then.
The proof of its superior qualities is the fact that only the most high end companies still use it in their antique reproductions and it's still the finish of choice for all museum quality and historical societies.
Seeing what the future holds for our industry, I recommend everybody re-familiarize themselves with this method and material as well as oil finishes - they actually can do 90% of what all finishes need to as to natural wood finishing needs.