French Polishing Mistakes

trestle table breadboard ends
I read countless articles and watched all YouTube had to offer about French Polishing. And after becoming an armchair expert (armed with a 3″ by 3″ practice piece) I confidently began to French Polish a table top.
And that’s when my little mistakes from inexperience began to pile up. So much so that I had to spend an hour stripping four hours-worth of polishing so I could start again. 3 times.
Here is what I learned from my first attempt at ‘vernissage au tampon’:

It can’t be done in one day

Shellac dries instantly but may shrink with time, so leaving it overnight after the pumice and bodying stages is a must. Some of my issues came also with spending hours at a time rubbing when 15 minutes would have got the job done. My eagerness meant I over-polished and let myself get frustrated. That was a shame, because polishing, I found with subsequent attempts, can actually be quite relaxing.

Go sparingly with the pumice.

In my head I thought “more pumice = faster grain filling in this massively porous mahogany”. But no – I should have listened to Patrice Lejeune (see his YouTube video) who said beginners use too much pumice. The result was a buildup of paste that became a wart under my subsequent bodying step. George Frank (in his Fine Woodworking #58 article) says that you can get rid of the paste with a light sanding, but it would be better to use less pumice and not have that problem at all.

Tinted shellac magnifies errors

I wanted a tinted shellac to darken my mahogany, but rushing my bodying stage left dark swirls in my finish. This was my reason for stripping the whole thing off and starting again. I used too much shellac and not enough alcohol at this stage and was also probably rubbing too hard.

Mineral oil

The information I read about mineral oil was confusing. Mistakes I made here were 1) not using any at all resulting in too much friction from the pad and 2) applying oil to the surface in drops thinking I’d rub it in. In the second case, the oil left marks from the areas it was applies and I couldn’t rub them out. I should have used a shaker to apply the oil, but I ended up applying a very small amount directly to the pad and rubbing it over the entire surface quickly.


Practicing French polishing for the first time on a large table top was asking for trouble, but I got there in the end have now have the experience under my belt. Especially because I did the same surface four times. I’m looking forward to the next excuse to use the technique.


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