Skip to main content

Two Good Reasons Why You Should Consider Using French Polish

It is an essential condition of highly polished work that the surface should be so perfectly smooth that no marks or ridges of any kind should be present to mar the ultimate effect, which should be like a mirror, capable of reflecting a good image.

Paul N. Hasluck, Manual of Traditional Woodcarving, 1911

I give two good reasons why you should consider using French polish to apply shellac to your next work.

One reason is the finish that it creates. This is the back of Julia's guitar, a copy of a 1933 Santos Hernandez, after only three French polish sessions using a 1 pound cut of shellac. It simply astounds me as to how wonderful this finish is becoming!

This is the top of Julia's guitar after only two French polish sessions!

The best reason to use shellac and French polish is for your health!

What other finish is there that you make out of bug secretion and grain alcohol? The only chemical in shellac that will do damage to you is the grain alcohol and you have to drink that stuff to cause the damage. You do not need any personal protection equipment to apply shellac and you don't need a HAZMAT locker to store the components. How wonderful is that?!

The equipment you need to apply shellac is simple: raw wool for the pad; cotton fabric to cover the pad, and a little olive oil to help apply the shellac. Oh, yes, and I forgot to mention that you use ground volcanic pumice to fill the wood pores!

Does this sound to good to be true?

It must be true, shellac has been applied by French polishing for over 200 years with great success!

This video is available through Fernandez Music or LMI. I wish I had bought a copy 'way back in 1994 when I really got into this lutherie thing, it would have saved me much heart ache.

This is a wonderful DVD, I highly recommend it! Mr. Fernandez covers all the bases of using shellac and French polishing, if you watch this DVD a few times and try your hand at French polish, you too will discover that it is not as hard as all those woodworking writers and pundits claim it is!

I do have Robbie O'Brien's DVD on French polish, again available from LMI. I haven't watched it yet, though I've had it for over six months. I haven't watched it because I am at a level where it is better for me to spend an hour or so gaining experience at French polishing then to watch a video of someone else doing it.

There are many, many articles and books about French polish, one article I recommend French Polishing Demystified, by Vijay Velji, appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Fine Woodworking. I also recommend searching out articles written by Eugene Clark, Cynthia Burton, George Frank; Dan Erlewine wrote a great piece for Stew-Mac which you can find in their Trade Secrets! Newsletter, click here to read that article.

I suggest that you visit these websites to learn more about the art and history of French polish:

French Polishing, Antique & Code Finishes

French Polish

Chris Baylor has posted one of the best articles I've read on French polish. Click here to read it. You may think that his article makes French polish sound like it is an easy thing to do, well, IT IS! You just have to practice it to be good at it, like any other skill!

There is a myriad of YouTube Videos by guitar makers on how they apply shellac by French polishing. Check out Les Stansell and Michael Thames!

I know that Taunton Press has just published a new book of French polish by Derek Jones, but I don't think it has been released yet. I would like to look at a copy of it.

I can't forget to mention Shellac.Net, they have a great website where you can buy shellac and learn all sorts of things about shellac. I should buy a copy of The French Polisher's Handbook from them, it was written in 1910 by "A Practical Man", it looks like it is full of wonderful information on French polish.

So get busy and do some research and then buy all the ingredients to make your own shellac.

Don't be afraid of shellac and French polish!

Be afraid of someone who tells you that you shouldn't learn a new skill just because they think it is too hard of a thing to do!


  1. Great post, Wilson. A very useful compendium of resources. Thanks.

  2. Do you use French Polish on tops as well? If so, do you also fill with pumice? Do you have a feeling for what this (both filling and using shellac) does to the tuning of the top?

  3. Yes, Dino, I do French polish the tops of my guitars and no, I don't fill the top with pumice. That is used on to fill the grain of open pore wood.

    Many classical guitar makers will use lacquer on the backs and sides of their guitars and French polish the top with shellac, there is something about shellac that improves the tone of a guitar. In one I read article, the luthier Jeffery Elliot has refinished some of his early guitars with shellac using French polish and was amazed at how much it improved the sound of the guitar.

    You might be able to find a thread on how shellac affects a guitar at

  4. Just discovered this blog. What a wealth of info here. I was wondering though if you could elaborate a little on filling with volcanic pumice?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How to Make a Traditional Froe Mallet

What holds the Holy of the Holies, what did Brahma become? Wood. Why will aspen always tremble? For the nails driven into the cross. What makes the color of wood? The soil it tastes. Cradle, fiddle, coffin, bed: wood is a column of earth made ambitious by light, and made of beauty by the rain.

Kim R. Stafford, Having Everything Right, 1986.

Rive, verb, to split
Shake, noun, a split in a piece wood. (Heart shake, ring shake)
Shake, verb, (Middle English), to split.

I know I should have been in the studio working on my back log of guitars, but the day was so nice and warm with a tall blue canopy, I couldn't stay inside. I decided that I needed to make a proper froe mallet. This style of mallet is traditional to northeastern California, primarily Tehama (where I'm from), Butte, Shasta and Plumas counties where making shingles by hand from sugar pines was an industry. I don't know if it was used in any other region along the Pacific Rim, other parts of the United States or even o…

The Guitar's Scale Length, Your Hand Size and a Chart

I will cite the case of a marvelous concert player, a Japanese lady who is barely 5 ft. tall and with hands that are real miniatures. She plays a 664 mm 10 string guitar and demanded that I build this guitar with an action 1 mm higher than normal, which she handles with incredible ease. This is serious study!

Jose Ramirez III, Things About the Guitar, 1990

Here is the hand size and scale length that I found on the forum at

Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 250+ 664mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 230 to 250 656mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 210 to 230 650mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 190 to 210 640mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 170 to 190 630mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of below 170 615mm scale length

Here is my flexible imperial/metric ruler.

Here is my hand properly placed on the flexible imperial/metric ruler.

Today my reach from little finger to thumb is 240mm. I should more or less be playing a…

Basic Hand Tool Kit for Making a Classical Guitar, Revised

Ours is really a simple craft.

James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinetmaker, 1979

So, you want to build a guitar.

Since the original post, Basic Hand Tool Kit for Guitar Making, click here to see it, is the most popular post on this blog, I thought I would revisit it and adjust it to what I am using now to make a classical guitar.

The first thing I recommend doing is to buy or borrow copies of the following books:

Guitar Making: Tradition and Technology, by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Natelson
Making Master Guitars, by Roy Courtnall
The Guitar Maker's Workshop, by Rik Middleton

These are required reading before you begin making a guitar.

Also required reading are these books by Roy Underhill:

The Woodwright's Shop
The Woodwright's Companion
The Woodwright's Workbench
The Woodwright's Apprentice

Why these books by Mr. Underhill? You will learn valuable wood working techniques if you make any of his projects. The dovetail joints used to join a drawer together are far mor…