French polishing, if done correctly, is one of the best finishes for furniture. It beautifies the wood, makes it more durable, and easy to repair slight imperfections without stripping. However, sometimes the furniture has major damages that can only be repaired by stripping i.e. removing the finish and refinishing.
To remove french polish from furniture, you need an ample amount of denatured alcohol and 0000 steel wool. Apply denatured alcohol to the furniture’s surface with a soft brush and let it sit on it long enough to dissolve the French polish. Use the steel wool to scrub off the dissolved polish and clean up the remnant with rags without rubbing the finish back into the wood.
Keep reading this article for a detailed guide on how to remove french polish from furniture.
What Is French Polish?
French polish is one of the several finishes you can apply to wood to improve its appearance and make it last longer. It is a suitable finish for all light and dark woods. French polishing involves applying several thin coats of a solution of shellac flakes dissolved in alcohol.
The alcohol eventually evaporates, leaving the shellac coats on the wood. You can buy bottled French polish from the furniture supplies store or make it yourself. Store-bought French polish is usually made of a 3-pound cut i.e. 3-pound shellac flakes dissolved per gallon of alcohol.
Before using store-bought French polish, it is recommended to thin it further using denatured alcohol. For homemade French polish, you need to dissolve 2-pound cut shellac flakes in a gallon of denatured alcohol and leave it for 24 hours. French polish is applied with a makeshift pad known as rubber which is made of a lint-free cotton cloth stuffed with wool.
The process of French polishing also involves the use of oils as a lubricant to keep the rubber from sticking to the applied shellac. Oils that can be used for this purpose include linseed oil, mineral oil, walnut oil, and olive oil.
Removing French Polish From Furniture
Here are the steps to removing French polish from furniture:
- Test for French polish
- Prepare the furniture
- Remove the polish
1) Testing for French polish
Sometimes when you buy furniture or have them custom-made, you are given helpful information like what wood they are made of, the kind of finish used, and how to maintain them. However, at other times, you have no idea about these things and you are left to play it by ear.
Removing finishes from the furniture is easier when you already know the type of finish it is made of, but, when you don’t know, you need to test first.
To test for French polish, here is what you need to do:
- Apply denatured alcohol to an inconspicuous area of the furniture using a brush.
- Let the alcohol work its way into the finish for like 5 to 10 seconds before it evaporates.
- If the alcohol dissolves the finish and it comes off easily when wiped with a rag, then you most likely have French-polished furniture. And you can proceed to remove the finish accordingly.
Adequate surface preparation is important when removing French polish just as it is when applying it. The solvent used for removing French polish from wood is denatured alcohol (methylated spirit).
Methylated spirit is not damaging to the metal accessories like the knobs, handles, etc. Hence, you don’t need to remove them. As an added advantage, the alcohol will clean and disinfect the accessories.
Here is how to prepare furniture for French polish removal:
- Use a flexible scraper like an old credit card to remove dirt and food residues from the wood surface. Don’t apply too much force when scraping so as not to damage the wood finish.
- Dust the furniture with a brush.
- Use fine-grit sandpaper to sand the furniture surface gently to make the surface smoother and expose the French polish for better acceptance of the alcohol. Once again, dust the furniture with a brush.
- Clean the furniture with a damp cloth and mild dishwasher. Then, dry with a clean dry cloth.
- Clean the furniture again with clothes damped with white spirit (mineral spirit) to clean the remaining dirt and residues. Let the spirit evaporate.
- At this stage, you can remove damages that do not cut too deep into the finish. To do this, you can use a mild abrasive compound like rotten stone or pumice. You can also use automotive paint polishing compound or metal polish.
The idea is to rub in the material of your choice into the blemished areas with a cloth until the blemishes are removed. Then, rub it off with a clean rag. At this point, you can proceed to remove the french polish.
3) Removing The French Polish
Here is a step-by-step procedure on how to remove French polish from furniture:
- Apply an ample amount of denatured alcohol (methylated spirit) with a brush. Let it sit long enough to soak into the finish and dissolve it.
- When the finish has dissolved, use a 0000 steel wool dipped in alcohol to scrub the surface to remove as much as you can. Make sure to scrub along the wood grain and don’t dig deep into the wood.
- For areas that are difficult for the steel wool to reach, use a stiff brush to apply the alcohol and the tip of a knife to get the dissolved polish out.
- Because alcohol evaporates quickly, you need to repeat its application for as long as is required to dissolve all the French polish.
- Use rags to clean up the remnant of the dissolved polish. Change the rags often to avoid rubbing back the polish onto the wood.
Preparing The Furniture For Refinishing
Once the French polish has been completely removed, the next step is to prepare the furniture for refinishing. Here is how to prepare the furniture for refinishing:
- Repair imperfections
- Sand the wood
- Modify the wood
1) Repairing Imperfections
Unlike other finishes like varnish, french polish does not do well at hiding imperfections on wood rather, it accentuates it. Therefore, the first thing to do in preparation for french polish refinishing is to examine the furniture for imperfections and fix them. Below are some imperfections you might encounter and how to fix them:
- Loose veneers
Fixing loose veneers
Examine the furniture for loose veneers by tapping different areas. You can identify areas with loose veneers from the hollow sound they make when tapped. To fix areas of the furniture with loose veneers, all you need to do is reactivate the glue.
Do this by placing a piece of paper over the loose veneer and pressing it down with a hot iron. Leave it for a while so that the glue can be heated and reactivated. While the glue is well heated, beat down the loose veneer with a hammer or hold it down with a clamp.
If that proves abortive, it might help to wet the veneer before applying the heat and clamping. As a final resort, inject fresh glue underneath the loose veneer and clamp it down until the glue is cured.
Use wax sticks to fill dents in the wood. These wax sticks come in a variety of colors. Hence, you can choose one that color matches your furniture.
To apply the filler, melt the wax stick with a flame and fill the dents with the melted wax until it is leveled with the rest of the surface. Then, buff the filled area until smooth.
2) Sanding The Wood
Sand the furniture starting with a 120-grit sandpaper and work your way up to 240-grit. Doing this will help remove any other imperfections including deep-sitted stains that escaped the polish removal process. It will also make the furniture smooth and ready for refinishing.
Ensure to sand the furniture in the direction of the wood grain. Also, it is important to avoid over-sanding.
3) Modifying The Wood
This is an optional step to take if you want to change the look of your furniture. Here are some ways you can modify the furniture before proceeding to refinish it:
If you want the furniture to have a lighter shade than it formerly was, you will have to bleach it. Bleaching can also help get rid of dark stains that are sitted too deep in the wood. To do this, create a mixture of household bleach and hot water in a 1:1 ratio and apply it with a paintbrush or a spray bottle.
Then, put the furniture in the sun to dry for about 15 minutes. Check if the furniture is lightened to your satisfaction or if you need to repeat the bleaching process.
Aside from bleaching woods to make them lighter, you might also wish to change their color before applying French polish. To deliver on this, you need to stain the furniture with wood dyes. There are several shades of wood dyes you can choose from based on the look you are trying to achieve.
You can also mix different shades of dye to achieve the color you want. It is important to note that staining a piece of furniture will make it darker. However, if you wish to achieve a lighter shade after staining, then you need to bleach the wood first and stain after.
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