"Hey, Buzz, what exactly is a French Polish?" I'm so glad you asked because this is a multiple choice question.
A "French Polish" is defined as:
A. A stuffed sausage, similar to a Polish kielbasa, but embraced as haute cuisine by Le Cordon Bleu by adding truffle oil to the recipe. It shouldn't be confused with the smaller and distinctly less chic "cocktail weenie". A French Polish sausage looks like this:
B. French Polish is Buzz's family ancestry with an emphasis on the Polish and replacing the French with Slavs and Russian peasants.
C. A French polish is a highly glossy and durable furniture finish invented by the English in the 18th century but perfected by the French and very widespread in the 19th century and hence the name.
Correct answer: Both B and C but the furniture finish is what's relevant to this post.
Here's a French polished 19th century Sheraton style breakfast table:
List price: $21,000 USD
Our workshop creates French polishes all the time on custom furniture and restores French polishes on antiques. So there's no mystery to it.
The first thing to know is that French polish is not a product--like French fries--it's actually a labor intensive technique of furniture finishing that produces a tough surface with a glossy and durable finish. And there are varying degrees of French polish (little known antiquarian factoid) from a light sheen to a mirror finish. So not all French polishes are created equal.
Here's a French polished Andre Arbus maple dining table from the 1920's:
What French polishing is all about is gradually filling the pores in the wood grain so that a reflective surface is created to achieve the desired level of sheen.
The process uses shellac flakes (mixed by hand), different grades of sandpaper, FFFF-grade pumice, 100% extra virgin olive oil, various grits of extremely fine wet/dry sandpaper, wool fabric and some 100% cotton fabric.
As each coat is abraded with a finer material, it is cleaned and sealed with shellac, gradually filling the grain pores until the level of French polish desired is achieved. For a full-on French polish, there are no pores left-just a mirrored glossy surface. Then it's waxed using pure beeswax and turpentine and you're set to go.
Below, an Italian 19th century French polished walnut and satinwood dining table:
List price: $172,000 USD
What's the olive oil for? Shellac is sticky and the oil is used to grease the pad used to apply the shellac in a uniform and consistent coat.
In order to perfect the French polish, 25 or more passes with the abrasive material, cleaner and shellac are required. And, very importantly, it must be done in a dust free environment or you can't achieve the true mirror gloss of French polish.
Here's a French polished Maggiolini commode, 18th c. Italian:
Final comment: Why do you see so many French polished antiques in the U.S. marketplace? Well, because some were created that way and others were refinished in a French polish. From the late 19th century on, especially in America, French polishing was and is very much in vogue.
But why? Because as every antique dealer knows, the general rule is that Americans love shiny antiques in stark contrast to the Europeans who prefer dirtier/matte antiques. So French polishes or modified (that is, not completed to the mirror finish) French polishes are commonplace, although not all of them started that way.