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Getting Started

   What is French Polish? French polishing is not a finish, it is a technique for applying shellac to wood with a cloth rubbing pad, called a 'muneca', which achieves a very good quality of finish, but takes quite a lot of work and time to build up the thickness.

   What do I need? If you are just beginning, I would recommend the following, as the least likely to present problems. With more experience, you may wish to try other combinations...

  • 'blonde' shellac flakes
  • de-natured alcohol
  • pumice powder
  • 100% virgin olive oil (or unperfumed baby oil)
  • Sandpaper; 180, 220, 320, 400 open dry sandpaper; 400, 800, 1200 wet and dry auto sandpaper
  • wool, tee-shirt material
  • Meguiar's No 7 car polish (or similar) OR rottenstone powder.
  • Miscellaneous; plastic dropper, salt cellar for pumice, thin wire.

   Where do I get Shellac? In Europe I would suggest Dicks in Germany, who do produce an English cataloge. www.dick.biz 

  • They sell 3 types;
  • Astra: bleached, highly transparent shellac. I have used this for several years with very few problems.
  • Komet: orange coloured shellac for a slight tinge.
  • Superior Shellac: a reddish shellac for darkening and bringing out the grain.
  • They are all very pure and usefully, de-waxed.
  • They also produce orange and lemon shellac??

Astra shellacKomet shellacSuperior shellac

                                            In the States I would suggest Luthiers Mercantile International at www.lmii.com but beware they cannot ship everything abroad now after 9/11.

  • They sell 5 shades:
  • Very light transparent blonde shellac, 8 oz.
  • Light blonde shellac, 8 oz.
  • Medium/dark blonde shellac, 8 oz.
  • Amber shellac, 8 oz.
  • Brown shellac, 8 oz.
  • I am not sure if it de-waxed or not, 'blonde' should mean de-waxed!

   How do I mix the shellac? It is mixed by adding given quantities of shellac flakes and alcohol in glass jar. A pint of mixed shellac is easily enough to French polish a whole guitar. For a mandolin it would obviously be much less. I typically make up about 1/4 pint at a time, keeping it in a screw top jar.

1 lb cut 2 lb cut 3 lb cut
shellac flakes alcohol shellac flakes alcohol shellac flakes alcohol
2 oz. 1 pint 4oz. 1 pint 6 oz. 1 pint
60 gm 480 ml 120 gm 480 ml 180 gm 480 ml

Yes.. I know the conversions are not exact....

    What kind of Alcohol is used as solvent? There are 3 types of commonly available alcohol; methanol, (methyl or wood alcohol) ethanol (ethyl or grain alcohol) and isopropanol (isopropyl or rubbing alcohol). All of these will dissolve shellac, BUT, methanol is very toxic, ethanol can be very expensive because of alcohol tax, and isopropanol usually contains too much water to be useful. What we use is denatured ethanol/alcohol, ethanol made poisonous so it cannot be drunk, so not subject to alcohol tax. ('Alcool a brule' in French)

   How do I make a Muneca? A Muneca is the cloth pad used to apply the liquid shellac to the wood. ('Muneca' is Spanish for puppet; draw 2 eyes and a mouth, and you have a puppets head!) It is made by wrapping an inner absorbent pad tightly within an outer, lint-free, non-stretch cover. For the inner I use a piece of old woollen sock, but cheesecloth or t-shirt cotton will also do. For the outer I use t-shirt cotton. Make a pad of the inner material, about 2-3" across, I cut 2 or 3 round circles, each smaller than the last, and wrap them tightly in the outer fabric. Use wire bag-ties or light wire to tie it off. It can be used repeatedly, changing the cover as it becomes worn. Store in an air-tight glass jar. When next used it may be 'activated' with perhaps less than the normal shellac. I make several muneca, because its not always useful to use the same one for pumice, polishing, and removing oil.

   What is pumice? Pumice is a very fine volcanic glass. It comes as a white powder, but because of a low refractive index, appears colourless when mixed with shellac or oil. It is also abrasive. Thus it is perfect as a pore filler. The finest grad is 4f and this is the one used in French polishing.