Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Don Williams on True Traditional French Polish

Don Williams, who for 28 years has worked as a furniture conservator and scholar at the nation's largest cultural institution in Washington, D.C., gave a presentation to the Chesapeake Chapter of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers in April on traditional French polish.

Many of us have been under the misapprehension that French polish involves shellac, which instead refers to an English polish. True French polish is a wax finish.

While translating the book To Make As Perfectly As Possible by AndrĂ© Roubo (available by Christmas from Lost Art Press), Don discovered what to most of us is a long forgotten tool that was used in French polishing—a broom straw burnisher.  He's convinced that this wax and burnisher technique was used in 18th-century high style European marquetry.

Don stopped by my shop last week on his way to the Martin J. Donnelly antique tool auction, and I offered to film him demonstrating French polishing.

I also invited a friend over to watch. In other words, the male voice you hear in the background is not me with a cold.

If being period accurate is important to you, or this technique simply seems like something you'd like to try, you can make your own straw burnisher, find a broom maker to make one for you, or order one from Don for $12, plus shipping. In any case, both ends of the burnisher can be used.

You can contact Don at donsbarn250@msn.com.  Eventually, he plans to offer more products and information based on this newly rediscovered knowledge.*

The video is in real time so you can see how much time he spends on each part of the technique, but listen carefully because he offers loads of valuable information while he's working.

To view the video in HD on YouTube, click here.



*I do not benefit in any way from the sale of Don's burnishers or any future product he plans to offer.

22 comments:

Brian Biggs said...

Cool stuff! Thanks for sharing this. I don't know if I'd do it on big pieces (it looks like work, and I avoid that) but I may try this out on a box I'm building for my grand daughter.

Stephen Shepherd said...

Does that mean all of the old literature on French Polishing is wrong?

Stephen

Jonas said...

Nice video but I gonna continue to say that French polish involves Shellac no offence :).

Kari Hultman said...

It's a really interesting way to finish a piece, no doubt. I'll let Don chime in about his research, though. I've never tried any kind of polishing—French or English or otherwise.

I have, however, finished a piece of cocobolo by rubbing it with leather. Made a beautiful sheen.

Jeff Waggoner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Waggoner said...

Should that contact be donsbarn250@msn.com not donsbarn250.msn.com?

Anonymous said...

The issue is only one of nomenclature, maybe lost in translation. What Don is demonstrating, the English call "spit polish", and the French call "French Polish".

What the Eglish, and colonists call "French Polish," the French call "English Polish."


William, on the Cohansey

Kari Hultman said...

Jeff, thanks, yes, you are correct about his email address.

William, sort of like the "Kentucky Long Rifle" actually originated in Pennsylvania. Here in PA, we refer to it as the Pennsylvania Long Rifle, but the KLR name won out in other states.

Doug Berch said...

This is sooo interesting! Thanks to both of you for putting this together. I just read an article about luthiers burnishing soundboards and using a bit of wax as the only finish and this inspires me to have an adventure!

Kari Hultman said...

Doug, at the SAPFM meeting, he also talked about using shellac, brushes, and pumice on carvings to give it an aged look. Maybe he'll come for another visit to make another video. :o)

Autumn said...

Thank you so much, Kari, for taking the trouble to edit and post this. This answers a question I’ve had in the back of my head for over thirty years.

Back in the 70s, in New Orleans, I shared a room-to-room workshop where pieces of antique furniture started with me, who repaired them, then moved on to the refinisher (before we all knew that was a bad idea).

One day I heard our refinisher exclaimed in frustration, “I give up! This must have been polished by servants every day with real wax!” He was trying to strip the “finish” off an old, beautiful, dark-colored piece of carved furniture that had probably come into New Orleans with a French colonist in the 1700s. No modern-day stripping chemical could eat it away, and he finally gave up in frustration, telling the customer he couldn’t get all of the wax out of the piece in order to put a new finish on it.

I wonder how much more valuable knowledge we’ve lost since the advent and promotion of petroleum-based chemicals as quick solutions to all of our needs.

Autumn said...

Thank you so much, Kari, for taking the trouble to edit and post this. This answers a question I’ve had in the back of my head for over thirty years.

Back in the 70s, in New Orleans, I shared a room-to-room workshop where pieces of antique furniture started with me, who repaired them, then moved on to the refinisher (before we all knew that was a bad idea).

One day I heard our refinisher exclaimed in frustration, “I give up! This must have been polished by servants every day with real wax!” He was trying to strip the “finish” off an old, beautiful, dark-colored piece of carved furniture that had probably come into New Orleans with a French colonist in the 1700s. No modern-day stripping chemical could eat it away, and he finally gave up in frustration, telling the customer he couldn’t get all of the wax out of the piece in order to put a new finish on it.

I wonder how much more valuable knowledge we’ve lost since the advent and promotion of petroleum-based chemicals as quick solutions to all of our needs.

Anonymous said...

Autumn, I only say this for informational purposes, as I fully understand your frustration with the unjustified strip and dip approach, but I believe a petroleum type of solvent would be one of the few useful tools in removing wax. Detergent and turpentine would be good as well. My $.02 :)

Bob Rozaieski said...

Thanks for posting this Kari! While I missed the Chesapeake chapter meeting, I got a chance to see one of the straw burnishers that William brought to the Delaware Valley chapter meeting a few weeks later. It was a really cool little tool that I would really like to get my hands on. I can't imagine that it will be a high demand item for most folks, but for those doing accurate reproductions and/or historical interpretation, I can see it being a cool thing to have. I know I want one.

Ian Mackay said...

Anyone who can say "vomiting polyurinate" with a straight face is ok by me. :-)

I'll have to rethink my finishing technique...

Thanks Kari/Don for this, it was really interesting.

Steve Hamlin said...

It does seem unnecessarily contrary to use a literal translation instead of accepting that the english language term for what he's demonstrating is not "french polish"
The only possible outcome is that some few ab initios are confused and confounded by conflicting information.

Mark Hochstein said...

I can't believe you had Don Williams in your shop. Color me jealous! Nice job on the video.

Anonymous said...

Any day I can go to bed knowing more than when I woke up is a good day.

Perhaps like many of you for years I was under the false impression that Roubo described a surface preparation process involving bundles of abrasive horsetail reeds to smooth the surfaces of the wood. In my own case I think this assumption was formed by viewing the plates of L’Art du Menuisier without the ability to read the text (and you know what “assuming” does). I can assure you that after being immersed in our Roubo translation project for more than four years, he describes no such thing as a bundle of abrasive reeds being used the way I show the straw bundle burnisher being used at Kari’s shop. Yes, he does deal with horsetail rush, but in a different application. I write further about the nature of these tools here.

http://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/04/17/roubo-the-broom-salesman-part-2/

I also recently was sent a neat video of Japanese artisans using a similar burnishing tool. I forgot to bookmark the video (or put the bookmark in the wrong folder), but when I find it again I will post the URL here.

And for those of you interested in more information about wax as finish, my former student Joe Godla published this excellent summary of his thesis here.

http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/wag/1991/WAG_91_godla.pdf

Finally, as to the whole French polish v. English polish kerfluffle I’ll just leave that particular windmill untilted at. After forty years of a particular lexicon it is difficult for me to change, but I am trying to simply refer to one method as wax polishing and the other as spirit varnish polishing. I have no expectation of many trying to follow my example, and that’s just fine. We can still exchange knowledge with passion and good will.

Don Williams

Kari Hultman said...

Autumn, we brought this up at our club meeting last night when we wondered how durable a burnished wax finish would be. You answered our question!

Thank you for commenting, Anonymous.

Bob, it is a neat little tool and I'm anxious to try it. I like the idea of an all-wax finish, for the look of it as well as the non-toxic properties. I'm glad I was able to film Don showing the technique, especially since several friends were not able to attend the meeting and they felt like they missed out.

Ian, he said it with a straight face, but my friend and I were highly amused.

Steve, you raise a good point. Does it mean that "French Polish" that the English used is wrong? Heavens, no. It's just different than what the French were using for their polish. It's a provocative topic, but more importantly, it's another period finish we can use on our projects.

Mark, all I did was point and shoot. All the work goes to Don. :o)

Thank you for chiming in, Don, and for sharing this technique with us.

Bill said...

Long before Makita sanders and 3M sandpaper, traditional Japanese craftsmen used horsetail reeds as their sandpaper. The horsetail was softened by soaking then attached to a block of wood.

Shannon said...

So glad you got to film this. I kept wishing I had a camera during our SAPFM meeting but it wouldn't have done it justice like the close ups and better lighting you have here. Thank you so much because now I can refer back to it when needed.

Elizabeth Conboy said...

I was searching for finishes suitable for an antique lock although I will need to find a professional dealer for that, but this is fascinating. An added benefit as we all know, is the safety of these tried and true materials and the meditative quality of the time dedicated to the finishing. I
can hardly call it 'work' because of the wonder and excitement of observing the beauty within the wood as it unfolds.
Where do I volunteer to be the Village Carpenters go-fer?