Historic Finishing Workshop – Constructing and Conditioning the Spirit Varnish Polishing Pad

As with many woodworkers the students for the recent workshop were enamored with the mystique of shellac spirit varnish pad polishing, also known in the trade vernacular as “French polishing” although I am unpersuaded by the accuracy of that moniker (I have listened to impassioned recitations by French craftsmen referring to the practice as “English polishing” because true historic French Polishing is a wax spit-polish technique).  To that end I asked my long time pal Knoxville Dave to stop by for the weekend and he was a great addition to the fellowship and learning experience.

Dave provided the hands-on instruction for the exercises of pad polishing through the weekend, beginning with constructing the pad itself.

As is my (and his) preference the starting point is a roll of surgical gauze, cut into long strips then folded and rolled into the ball that is the core of the polishing pad.

Once the ball is formed to fit into the palm of the user, it is wrapped with a piece of fine linen to serve as the disposable contact surface for delivering the dilute shellac varnish onto the surface of the workpiece.  (I am always on the lookout for fine linen rags at antique shops, and with great success in recent years.  If I have to use new linen I rely on an ultra fine weave known as either “handkerchief linen” or “Portrait linen,” the latter being used by fine art painters.  Still, I prefer well-worn tablecloths or napkins and have a good stash.)  At that point the entire tool is “conditioned” with the introduction of the spirit varnish to saturate both the ball core and the outer sheath, not enough to be dripping wet but enough to leave a trace of the spirit varnish when pressed into the opposite palm.  At this point the pad is ready for work.

It went into a dedicated sealed jar awaiting the combat to come.  Dave and I showed our own polisher jar containers, mine has served me with the same pad for almost two decades.

Now it was time to prep the panels to be polished out.  By the time we finished I think there were five separate pad polishing exercises to be completed.