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  Of Polishing Wood-Work from Practical Carpentry, Joinery, and Cabinet-Making by Peter Nicholson, 1826 1 of 2  

Of Polishing Wood-Work

The object of polishing is to make the surface of wood-work bright and smooth, and to improve and protect its colour. By rendering it bright, it reflects light, and exhibits the natural figure and colour of the wood with much greater effect; but it also renders every defect more apparent, and therefore the more perfect the polish, the better the workmanship ought to be.

French furniture has always been much admired, in consequence of the beauty of its polish, and we may add the care bestowed in finishing the surface, as well as in avoiding soft and porous wood for good furniture; as we well know that polish alone does nothing unless it be employed on an object worthy of polishing.

There are several methods of polishing depending on the use of the articles, or the modes of operation.

Common Polishing

The most simple is Oil-polishing, used for ordinary work. It is merely oiled with linseed-oil, which causes the colours of the wood to be reflected more strongly; and, by slight oiling and rubbing, a bright gloss may be produced wherever the wood has been well cleaned off. Where it is intended to improve upon the natural colour of the wood, the oil is coloured by alkanet-root, dragon's-blood, or other colouring matters which dissolve in oil; the solution being assisted by gentle heat. Sometimes, for porous woods, insoluble colouring matter, such as ochres, rose-pink, &c., are added, but these seem to have very little effect.

In getting a polish on new furniture, the oil is applied with very fine sifted brick-dust. The object of this addition is to wear the wood to a smoother surface than is obtained by cleaning it off. The brick-dust and oil forms a kind of putty under the rubbing cloth, and when it does so, no further addition of dust should be made, but the rubbing continued till the desired degree of smoothness be obtained.

The French cabinet-makers use tripoli instead of brickdust, and certainly with better effect. The brick-dust or tripoli is cleared off when the proper degree of smoothness is obtained, by rubbing with bran. This is still esteemed the best method of polishing dining-tables.

The next, in simplicity, is Wax Polishing. It consists in rubbing the surface with hard bees'-wax, and polishing it with corks, brushes, and linen cloth-rubbers. This mode of polishing is much used for the inside parts of work; also for chairs, bedsteads, and various stained articles.

To lessen the labour of applying the wax, it is sometimes, for common stained work, dissolved in linseed-oil by a slow heat, and rubbed on with a rag, and polished by brushes and linen cloths.

A wax composition, called Furniture Paste, is also used for polishing; it is formed by dissolving bees-wax in a small quantity of spirit of turpentine by a gentle heat, and adding about a sixteenth part of powdered rosin. The composition is rubbed on, and polished in the same manner as wax. It is for new work sometimes stained by the addition of alkanet-root, or rose-pink; the colour of the alkanet-root must be extracted by the turpentine before it be added to the wax. The addition of a small quantity of copal varnish to the dissolved wax while it is warm, is esteemed better than the addition of rosin.

Of French Polishing

Lately a new mode of polishing has been adopted for furniture, called French Polish, which consists in applying a considerable thickness of transparent gum-lac over the wood, and by that means rendering it less necessary to give the wood itself so fine a surface, as when that surface is the one which is polished. In the new method, the surface of the gum is the polished surface.

French polish is a species of spirit-varnish, chiefly composed of shell-lac; which, when dissolved in spirit of wine, forms the hardest and most durable spirit-varnish known. It is mixed with certain portions of gum-mastich and gum-Sandarach, for the purpose of rendering its colour paler, which is a desirable circumstance in some of the works to which it is applied.

It differs from varnishing in the manner of applying it to the articles. This is done by rubbing it upon their surface with a fine cloth, and using oil and spirit of wine during the process, as will now be more particularly described. The varnish is composed of:

  • Shell-lac, three parts;

  • Gum-mastich, one part;

  • Gum-Sandarach, one part;

  • Spirit of wine, 40 parts.

The mastich and Sandarach must first be dissolved in the spirit of wine, and then the shelllac: the process may be performed by putting them into a bottle loosely corked, and placing it in a vessel of water heated to a little below 173, or the boiling point of spirit of wine, until the solution be effected; the clear solution may be poured off into another bottle for use.

In applying it to large surfaces, use a rubber formed of a flat coil of thick woolen cloth, such as drugget, which must be torn off the piece, in order that the face of the rubber, which is made of the torn edge of the cloth, may be soft and pliant, and not hard and stiff, as would be the case were it to be cut off and thereby be liable to scratch the soft surface of the varnish.

This rubber is to be securely bound with thread, to prevent it from uncoiling when it is used; and it may vary in its size from one to three inches in diameter, and from one to two inches in thickness, according to the extent of the surface to be varnished.

The varnish is to be applied to the middle of the flat face of the rubber by shaking up the bottle containing it against the rubber; it will absorb a considerable quantity, and will continue to Supply it equally, and in a clue proportion to the surface which is undergoing the process of polishing.

The face of the rubber must next be covered by a soft linen-cloth doubled, the remainder of the cloth being gathered together at the back of the rubber to form a handle to hold it by, and the face of the cloth must be moistened with a little raw linseed-oil, (which may either be coloured with alkanet-root, or not,) applied upon the finger to the middle of it, and the operation be commenced by quickly and lightly rubbing the surface of the article to be polished in a constant succession of small circular strokes; and the operation must be confined to a space not more than 10 or 12 inches square, until such space is finished, when an adjoining one may be commenced, and united with the first, and so on, until the whole surface is covered.


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