Indoor: Join the gleam team

Sally Staples brightens up her life and her furniture on a French polishing course
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The Independent Online
If you have any old furniture that seems past redemption and has been stashed away in an attic, think again. In just a few hours you could learn how to strip away a dull or stained surface and use the skills of traditional French polishing to bring a glossy shine to an old table or chair - or, indeed, any piece of wood that needs a new lease of life.

All that's required is that you bring to six three-hour sessions a pair of rubber gloves, some protective clothing and the item that needs restoration.

Martin Masterson, the French polisher and tutor who runs a course at London's Kensington and Chelsea adult education college, will provide students with all the other materials for just pounds 5 a head. These include steel wool, methylated spirits, old rags, white spirit, sandpaper and the French polish itself.

Stripping the wood is the initial task, and on the day I was there a group of 10 stood round to watch as Martin illustrated the technique on an oak breakfast tray. The first stage is to remove all the traces of the old polish or varnish. With antique furniture that has been French polished, this is usually done with meths. But modern pieces that have been lacquered or varnished need to be treated with paint-stripper.

Martin rubbed a meths-soaked rag all over the tray's surface until it became a little sticky. Then he took some steel wool and rubbed from side to side, following the grain of the wood as the polish was gradually removed. Once the tray's surface was quite pale, coarse sandpaper was used to remove any scratches and dents in the wood. Next it was sanded down with fine paper to regain the smooth surface.

At that stage the students set about stripping their own pieces of furniture. Tony Collombotti had brought in a large mahogany box once used by an architect for pens and pencils. Loulene Kuschke had a rosewood box, and other students had variously brought a bedside table, a six-legged stool and a box made from beech.

Everyone worked at their own pace, and Martin walked round the class giving advice and preparing for the next stage: staining the wood.

"If you go into shops, they will try to sell you dozens of different colours for staining wood," he said. "But in fact all you need are two basic colours - dark oak and red mahogany. By mixing and diluting these two you can achieve almost any colour you want."

Martin explained that the mahogany box should not be painted with the mahogany stain, as the effect would be too red. Instead he recommended a dark oak stain. As all the stains are oil based, they should be diluted with turpentine or white spirit when necessary.

Once the box was painted with the dark oak stain, and the excess wiped off, it was almost ready for polishing. But first a little sanding down was advised.

Martin demonstrated how this could be done using gentle movements to retain some natural irregularities. Part of the attraction of wood is that some marks are visible, giving character to the piece.

Since the course concentrates on traditional French polishing, there are no short cuts to learning the art of making what is called the "rubber" to polish the piece of furniture. Martin gave a demonstration of this by folding a piece of wadding inside a rag and moulding it with his thumb and finger into the shape of a mouse. The rag must be free of lint, to avoid bits of fabric sticking on to the wood during polishing.

Before the rubber comes into play, a special polishing mop made from camel hair is used to coat the surface with a full-strength solution of the polish, which should be diluted by one-third to two with methylated spirits. The second and subsequent layers are put on with the rubber, and the polishing must be done in a figure of eight to keep the layers thin and evenly distributed.

A drop of linseed oil is added to the wood to lubricate the polish, and the process is repeated many times until the required effect is achieved.

The final touches involve removing the oil from the polish by squeezing the rubber several times in undiluted polish and gently wiping over the surface until all oil traces are gone. Students are advised to leave their furniture to dry for at least a week before using it.

The French polishing course at Kensington and Chelsea College, London, (0171-573 5333) runs for six weeks and costs pounds 69. Martin Masterson also runs a course on decorative surface which includes tortoiseshelling, crackle glazing, marbling and wood graining.