My new DVD guide to the art of French polishing a guitar

French polishing has been used for finishing musical instruments for hundreds of years, is still the preferred method of finishing classical guitars.

French Polishing DVD

This DVD based course follows the process of French polishing a guitar, from preparation of the surfaces, through filling of the grain, building up the shellac, and the critical final stages required to achieve a professional finish.

The term "French polish" actually refers to the technique used to apply the finish, rather than the material used, but in general French polishing refers to a shellac finish applied with a rubber or pad, and built up slowly with very many coats. The material itself, shellac, is produced from a resin secreted by the lac beetle, which lives in trees in India and southern Asia. The resin is processed to form flakes, which are then dissolved in alcohol to produce a liquid polish.

There are a number of finishes that can be used for classical guitars, so why use shellac? Firstly it's a very beautiful finish when applied well. It is also non-toxic, and it is a relatively easy finish to repair. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is possible to produce a high gloss without building the finish up to a thickness where it would dampen the vibrations of the soundboard.

The DVD is divided into Chapters and Sub-headings for easy navigation through all the stages. One chapter is devoted to the materials required, and these are listed in more detail, along with suggested suppliers, in the accompanying booklet. The booklet also contains a summary of the contents of the DVD, and some additional material, and is divided into the same Chapter and Sub-headings as the DVD itself. Running time is approximately 150 minutes.

The DVD will be available to buy direct from me through this website (using PayPal), and from some luthier's suppliers. Cost will be £45, including postage and packing within the UK, or £48, including postage and packing overseas.

Chapter Summary

  1. Introduction
  2. French Polishing DVD
  3. Materials
  4. Preparation
    • Surface Preparation
    • Raising the Grain
    • Masking Off
  5. Basic Technique
    • Introduction
    • Coats vs. Sessions
  6. Grain Filling
    • Sealing
    • Filling the Grain
    • Filling on the Head
  7. Bodying Up
    • First Polishing Session
    • Sanding Back
    • Further Sessions
    • Spiriting Off
  8. Final Polishing Session
  9. Burnishing

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Review featured in Classical Guitar Magazine, March 2013

"Many practical skills can be learnt by reading a relevant book on the subject, but learning to play a musical instrument is not one of them; we all know how important it is to be taught properly by a good musician who is also a communicative teacher.

French polishing is another skill that is almost impossible to pick up convincingly from a book, and more specifically, French polishing a guitar is even more tricky and awkward than normal, due to the difficult shapes involved, as well as the knowledge that its eventual owner will scrutinize it without mercy.

English guitar maker James Lister (who featured in the November 2012 edition of Classical Guitar) has produced a DVD that demonstrates comprehensively how to French polish a guitar. By enlisting the help of a professional film maker who takes charge of the filming and editing, Lister himself is free to concentrate on the entire polishing process.

He starts with one of his own newly built guitars ready to be varnished, and carries out each stage of the process, often in real time. Although he prefers the 'natural' look of rosewood with unfilled pores on his own instruments, he nevertheless goes through the traditional, painstaking process of filling the grain with pumice powder and shellac, which gives a completely smooth surface on which to polish; a smooth glossy surface remains the finish of choice with many makers and players and thus this is a process that every maker needs to master.

The quality of the filming is excellent; for example close up shots of the rosewood back clearly demonstrate when the pores are open and when filled. Even the soundtrack accurately gets across the varying sounds made by the French polishing 'rubber'; sounds which change according to the shellac/alcohol/oil mix being used at the time. These are the subtleties impossible to portray on the written page.

We see how to combine shellac flakes with alcohol to make up a fresh polish mixture and each step in building up the required shellac thickness is carried out, cutting back when necessary, building up again, smoothing the surface, burning off the oil, and finally bringing the surfaces to a high gloss. The stages at which the polish must be reduced in strength, and exactly when to introduce more or less alcohol and oil are explained in detail.

Lister's calm and patient manner make it a pleasure to watch. The DVD runs for around two and a half hours, and being divided into bookmarked sections, the viewer can easily move around to drill deeper into any area that needs to be re-visited.

The DVD is presented in a box together with a professionally-printed A5 size booklet that summarizes the major contents, as well as giving useful information about where to obtain all the necessary supplies.

So for any guitar maker or player who would like to understand how to obtain a brilliant professional finish on a guitar, this DVD is highly recommended."

Roy Courtnall Summerfield (author of Making Master Guitars)


"Whilst being a fellow luthier but not entirely satisfied with the results I was achieving with my French polishing, I contacted James for a few words of wisdom, he kindly sent a DVD of his techniques and after following them to the letter I was very impressed with the finished results ...... absolutely outstanding ........ so thank you James once again for all your help and advice, it has given a top quality finish to my instruments and I will certainly be using this method from now on."

"I'm lucky enough to have received a copy of this DVD just as I was needing to finish my first guitar. It's thoroughly recommended. It is clear, detailed and thorough, and covers everything from preparing the guitar for finishing, gathering all the materials you need, to the detailed method and technique to get a really good finish. I've used it by just watching the DVD, reading the accompanying booklet, going through both together and then studying it all again as I went through each stage involved. If you follow the advice and guidance here I don't think you'll go far wrong. It is certainly indispensable for someone doing this for the first time, but will also be very helpful for anyone wishing to improve their french polishing skill. Compared to say, the cost of a guitar lesson, it's excellent value."

YouTube Video about the DVD