This section is from the book "Spons' Mechanics' Own Book: A Manual For Handicraftsmen And Amateurs", by Edward Spon. Also available from Amazon: Spons' Mechanics' Own Book.
The following directions for polishing are said to represent the practice followed in the United States. It should be remembered that as regards the polishing the different climatic conditions should be allowed for, as the normal dryness of the atmosphere in the United States favours many processes in polishing which require special conditions in this country. In preparing and filling-in, first see that the work is smooth and free from dust, then oil the parts to he polished with raw linseed-oil, and prepare filling-in. That is done with a mixture of whiting and turpentine made into a paste; rub well into the grain of the wood with a piece of rag or tow, and wipe clean off. For mahogany, add rose pink to colour; for oak, birch, and ash, add a little yellow ochre. Work to be polished white requires no colour in the filler. For polishing, prepare a rubber of cotton-wadding; in size according to job; wot it with polish, and, with the point of the finger, put a little raw linseed-oil on it, then cover the rubber with a piece of rag; twist the end of the rag and keep it tight over rubber, and proceed to rub the job over in a circular direction, keeping rubber constantly in motion; when dry, wet it again, with oil, and continue to work it until a sufficient body of polish has been obtained, then place it on one side for about 12 hours to sink.
Polish always sinks after being bodied-up. In spiriting off or finishing, if the work be sunk in before spiriting, give a few rubbers of polish, then prepare a rubber the same as for bodying-up, and wet it with proof alcohol from a bottle with a little cut out of the side of the cork, so that the spirits will drop out: 3 or 4 drops will be enough for a learner to put on at one time. Take care the rubber is not too wet, or it will soften the polish and tear it up. When the rubber is nearly dry, rub smartly until all the job is clear of oil and rubber-marks. No oil is used in finishing. Varnishing is done with a camel-hair brush for turned or carved work. First give the work 2 or 3 rubbers of polish, and then, having stained the varnish, proceed to give the work a coat, passing the brush smartly over the job, taking care to keep it level, and do not go too often over the same place; 2 or 3 coats may be given in the same manner, rubbing down after each coat with fine glasspaper. Work that is varnished should stand 12 hours before it is handled. For glazing, prepare the rubber the same as for polishing, but make it much wetter, and pass it smartly over the work from right to left.
Always begin at the same end of the job, and bring the rubber straight to the other end in one stroke; do not go too often over the same place or you are apt to tear it up. This is used for common work in place of spiriting, and for mouldings, etc. A rubber of spirits, passed quickly over a job that has been glazed, very much improves it, and makes it smooth, but it must be done very lightly and quickly, and passed straight up and down.
A correspondent of the Boston (U.S.) Cabinet-Maker gives the following details of the methods of polishing wood. He first describes the method of polishing pianos used in all first-class factories. The same process will answer for any other piece of furniture by merely substituting for the scraping, where scraping is not practicable, a filling, properly coloured. First, give the work 3 coats of scraping or No. 2 furniture varnish, allowing each coat to become perfectly hard before applying the next; then scrape off the varnish with a steel scraper, properly sharpened on an oilstone, and in scraping be careful not to cut into the wood, but merely remove the varnish from the surface, leaving the pores filled. Smooth with No. 1 sandpaper, and the work will be ready for the polishing varnish, 4 coats of which must be put on, allowing each coat to harden. To determine the proper time required for the hardening, one coat will not be ready for the next until it is so hard that you cannot make any impression on it with your thumb-nail. The 4 coats having been put in, and the work having stood a few days - and the longer the better - rub down with fine-ground pumice and water, applied with a woollen rag.
The work must be rubbed until all lumps and marks of the brush are removed; wash off with a sponge and dry with a chamois skin; let the work stand out in the open air for a day or two, taking it into the shop at night. The work should now receive 2 coats more of polishing varnish and a second rubbing, after which it is ready for polishing. Furniture may be polished after the first rubbing, and in that case the polishing is performed with lump rottenstone and water applied with a woollen rag. Put plenty of rottenstone on your work, with water enough to make it work easy. Rub until all marks and scratches are removed. Rub the rottenstone off with your bare hand, keeping the work wet. What cannot be removed with the hand should be washed off with a sponge. After drying with a chamois skin, bring up the polish with the palm of your hand, moving it lightly and quickly, with a circular motion, over the work. Clean up the work with a piece of soft cotton, dipped into sweet oil, and lightly touch all the white spots and marks of the rottenstone. Remove the oil with wheat flour, applied with soft cotton, and finally dust off with a soft rag or silk handkerchief.
The following method is known as the Shellac or French Polish. In preparing for this process, add to 1 pint shellac varnish 2 tablespoonfuls of boiled oil; the two to be thoroughly mixed. If you want the work dark add a little burnt umber; or you can give the work any desired shade by mixing with the shellac the proper pigment in the dry state. Apply the shellac thus prepared with a small bunch of rags held between your fingers. In applying it, be particular in getting it on smooth and even, leaving no thick places or blotches, Repeat the process continually until the grain is filled and the work has received sufficient body. Let it stand a few hours to harden, and then rub your work lightly with pumice and oil, applied with a rag. A very little rubbing is required, and this is to be followed by the cleaning of the work with rags as dry as possible. With a piece of muslin wet with alcohol, go over the work 2 or 3 times, for the purpose of killing the oil. Have ready 1/4 lb. pure gum shellac dissolved in 1 pint 95 per cent. alcohol. With this saturate a pad made of soft cotton, covered with white muslin, and with the pad thus formed go over your work 2 or 3 times.
To become proficient in this work, practice and close attention are required.