French polishing became prominent in the 18th century. In the Victorian era, French polishing was commonly used on mahogany and other expensive woods. It was considered the best finish for fine furniture and string instruments such as pianos and guitars. The process was very labour intensive, and many manufacturers abandoned the technique around 1930, preferring the cheaper and quicker techniques of spray finishing nitrocellulose lacquer and abrasive buffing. In Britain, instead of abrasive buffing, a fad of "pullover"[clarification needed] is used in much the same way as traditional French polishing. This slightly melts the sprayed surface and has the effect of filling the grain and burnishing at the same time to leave a "French polished" look.

Another reason shellac fell from favour is its tendency to melt under low heat; for example, hot cups can leave marks on it. However, French polish is far more forgiving than any other finish in the sense that, unlike lacquers, it can be easily repaired.

The process is lengthy and very repetitive. There are also many similar variations in schedule and technique. What is described here is one such schedule. The finish is obtained through a specific combination of different rubbing motions (generally circles and figure-eights), waiting for considerable time, building up layers of polish and then spiriting off any streaks left in the surface.