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Wood Finishing with Shellac

Want a safe, non-toxic finish on your project?

Finishing or refinishing your woodworking project with Shellac gives you the both of best worlds: A beautiful (superior clarity) and an environmentally friendly finish. Shellac is perfect for antique restoration, furniture refinishing, casework, architectural woodwork, toys, musical instruments, cradles, cribs and general woodworking.

Shellac is natural and nontoxic

Shellac is a natural resin produced by the Coccus lacca (lac beetle), that is harveted from trees in Southeast Asia. The insect secretes a resin, which dries and hardens into a protective covering called lac. The lac is collected, crushed, washed, and dried. After cleaning and heating, it is drawn into thin sheets of finished shellac. The level of refinement, the timing of harvest, and source of the lac, determines the characteristics (color) of the product that finally makes its way to market. Common colors are clear, amber, orange, blonde and garnet.

Not just for woodworking

The largest uses for shellac are for the food, drug, and cosmetics industries. The fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle of your grocery store are probably coated with shellac as is the the wax that makes the apples and peppers so shiny and appealing. Many hair-sprays are shellac-based and vitamins, pills and food supplements are commonly coated with shellac to make them easier to swallow. So why wouldn't you select shellac as the finish of choice when it comes to childrens' toys or woodworking projects that come in contact with food (bowls & utensils)?

But when it comes to woodworking

Pop that grain! Used as a top coat shellac's outstanding clarity really brings out the grain on woods like ash, birch, pine, cherry and hickory. Its clarity and non-toxic quality are unsurpassed. But there a dozens of other uses:

  • Use it as a wood conditioner: Shellac can be used to avoid uneven absorption of stains

  • Use it as a wood sealer: Shellac can be used to seal the ends of wet timbers, to help regulate moisture loss while drying, and reduce cracking, splitting and warpage.

  • Forget the Stain: All shellacs imbue some bit of color to wood so why stain "pine" with a "pine stain" or maple with a "maple stain" when shellac will bring out the best natural qualities of the wood. As an added bonus (when it comes to pine), shellac stops pine pitch from bleeding!

  • Use as a barrier: Prevent stains and finishes with same base (oil-based stain and oil-based varnish) from bleeding into one another. Works with lacquer stains/varnishes too and is lso a good barrier between incompatible finishes.

  • If you're stripping porous wood, and the stubborn pores still have gunk in them, you can apply shellac, then strip it again and the shellac will pull the gunk out!

  • Use it as a sanding sealer. A spit coat applied stiffens wood fibers, making sandinbg and planing easier and smoother.

  • Use it when all else fails. If you are not sure what type of finish is on something and you are unable to strip the piece use shellac. It adheres to almost anything except wax.

Shellac Properties
  • Doesn't yellow as much with age as other varnishes and lacquer – it pretty much stays true to its color.

  • Dries hard, and won't gum-up like oil finishes but is easily repaired because the new coat melts into previous layer.

  • Pretty much orderless.

  • Tintable - avoid uneven staining by tinting your projects using colored shellac.

  • Dries quickly. Avoid the problems associated with a varnish finish (dust specks, bubbles, etc). You can recoat thin coats in usually less than two hours.

  • Non-toxic when dry. Shellac is a USP-approved food coating.

Ready to start?

Don't use shellac straight out of the can. It has to be cut with denatured alcohol (follow the instructions on the container). When shellac is purchased in a can (liquid) it is usually cut 2:5. Since the canned stuff usually has a shelf life (check the date printed on the can prior to buying or using) its often better to buy a kit (flakes) so that you can mix up the amount needed for the task. Again, the kit will come with instuctions on mixing with denatured alcohol and plan ahead. Depending on the temperature and denatured alcohol you use, the flakes will take up to 24 hours todissolve. Oh, and use the best alcohol you can get – 200 proof (less than 5% denaturants) is recommended.

Brush on using a 2" or 3" china-bristle brush or natural-bristle brish. Load half the brush up with shellac. Apply in thin coats (three minimum) following the wood grain. Its best to wait about two hours between coats.

You can use shellac as a wipe on finish. Use slightly thinner mix and start with a clean piece of T-shirt (100% cotton) folded into a palm-sized pad. Dip it into the shellac and apply using straight, even strokes. Don't rub – or a uneven finish will be the result.

A "spit coat" is made by simply thinning the mix (again follow the instruction for product purchased).

Use a high quality wax over the shellac if you'd like to add more depth and to help with the wear and teat on high traffic surfaces like table tops.

Once you done it with shellac, you may never go back!


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