Shellac: The best finish ever?
Shellac is a traditional finish that has been used by furniture makers for centuries and remains beneficial to woodworkers today.
Wood finishing is a topic we try to cover somewhat regularly in our print pages, as it can be a complex topic and it creates confusion amongst woodworkers. It’s one of the most critical steps in creating a nice piece of furniture. Shellac is one of those finishes that, until you use it, it seems confusing and complex. It’s a natural finish that works great in many situations. The wood finishing article we’re including in our current issue (Feb/Mar 2023) is an introduction to shellac, including its pros and cons, how to mix it, where it comes from and how to apply it. Hopefully it will add a bit of clarity to the world of wood finishing and dispel the myths surrounding shellac.
Is wood finishing part magic?
Measuring out different amounts of different finishes to mix up the perfect concoction is the woodworking equivalent to a witch standing over a cauldron, mixing up a potion. The main difference is that most woodworkers aren’t cackling and grinning; they’re nervous and worried they’ll ruin the project they’ve worked so hard on.
I can understand why wood finishing can seem complex to woodworkers. I can also understand why it’s anxiety-inducing. Different strengths and ratios of products we don’t know much about, all coming together to either enhance and protect our project for a lifetime, or ruin it in one quick brush stroke.
This was one of our cover options for our Feb/Mar 2023 issue. We eventually went with a different image.
There’s a lot to learn about wood finishes. When I was getting into woodworking, I found it easiest to focus on three or four finishes, learning how they were applied, what their strengths and weaknesses were, and how they looked on different species of wood. I made finishing panels so I could compare the different finishes on different species, and tucked them away in my shop. I also did some very basic testing on those finishes to see how they reacted to water, wear and whatever else was going to be thrown at a specific piece of furniture I made.
Each piece has different needs. A kitchen table will see lots of water and wear. A finish on a kitchen table needs to be durable to protect against regular use. A wall cabinet will see very little water or wear, but it’s the sort of piece you want to look extra nice. In this situation you want a finish that will bring out the grain and colour of the cabinet. A jewelry box won’t see a lot of wear or water, but it will be seen close up and get touched frequently, so its look and feel are also important.
Widening my horizons
After getting familiar with penetrating oils like tung oil, film finishes like polyurethane and wiping finishes like an oil/varnish mixture, and then learning how to colour wood with stains, I had a half-decent arsenal of finishes at my disposal. It was after using these finishes for a few years that I stumbled across a finish that was unique in many ways: shellac.
Shellac was easy to apply, which meant the streaks that brushing on polyurethane left wouldn’t be an issue. Shellac dried quickly, so the dust in my small basement shop didn’t have a chance to land on the finish as it cured and create a rough surface. Shellac was easy to repair. I knew this would eventually come in handy. Shellac also looked and felt wonderful after enough coats were applied and every woodworker knows this is one of the most important aspects of choosing a finish.
Don’t get me wrong; shellac isn’t perfect. A drop of water left on the surface of shellac for long enough will cause a stain. This is the biggest downside as far as I’m concerned. Shellac also isn’t overly durable, so it won’t necessarily do well on highly used items.
Time and a place
No finish is perfect. They all have pros and cons, and learning about them is the first step to selecting the most appropriate finish for your next project. To learn more about shellac check out the article “Shellac” in our Feb/Mar 2023 issue. This issue is finding its way into mailboxes across the country as we speak. And if you’re not a subscriber you can read the article on our website or grab a copy from your local newsstand.
I also put together a video about how I mix shellac and apply it on wood. At 14 minutes it’s on the long side, but I wanted to take viewers through all the steps of mixing and applying this great finish as clearly and completely as possible. Between the article and the video there’s enough information for someone who’s never used shellac before to get started. And after that, it’s just a matter of practice.
Read the article from our February/March 2023 issue.
Watch the video:
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
What is the shelf life of SHELLAC?
When stored properly, shellac flakes should last about three years. However, after the flakes have been dissolved in alcohol the finish has only an eight- or nine-month shelf life. You can find more details in our recent article on shellac: Finishing Touch: Shellac – a no-full finish.
I love the articles you write. Some writers know so much about what they are writing that they cannot explain it to others as they leave out important details that are common knowledge to masters of the subject, but no to beginners to whatever subject. Thank you. I am not a subscriber only because of the subscription cost for the USA. I do get the magazine emails.
For years my go-to has been Zinsser “Sealcoat”, a premixed liquid dewaxed shellac which I cut 10% -15% with thinners (methyl hydrate) and apply as a base coat under any oil or waterborne film finish. Because it’s “dewaxed”, waterborne finishes can be applied over it without rejection. It seals end-grain, unifies the grains figure and porosity so the wood accepts stains or topcoats evenly eliminating blotching, is a perfect sanding sealer for all woods and allows figured woods to show to perfection.
Over the past 40 years, I have tried most finishes and it really boils down to what you want in a finish. For me it amounts to looking good for as long as possible and maximum durability. In this respect, I have found that a pre stain conditioner (even on hard wood), a good quality stain and 3 coats of polyurethane meets my requirements. It may be harder to repair when needed but I have found that the increased durability means a lot less if any repair. Thinning out the poly a little bit alleviates any brush stroke concerns and I use a plastic sheet hanging from the ceiling to create an enclosure thus minimizing any dust problems. For a really smooth finish, sand lightly between coats with a fine sandpaper and wipe clean to remove any sanding dust. It works for me.