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Shellac Wood Finish – What It Is and How To Apply It

Shellac wood finish is one of my new favorite, easy to apply finishes. Yeah there’s complicated methods out there, some are even kind of intimidating. But I want to take my favorite woodworking approach and apply it to a shellac finish.

I want to prioritize “easy”. That’s what I always try to do with my projects, as I do with most of the stuff I teach here on this site.

I don’t have the time with my busy life style and big family to spend hours upon hours mastering certain skills to a level of perfection that are far beyond whats needed to make a nice piece of furniture.

So yeah, I like to keep things simple, while still providing high-quality, dependable results. If that sounds like how you want to apply your wood finish, then I think you’ll like this article.

shellac wood finish

What Is Shellac

Shellac is a product made from secretions from the Asian Lac Bug. It’s been around for centuries and was originally used as a dye, when dissolved in alcohol. I don’t know this because I’ve witnessed it or anything. I just did a quick search and that’s what the internet came up with. Who’da thought right?

It has since been used for various reasons, including food glaze, nail finishes, and wood finish.I don’t have much interest in 2 of those, so let’s talk about using it as a wood finish, shall we?

Over time, the price of shellac has gone up, while other wood finishes have come down. This means it has less appeal than it once did.

However, it still has its place in a few niche markets, even though it isn’t as widely used as finishes such as Lacquer or Polyurethane.

Shellac comes in different colors, ranging from a light blonde (clear), to variations of amber, orange, red, and even dark brown.

I like to use shellac as a simple, quick, wipe on finish that’s pretty hard to mess up. It’s more protective than oil, it’s easier to apply than oil or polyurethane (in my opinion), and it’s great for small projects that don’t need a lot of heavy-duty protection.

Also, from what I’ve read (and in my own experience), it works great for sealing the inside of a drawer and stopping the wood smell leaching into your clothes. 

My wife’s dresser has drawer boxes made of MDF, and she could always smell it on her clothes. I wiped on 2 coats of Shellac, and she said that it completely got rid of the smell. Pretty cool right?

Options You Have When Buying Shellac

When buying shellac you will run into standard, and dewaxed variations. Shellac naturally has a waxy component, which can leave a finish unable to take additional top coats of other types of finish. 

If it’s going to be your final finish, it’s ok to use regular shellac. If you think you may apply a different finish like polyurethane over the top of it, then you’ll want dewaxed shellac.

Another train of thought on this is to just always stick with dewaxed shellac, because the waxy substance in regular shellac can actually reduce it’s durability as a protective finish.

You also may find variations in what they call the “cut”. This is just how diluted it is in alcohol. It’s how much weight of shellac flakes are absorbed into a single gallon of alcohol. So a 2 pound cut means there are 2 pounds mixed in one gallon of alcohol. 

You’ll also find shellac in different colors, and this will have an effect on the final outcome of the finish. You’ll want to stick to a light blonde shellac if you don’t want much color change. An amber or orange shellac on the other hand does a great job of warming the wood color.

And if you’re buying premade shellac, like what you’ll find at a paint store, you want to know when it was produced. Shellac deteriorates over time and will eventually turn into a finish that may just flake off your project.

Age and temperature of storage both affect this deterioration. That’s why it may be a better idea to buy it in flakes and make your own, that way you know it’s fresh, and you can control how much you mix, and how long it’s stored.

And finally, you’ll find shellac in a premade, ready to use variation, or in flake form. The premade stuff is what comes in different cuts, has a manufacturing date, and can be brushed on or sprayed on.

The flakes however come in all kinds of different colors, and you can just make your own as you need it. Keep reading, below I’ll cover a simple process for mixing your own shellac.

Shellac Compared to Other Wood Finishes

Shellac is a type of interior-use wood finish that easily absorbs into the previous coat. That means it’s quick and easy to apply several coats, which if put on thin, will dry really fast. Plus, you can easily repair a shellac finish, which I’ll cover in a bit more detail below.

This is similar to lacquer, in that the new coats dissolve into the previous coats. These are what we call drying finishes.

This is different from varnish and polyurethane. These finishes are more difficult to repair, because they are curing finishes. They undergo a chemical change while they cure and so a fresh coat over an old finish does not exactly blend into anything.

However, shellac doesn’t have near to protective qualities or strengths that a good varnish and polyurethane offer. So it may not be the best choice for furniture that will be cleaned a lot, or have a lot of surface use, like a table or bookcase.

Shellac is a food grade finish that is commonly used for things like coating pills, or even candy. For a non toxic wood finish with what I consider middle-of-the-road benefits (between ease, beauty, and protection), shellac is a great choice for fine furniture, many small crafts, and childrens toys.

Premade Shellac Options, Pros and Cons

When searching for a ready-to-use shellac, you’ll find it with several choices. However, you won’t find different manufacturers, as Zinsser is the only company still doing it.

You’ll find several of their products come in either clear or amber tones. The clear version will have the least impact on the color of the wood. It’s not supposed to darken or yellow with age.

You’ll find it in a regular can, or in a spray can. The spray version is great for small crafts, and only comes in clear.

You’ll find a traditional furniture finish version, which comes in both colors, and is intended as a top coat. From what I can tell, it’s not marketed as ‘dewaxed’, so that’s probably the main difference between this and the next version…

A “sanding sealer” version is also available, to be used as a quick and effective way to seal new wood (it’s been dewaxed). This makes for a great pre-coat for a final finish with something like polyurethane. It’s compatible with all clear wood finishes.

However, if you want to stick with dewaxed shellac (like I mentioned above), you can use this “sanding sealer” version as the final finish as well.

How to Mix Your Own Shellac Wood Finish

You can get a more custom finish, and have more control over waste, by mixing your own shellac. This way you only make as much as you need, or if you have extra you can mark when it was mixed, so you can track it’s age as it sits on your shelf.

The way I found to be easiest when mixing your own is use canning jars, and make an initial 1:1 mix in one jar. This is not an exact science, but lucky for you, I’m not a scientist. I like to use measurements that include the words “about”, and “pretty much”…

So fill the jar about half way with the shellac flakes of your choice, and then pour in denatured alcohol, also pretty much half way.

shellac in a jar

We’ll call this our 1:1 mix, as it’s a potent, heavy blend that can be used to make other blends. It’s too potent to use directly, its’ just a way to liquify the flakes so you can always mix a new shellac blend quickly when you need it.

Let this jar set for a day, maybe a bit longer. The flakes should all be completely absorbed into the alcohol before you use it. It will look thick and dark like the picture above when it’s fully absorbed. And I used blonde, dewaxed shellac flakes by the way. You can find them at woodworking stores and on sites like Amazon.

How To Apply A Shellac Finish

You can pour some of your 1:1 blend into a second jar, and dilute it with more denatured alcohol.

mixing shellac with denatured alcohol
using a second jar for the blended shellac wood finish
finish ready to use

For this you can also eyeball it, and make mixtures like 4 to 1, or 8 to 1 blends (alcohol to 1:1-shellac). Please don’t think too hard into this part, it’s not worth the headache!

The cool part with shellac wood finish is that you can always reset it. If you put a coat on and it’s too heavy or gets runs, you can wipe on some pure alcohol and that will remove much of the finish.

So for the first couple coats on new wood, you would want to make it stronger, something like 4 to 1 (4 parts alcohol to 1 part heavy blend). This has a good amount of shellac per volume, and will do a better job of absorbing into the wood and getting a good base coat on. Just apply the shellac blend with a clean rag.

The idea here is to overall keep it thin, while also laying down coats than can be built up. Shellac does best when applied in thin coats. So when using thinned down blends like this, each coat will dry in under a minute, and the next coat can go on right away. But let’s back up now and start at the beginning.

Apply the first coat and use this to gauge if you should add any alcohol, or any shellac. If the first coat seems to dry while you’re still applying it, it’s too thin and could use some more 1:1 added to the blend. If it dries really slow (couple of minutes) and seems tacky, then you may want to thin it down with more alcohol.

wiping on the shellac finish

After a good base coat, it’s never a bad idea to give it quick sanding with fine sandpaper. This will really help smoothen the final surface.

The shellac will have filled the pores and fibers, and the smoothness from sanding this first coat may actually be a big improvement. So now you’ll be ready to build up a glass-smooth finish by adding additional coats of shellac.

Then for the last couple coats, you could do an 8 to 1 blend. This makes the final coats very thin, quick to dry, and basically hard to mess up. You don’t rub them in, just a simple wipe to lay down a thin layer, that way you won’t risk pulling up the previous layers.

These final coats can literally dry in a matter of seconds, so there’s no need to clean up and leave the room after each coat. 

How Many Coats Of Shellac Are Needed

By using the method I just laid out, you can easily add more coats, as it goes by so fast. So if you feel the piece needs more protection, or more sheen, you can apply more coats.

I would suggest 2 or 3 coats of a heavier cut (like the 4:1 blend above), and then 3 to 5 coats of the lighter cut (8:1) to finish up.

If you’d like to flatten the finish, you can buff it with 0000 steel wood and some paste wax. Then rub that out with a rag to leave a nice satin sheen.

Doing it this way is not at all like what they call a French Polish, which is a much longer process for applying shellac, and is very different right from the get-go. A French Polish will leave you with a high gloss finish, and that is a topic for another article. Stay tuned.

Repairing A Shellac Finish

Because a shellac wood finish is solvent based, drying finish, it can be easily restored by re-applying the solvent – denatured alcohol. This just isn’t an option with “curing” finishes like polyurethane.

You can remove some or all of the existing shellac finish by rubbing it down with 0000 steel wool and denatured alcohol.

Once you’ve removed the finish, or at least enough of it, and the surface looks even and clean once again, you can begin to reapply shellac using the methods I explained above.


Related:
Polyurethane Vs Shellac Vs Varnish Vs Lacquer
Food Safe Wood Finishes
How To Apply Polyurethane

Sources
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shellac
https://woodworkingmasterclasses.com/discussions/topic/different-shades-of-shellac/
https://sawmillcreek.org/showthread.php?179332-Dewaxed-shellac-vs-non-dewaxed-shellac
https://www.rustoleum.com/product-catalog/consumer-brands/zinsser/interior-wood-finishes
https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/get-beautiful-woodworking-finishes-with-shellac-3536494
https://www.finewoodworking.com/2016/07/27/fast-shellac-finish

Shellac Wood Finish – What It Is and How To Apply It

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About The Author
Adam has been woodworking for the last 10 years. He considers himself a 'Small Shop Woodworker' and practices his hobby in his garage. With the lack of time, space, and proper tools, he always finds ways to get great results without over-complicating or over-thinking the process. Various shop jigs, table saw sleds, and tricks of the trade have served him well. God has blessed him with a beautiful family, as well as a passion for teaching others about woodworking. You can read more about Adam here.

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