Applying Shellac with a Brush

Shellac is by far, one of my favourite tools in my refinishing kit. It’s very easy to work with. It’s as simple as applying shellac with a brush.  It’s a very forgiving product to learn how to work with. So, check out the below step by step guide and tips and tricks to applying shellac with a brush for a flawless finish.

Table of Contents

Advantages of using Shellac

Shellac accomplishes so much in a single product.  It’s unlike any other product that I’ve found.  I mean, just check this list of advantages of shellac!

  • Tannin Blocker – Can be used as a primer but doesn’t cover the wood.
  • UV Resistant
  • Odour blocker
  • Makes wood grain pop!
  • Gives depth and warmth to wood.
  • Dewaxed Shellac is compatible with water-based products.

I could go on and on, but I think I have made my point and love for shellac clear.  

Now that you are onboard with the idea of trying shellac, how should you apply it?  After all, if you work regularly with water-based products, trying an alcohol product may seem a little daunting.

Getting Started with Shellac.

First things first.  You need shellac.  Depending on where you are working, you can buy shellac right off the shelves, finished made.  In areas where it is harder to source, I recommend that you make it yourself.  It’s not very difficult. 

To make shellac, follow this simple shellac recipe.

Furthermore, you will need the following tools to successfully apply shellac with a brush.

Tools Required:

In addition to the above tools, I also strongly recommend that you wear gloves and use a respirator for fumes.  Shellac is alcohol based and I personally  do not touch or breath in the fumes. You should also work in an area with ventilation.  It’s always better to take extra precautions for your personal safety and the safety of others around you.

Preparing the Wood Surface

Before you apply shellac to your wood surface, you need to prepare the wood.  This includes all your standard preparation steps.  Cleaning with a degreaser and remove any previous wax buildup or old paint.  

Ensure that you have sanded to the highest grit you wish to go.  For exposed wood, I usually sand to 180 to 240 grit.  For areas which will be painted, I recommend sanding to a minimum of 150 to 180 grit. 

Once you are happy with the look and smoothness of the wood surface, you need to ensure that it is dust free.  Take your tack cloth and lightly run it over the surface.  I do this two to three times to ensure that there is no dust or other dirt remaining.

Shellac is a clear, glossy product which can highlight any imperfections, dust or dirt remaining on the surface.

Best Brush for Shellac

Before you start applying your wood shellac you need to pick a good paint brush. What qualifies as a good shellac brush?  Well, whatever works the best for you!

There are websites arguing for synthetic brushes and others arguing for natural bristles.  Both listing advantages and disadvantages that clash with each other.  I have one hard and fast rule for your shellac brush.  It cannot lose bristles. 

I use the top-of-the-line synthetic water-based paint brush for my local hardware store.  It costs 6 euros. Not breaking the bank. 

The reason why it’s my go to brush for shellac?  It is one of the few brushes that I’ve used that does not seem to lose bristles.  The bristles don’t split or break on the shaft and don’t fall out.  This brush isn’t my favourite for applying paint though.  I find it leaves streaks in paint but not with shellac.  

Go figure.   

Synthetic Bristle brushes for applying shellac

Other Methods to Apply Shellac

There are two other methods of applying shellac, which are frequently used.  I have tried neither but add them here for your information. Do research further before starting either option.

Spraying Shellac is considered a quick method for applying shellac.   

While wiping Shellac is considered the original method to applying shellac.  Wiping or using a cloth with shellac is one of the steps to getting the French Polish look.

Let’s Start Applying Shellac with a Brush

Step 1

Dip your brush into the shellac and load the shellac onto your brush. 

I like to drag the bristles against the edge of the glass jar I make my shellac in. By doing this, I reduce how much shellac is on my brush.  You want your brush full but not dripping.

Brush with shellac for application

Step 2

Start brushing the shellac on your wood project.  

Your strokes should be long, gentle, and light. You want to apply a thin, even layer.

Work with the wood grain to minimize any light reflections going against the grain. 

Applying Shellac with a brush

Step 3

If you notice areas where there is excessive amount of shellac or streaks, go back over these areas and even the shellac out.   

Applying Shellac with Brush

Step 4

Allow the Shellac time to Dry. 

Please see below more information on drying time for shellac.

Allow Shellac To dry between Coats

Step 5

Between coats, take the time to sand or use a between coat finishing pads.  

After sanding, ensure you use a tack cloth and remove all dust and debris.

Please see below for more information on sanding shellac. 

Return to step one and follow all steps until you achieve an even coat of shellac.

Sanding between coats of shellac

Shellac Drying Time

Shellac is one of the fastest refinishing products available in terms of drying time.  The only thing faster is Milk paint.

Shellac drying time can be affected by the ratio shellac to alcohol, room temperature and humidity. On average it will dry in approximately 30 minutes. You will know when shellac is dry as it will be hard to the touch with no tackiness.  

Once shellac is fully dry, you can recoat it.  Each new coat or layer causes the alcohol to reactivate the coats prior.  The coats essentially melt into each other resulting in a single layer of shellac.

Is it necessary to sand between coats of Shellac?

Sanding between coats of shellac is an important step to obtain a flawless look.

For sanding, I recommend using 3M Between Coats Finishing Pads.  These fine sanding pads remove any raised wood fibres, bubbles, dust, and other particles.  These are my go-to tool for between coat sanding. 

Work with the wood grain. You are essentially working on a film over the wood. By going with the wood grain, any flaws will be easier masked and won’t stand out against the grain. 

Use even, light pressure.  You are simple looking to smooth out the shellac (if it isn’t already smooth) and remove any small imperfections.

Once you have rubbed or sanded between coats, ensure you take the time to wipe the piece down with your tack cloth.  The more preventative actions you take, the clearer the shellac finish will be.

How many coats of shellac should you do?

My rule of thumb is 3 to 4 coats of shellac. 

However, knowing your wood type and how it absorbs products, is important part of professional furniture refinishing.  It will come into play when you are applying shellac.  Harder, denser wood types will require less coats of shellac then softer, absorbent wood.  You want to apply enough coats that the shellac forms a hard, even, surface on your wood. 

As you apply your first coat of shellac, you will notice that some areas of the wood appear glossy already while other areas remain more natural or duller.  With each additional layer, the wood will take on an even, glossy glow across the whole surface.  This is the shellac being absorbed on the surface of the wood in different rates.

The more coats, the more durability and odour and tannin blocker abilities.  Just keep in mind that the more coats can also result in a darker wood appearance.  

Shellac left to pool and dry
Wood Shellac pool dried
Wood Shellac drips nearly gone

The left photo I allowed a pool of shellac to sit and dry.  In the middle phot you can see the outline of the pooled and dried shellac/  The right photo is after lightly sanding and adding another coat of shellac.  The dried outline is nearly invisible.  

Troubleshooting and Tips

Work in a dust free environment or avoid sanding in the area when your shellac is drying.  Keeping the area dust free will keep your shellac looking crystal clear. 

Despite having a great brush, you may still loose the odd bristle.  Remove the bristle as soon as you notice it.  Go back over the area with your wet shellac brush.

If you did not notice it until the shellac is dry, then reactivate the shellac either with your wet shellac brush or with straight alcohol.  Once the area is wet you should be able to remove the bristle.  Once removed, go over the area with your wet shellac brush again to smooth out the area and allow it to dry before sanding lightly with your finishing pad.

Do you have a bubble in the surface of your shellac?  Try sanding with your finishing pads to remove as much of the bubble as you can.  Then reactivate the shellac with your wet shellac brush.  Smooth out the area with additional shellac and allow to dry.  If necessary, repeat the steps starting with the finishing pad again.

To repair uneven surface or drips, follow the same process as with a bubble in the shellac. 

Overloading your brush will be one of the leading causes for unevenness or drips in your shellac.

Take the time to unload some shellac from your brush if it is over saturated. Thinner layers will lead to a more even finish.

Final Thoughts

Shellac can be intimidating initially to use, considering that it reactivates itself with each new coat.  But rather than looking at this as an obstacle, consider it a chance to smooth out your finish with each additional coat.  Imperfections can be easily repaired and there is no need to extensive sanding. A flawless, smooth coat is easily achievable with each additional layer.

But don’t just take it from me.  Try shellac for yourself. See how easy it can be to work with it.  We all only learn by doing and trying new things. 

So dive in, get creative and let me know in the comments how your project went.

More Shellac Resources

The furniture Doctor by George Grotz

The book that got me over my shellac fears.  The Furniture Doctor by George Grotz is my must have recommendation for all new furniture refinishers.  His no-nonsense style of writing and straight forward descriptions, feels like you spent the afternoon learning in a woodshed with a grandpa.


One Response

  1. Thank you for sharing this informative blog! All the information provided by you is really very helpful for all. I agreed that keep your project dust free with the piece of tack cloth. Everyone should follow the tips provided by you, it will make their work easier. Keep Posting! Keep Sharing!

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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

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