How to remove shellac from wood in 4 easy Steps

Shellac has been used as a protective fine furniture finish for centuries. This resin-based wood finish is produced from the lac bug, which is refined into dry shellac flakes. When dissolved in denatured alcohol, it makes a liquid that hardens when applied to wood. Over the years, the shellac finish may become dull, worn, or even damaged. So, before you start refinishing that piece of antique furniture, you may be wondering how to remove shellac from wood.

How to determine if the finish is a shellac finish

If you are unsure whether the piece you are working on has a shellac-based finish, there is a simple way to test it. Take a drop of denatured alcohol and apply it in an inconspicuous location. Allow it to sit for a few moments before wiping the spot clean.

If the finish is shellac-based, the denatured alcohol would have caused the shellac finish to become gummy and sticky. Varinish finishes will not be affected in the same manner and you will want to use a stripper for those situations.

Tools and materials needed

You will require the following essential tools and materials to remove shellac from wood furniture.

  • Denatured alcohol: dissolves the shellac finish. I use Ethanol Alcohol at 99.8%.

  • Steel Wool: Use ultra-fine steel wool 000 or 0000.

  • Rags: a workshop necessity.

  • Paint scraper: preferably plastic to avoid scratching the wood surface.

  • Sand Paper: fine grits for smoothing the wood surface.

  • Safety Gear: gloves, a respirator mask, and eye protection to ensure your personal safety.

Denatured Alcohol for the purpose of making Shellac for wood working

Steps on how to remove shellac from wood

The process of removing shellac from wood is actually rather straight forward. It consists of 4 key steps:

  1. Soften the Shellac

  2. Scrapping

  3. Scrubbing

  4. Sanding

Before you start the messy work, ensure you have covered the floor of your workspace with a drop cloth. You will want to work away from any finished furniture to avoid potentially splattering it.

Gather all necessary tools and have them readily available for your use. Organizing can ensure the process runs smoothly. I definitely should learn from my own advice

Soften the shellac

The first step to removing shellac is to soften the old finish. This can be easily achieved by using denatured alcohol.

  • Apply the denatured alcohol directly to the shellac finish using a rag. Don’t be stingy!

  • Allow the alcohol to sit for 5 to 10 minutes and soak into the finish. The shellac will require time to break down the old shellac and loosen it from the wood. If the alcohol evaporates before the finish dissolves, reapply it as needed.

TIP

Soak rags or paper towels in the denatured alcohol and let them sit directly on the surface to dissolve the shellac.

Adding alcohol to the rag, in order to remove shellac wood finish
Adding additional ethanol alcohol to the rag placed on the shellac surface

Scrapping

When the shellac finish has softened and turned gummy, gently scrape the residue off the surface with a plastic paint scraper. Work toward the wood grain to avoid scratching the wood surface. Using a plastic scrapper reduces the risk of gouging the wood.

Throughout this process, you may need to continue to apply more denatured alcohol to keep the surface wet and the old finish soft.

Removing shellac with a plastic scrapper. The shellac can be seen on the papertowel.
Scrapped shellac wiped onto a paper towl

Scrubbing

You can scrub the surface with steel wool when you have removed most of the softened shellac residue. This will help to remove the remaining residue from the shellac. Ensure you work with an ultra-fine grade of steel wool, such as 0000 or 000, to avoid scratching the wood surface.

To best remove the residue, dip the steel wool directly into the denatured alcohol as you scrub. This will help you to cut through the remaining residue. Work toward the wood grain and change your steel wool as it starts to disintegrate. Before you begin the next sanding step, you will want to ensure all steel wool particles have been cleaned up.

 

scrubbing with steel wool to remove the remaining shellac
Scrubbing any remaining shellac with steel wool

TIP

A vacuum is handy for cleaning up those small steel wool particles, followed by a wipe with a sticky tack cloth.

I like to take a clean rag and wipe the surface down a final time with denatured alcohol before allowing the wood to fully dry and moving to the sanding stage.

Sanding

This step is crucial for removing any remaining old shellac finish and preparing the surface for any new surface. If the surface is veneer, I recommend reading how to sand veneer successfully. I swear by this technique!

As most furniture is already, in theory, sanded previously, I suggest only starting with 120 and working your way up to 180 or 240, depending on how you wish to finish your project further. The key is to take your time, not skip sanding grits, and always work with the wood grain. The more successful the sanding job, the better the final finish will look.

Sanding the board after removing the shellac wood finish and scrubbing with steel wool
Sanding the board after removing all visible shellac

Safety tips when removing shellac finish

As you will be working with denatured alcohol, which gives off strong fumes, ensure you are wearing your respirator and always work in a well-ventilated area. The simple steps to open doors and windows can help the fumes dissipate quickly.

Wear protective gear. Our skin is our largest organ and should be protected accordingly. So put on those gloves and wear goggles to protect your eyes from any potential splashes.

The clean board after removing all the wood shellac finish and sanding
Board after sanding - shellac wood finish fully removed

Final Thoughts

 Should you find yourself with an antique with a dull shellac finish, you can easily remove the old shellac finish and replace it with a new top coat. The critical steps to removing shellac from wood are simply softening the finish with denatured alcohol, gently scraping off the softened finish, scrubbing away the residue with steel wool, and sanding to smooth and prep the surface.

If you are looking to repair the shellac finish, consider making your own shellac with this incredibly handy shellac recipe.

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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.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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