Shellac Wood Finish Pros and Cons

It’s no secret, I am a fan of shellac! I don’t try and hide it. I think everyone should try it, at least once.  But, I am honest regarding shellac wood finish pros and cons.  It may not be right for all your furniture refinishing projects. 

So, let’s explore together shellac wood finish pros and cons and how this ancient wood finish can improve your furniture refinishing skill.

After all, the woodworkers of yore knew a thing or two.

Table of Contents

What is Shellac wood Finish?

Let’s start with the basics. What the heck is shellac?

Shellac is a historical wood working product.  It entered mainstream use in woodworking in the 16th century. But it’s estimated that it’s been used in some fashion for over 3000 years.

Shellac Flakes used to make shellac wood finish

Interesting Fact:  This may seem impressive, but Milk Paint is far older.

How is Shellac is Made

Shellac is made by taking the resinous secretion of the lac insect and adding it to denatured alcohol.  Together they produce a liquid that when dried it makes a resin that coats and protects wood.

The method and use of shellac hasn’t changed much throughout history and continues to be used extensively in wood working.  It’s popularity only started to diminish in the 1920’s with the introduction of more synthetic products, which are considered more durable.

Shellac Resin on a branch before harvesting
Shellac Resin on a Branch before Harvesting

Waxed vs Dewaxed Shellac.

Shellac is by nature a wax product.  It contains around 3 to 5 percent wax.  A small amount, which could still ruin your project if you plan on working with water-based products.

Luckily it is possible to purchase dewaxed shellac.  The wax is removed in the refining process and the product is comparable to waxed shellac.  It’s just as clear on wood and can be used in combination with water-based products

A win-win in my book.

Shellac is a multipurposed product.

While a key product in wood working, Shellac use is not only limited to furniture.  It’s a product that you can find in several industries including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and the food industry.  That’s right, you read that right.  The food industry.  

As shellac is a natural product, it’s food safe.  It is included in many of your favourite food products.

How does Wood Shellac work on Wood?

Before we can dive into the advantages of wood shellac, we need to understand how shellac is mixed.

How shellac is mixed for use

Shellac is made by mixing the shellac flakes (resin from the lac bug) and denatured alcohol. It’s a simple process which only takes about 5 minutes to mix up and 24 hours to wait for the shellac flakes to dissolve.  Or for the impatient readers; you can buy it already made.

In the end you are left with a liquid which is normally 1 part shellac to 4- or 5-parts denatured alcohol.

How to make shellac pin, metric mixing ratio
Click for Shellac recipe

How shellac works on wood

When you brush (or spray, or wipe) shellac onto wood, the alcohol will evaporate, and the shellac resin will remain and harden on the wood.  Therefore, shellac is an evaporative, film-building finish.  It forms a protective layer on wood, filling wood grain. 

Shellac wood finish

Shellac Wood Finish Pros and Cons

Now that you understand that shellac forms a hard, thin layer of resin protection across your wood, it is easier to understand how it can be used as an advantage or disadvantage in your wood working. 

Advantages of Shellac Wood Finish

Let’s dive into the numerous advantages of shellac wood finish and how it can elevate your next wood working project.

Odour Blocker

We’ve all found that one beautiful piece of furniture which smelled like it came from the dump.  Or the home of a chain smoker.  It’s unbearable to have in your workspace and no amount of cleaning seems to solve the smell issue. 

That is, until you try Shellac.  As shellac is a resin which creates a hard, seal over wood, it can trap in odours. 

It was the solution I used when a customer came to me with a beautiful mid-century teak cabinet, which had been previously in the home of a smoker.  Despite them having the piece for years already, the smell lingered, and it was their main request to get the smell out.  (Also, to repair the damaged veneer banding and add some colour, but that’s another story).

1960's cabinet with teak.

Tannin Blocker

Just like how shellac can trap odours under its hard resin shell, it can also trap in tannins and other stain causers. Like Nicotine, for example.

Side Note: Gosh, smoking isn’t great for maintaining the condition of your vintage furniture.

Bleed through is the dreaded occurrence of when tannins or other stains in the wood will raise up through your paint.  It normally shows up as red or pinkish hue on your paint.  It’s most noticeable on white paints.

When I have had bleed through, I normally throw on 3 or 4 coats of shellac before trying to paint again, with great results. 

Makes wood grain pop

Personally, this is my favourite reason to use shellac.  It can give a warm glow and glossy shine to wood.  All without any wax or oil.  Even the coloured shellac remains clear on wood, while giving a warmth and depth to your piece. 

My personal favourite is to use amber or ruby coloured shellac on darker woods, such as walnut.  The glow you can achieve is phenomenal.

Shellac wood finish on wood, makes wood grain pop
shellac being brushed on a wood veneer inlay table

Primer

Shellac is a great base for paints.  But you need to ensure that it is the dewaxed shellac.  Dewaxed shellac works the same as waxed or regular shellac.  Only, you can use water-based products, including furniture paints over it. 

The shellac creates a film over the wood, and the paint adheres to the shellac.  I initially was in doubt that the paint would adhere as it is a shiny surface, but despite the numerous projects I have finished with this process, the paint has never failed once.

There is a reason why Zinsser B.I.N Primer is a fan favourite.  It adheres to almost anything and does not require sanding prior to use on wood. Did you know that it’s a shellac-based primer?  Now imagine working with the same type of product, with a shorter drying time.  That’s wood shellac.

French Polish

Wood shellac is the basis for French Polish.  This style of finishing is unique for the extreme high gloss it produces.  It’s a technique of applying many, many layers of shellac with oils and using pumice to slowly sand/buff the surface.  French Polish is truly an art form and is a technique best learned from an experienced French Polisher.  For more info, check out Wikipedia for full details on French Polish. 

French polish being applied to veneer wood

Sanding Sealer

Some woods are more porous than others, which can cause uneven staining.  An old technique used by woodworkers, was to seal the wood with shellac, sand and then stain.  This would help to eliminate the blotching of stain. 

This is a harder process to learn and while I have done it to some success, I recommend using stain conditioner.  The results I have seen online from stain conditioner are great and unfortunately, I can’t locate any in the Netherlands.  This has led to more than a little jealousy on my part.

Shellac Drying Time

Shellac dries quick.  Like very quick! I believe its dried in 15 to 30 minutes.  Maybe even shorter.  It will depend on the ratio shellac to denatured alcohol.  As the alcohol evaporates, the shellac begins to dry immediately.  It will be tacky to the touch initially and hardens within 30 minutes.  After which you can apply your next coat.   

Compatibility with other topcoats

My main issue with shellac?  It’s not a durable topcoat but luckily it works very well combined with other topcoats.  Therefore you can get the best of both worlds and provide the durability that you want in a professionally refinished furniture. 

Close up of vintage end tables refinished with retro blue tape design and stain
small upcycled cocktail cabinet with bright line design on the front in 3 colours
small upcycled cocktail cabinet with line design in art deco style

Above are 3 projects where shellac and top coat were used together. 

UV Resistant

The colours in wood can be affected over time by UV.  Furniture left in sunny places will experience colour changes.  And while for some wood’s, the colour change may be considered positive, for other’s it could be damaging.  Shellac is naturally UV resistant. Putting a coat on wood, where you know that piece of furniture will be sitting in a sunny spot, could keep it looking better longer.

Disadvantages of shellac wood finish in furniture refinishing.

Based on the extensive list in the advantages section, you would almost think that shellac is the wonder product.  Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and there are downsides to the product.  Take these into consideration before using shellac on your next project.

Not heat or moisture resistant

Shellac is sensitive to heat.  It has a melting point of around 75 degrees Celsius.  So, it should not be used on surfaces which could experience huge temperature fluctuations.  Say like a tabletop. 

You could, however, use shellac first and them topcoat it with a more heat resistant product.

Another disadvantage is around water.  The feedback on this is a little mixed.  Some woodworkers list it as water resistant for a time, other’s say there is no water-resistance at all.  From my personal experience, if you splash water on the surface, it will first bead.  You could clean it up then quickly.  Water left on the surface can eventually penetrate the shellac. Not much different from most topcoats.

Lacks durability

For all its advantages, the lack of durability is a huge disadvantage. This is probably the reason why shellac was passed by for modern topcoats. 

Shellac is considered a soft finish.  Similar as waxes and oils.  It can be scratched and should not be used on high traffic surfaces. 

The only saving grace here, is that unlike oils and waxes, you can topcoat it with your favourite durable product.

Midcentury modern after refinishing and restoration work, with water based top coat as type of wood finish
small upcycled cocktail cabinet with art deco lines in vintage gold
glossy wooden cocktail bar

Above are 3 projects where shellac and top coat were used together. 

Lacks resistance to chemical cleaners

Shellac should only be cleaned with a mild soap and damp cloth.  Avoid any abrasive cleaners which could scratch the surface and cause damage to the finish.

It’s a glossy finish

I added this disadvantage because I know that matte and raw wood looks are currently a trend.   Shellac is by nature a glossy product. 

Top coating wood Shellac makes the difference.

Despite the disadvantages of shellac, I usually still recommend it for furniture projects where you want to showcase the wood.  The main reason being that by adding a topcoat over your layers of shellac you can eliminate most of the disadvantages that shellac has. 

But isn’t that double the work? 

Sure, it’s a few extra steps, but shellac will provide many advantages which your topcoat itself may be missing. 

Shellac and topcoat together provide:

  • Durable finish
  • UV protection
  • Odour resistance
  • Tannin resistance
  • Warmth and depth to your wood grain

More Shellac Resources

Frequently Asked Questions About Wood Shellac

Yes, shellac comes in a wide range of colours, but the most common are clear, amber, ruby, orange and brown.  Coloured or tinted shellac is still clear and does not add any cloudiness to your finish, but it will add a rich undertone to the wood.

The colours are normally naturally produced.  It is caused by the type of saps which the Lac Bug is consuming.

Shellac in food is often referred to as confectioner’s glaze or confectioner’s resin.  As you can almost guess it’s often used in confectionery, chocolate products and even on coffee beans.  That shiny wax on your fruit?  It could also be shellac. 

Store bought shellac will list a shelf life on it.  For self-made, I normally consider a few weeks.  I have heard people can keep it up to 6 months, but I find it starts to look cloudy.  I recommend making small batches when you require it.  And to keep it no more then 6 weeks.

The flakes are good for 2 to 3 years and should be stored, sealed, in a dry location. You want to avoid dust and dirt getting mixed in with your shellac flakes.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the pros and cons of shellac wood finish is the first step for making an informed decision in your furniture refinishing projects. I was personally on the fence with shellac for a long while.  I was hesitant to mix it myself.  It seemed like such an effort, for something I could buy finished. 

Once I got over the mental hurdle of making shellac, so many new refinishing possibilities opened for me.  Just consider… the ability to make wood glow and still add water-based paint design work and a durable top coat. That’s just the start.   

So, my fearless furniture refinishing friends, go forth and experiment with shellac wood finish while considering other alternatives. Embrace the joy of learning from your own experiences. I would love to hear how your experiments went and come back and share with our community in the comments below. Together, we’ll continue to transform furniture and elevate our craft, one project at a time.

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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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