Shellac Wood Finish: Everything you need to know

Shellac wood finish, made from lac bug secretions, has a long history in India and became popular in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.Despite being commonly used for French Polishing to achieve a high gloss look on antique furniture, Shellac has long been valued as a quick-drying, natural wood finish.

 

I am personally a fan of shellac for it’s variety of uses, from odour blocker, primer, grain enhancer and more. Unfortunately shellac is often no longer considered as a viable top coat as it is considered a soft finish. With hard film finishes dominating the industry, is there still a place for Shellac?

Table of Contents

How is Shellac Made?

Shellac originates in India, where the Lac beetle lives. Looking at shellac flakes, those small pieces of amber or gold, you would never guess that they were made from a bug’s excretions. The resin excretion is processed and dried before being sold in a flake form.

 

The resin is waxy by nature, but there are plenty of wax-free versions now available on the market.

Shellac Flakes used to make Shellac for wood working

What Colour is Shellac?

The colour range for Shellac varies greatly, from dark, rich browns, deep ruby reds, golden ambers and even clear. Depending on what type of wood you are applying Shellac to, you may want to reach for a tone that will complement your project. Imagine a chocolate walnut surface enhanced with a glossy, rich brown tone.

Dewaxed Shellac

Advantages and Disadvantages of Shellac Finish

While Shellac has been a popular wood finish for centuries, how does it compare to today’s finishes? This truly depends on what you are looking for in your wood finish. 

 

Shellac’s advantages include the warmth of tone and causing the wood grain to pop. It blocks odours and tannins and works as a primer under paint. Available in a variety of tones and colours, Shellac is a natural product that is even used in the food industry. 

 

Shellac’s drawbacks include being a soft finish, making it less resistant to water and scratches compared to modern film finishes. It also dissolves with alcohol, making it unsuitable for vintage drinks cabinets.

 

Check out all the advantages and disadvantages of Shellac before beginning your next project. You might be amazed by the list and the unique method I employ Shellac in my woodworking projects.

Should you make or purchase your own Shellac?

I strongly support DIY Shellac due to cost savings. Making small batches as needed ensures freshness without worrying about expiration dates. Comparing costs, homemade Shellac is much cheaper than store-bought options in the Dutch market.

 

Wondering how to begin making your own Shellac? It’s easy with denatured alcohol and dried shellac flakes. Just follow my simple shellac recipe for both metric and imperial measurements.

 

Getting started with your own Shellac couldn’t be easier. 

How to make your own shellac - tools required

What is the Shelf life of Shellac

This will depend on what type of Shellac you are using. Is it premixed Shellac from the store? You probably have 6 to 9 months before it starts thickening and becoming unusable. But what if you make your own? Then, if kept out of the sun, you have about 6 months.

 

However, the advantage to making your own Shellac is that you can make small batches at a time, and the shelf life of shellac flakes is years.

How to apply Shellac

Applying Shellac with Brush

You can apply Shellac similar to the way you can apply most finishes: brushed on, wipe on, or spray on. Choose your favourite application method. I personally opt to apply shellac with a brush. The secret to applying Shellac is to apply several coats in thin layers. 

Get this handy guide to all things shellac, sent directly to your inbox.

Guide to shellac

How Long Do You Have to Wait Between Coats of Shellac?

Shellac dries extremely quickly, depending on how thin it is. I have had it dry within 15 minutes, but I usually allow 30 minutes to 1 hour between recoating to ensure that the coat is fully dry. The Shellac must be dry before adding the next coat.

Sand lightly between coats to ensure no impurities are on the surface before adding the next coat, and use a tack cloth to remove any dust. Build up multiple coats of Shellac until you have 3 to 4 coats.

Sanding between coats of shellac

What to do with your Shellac Brushes

Cleaning shellac brushes can be messy, so I use a method that makes me happy by avoiding cleaning and saving money in the long run. Want to know what I do with my shellac brushes?

How to wrap your shellac brush in aluminium to protect it from dust - step1

Should you use waxed or dewaxed Shellac?

Waxed Shellac is believed to be easier to apply than dewaxed Shellac. However, I have never used it. Find out why I prefer dewaxed Shellac for my projects.

Can Shellac be Used as a Primer?

Yes! Shellac is actually my favourite primer! It blocks odours and tannins like no one’s business. This is why I use Shellac on nearly every project I complete, whether I paint or top coat. The only exception is when I use oil finishes.

I have used Zinsser Shellac for years before switching over to making my own shellac.

Zinsser B.I.N. Primer - well used can

Shellac compared to other Finishes

Shellac is considered a soft, resin-based finish. It does not have the same water or scratch resistance as other film-based finishes. If you are looking for a hard finish, you will want to look at varnish, polyurethanes, and lacquers. 

Veneer on a cabinet door front with shellac finish

Best Uses for Shellac

When working on projects that won’t endure much usage, consider using Shellac, especially on antiques that originally had a shellac finish. Shellac gives wood a distinct warmth and shine not easily replicated by other finishes.

 

On high-traffic projects, I apply both shellac and a film finish such as a water-based polyurethane. This results in providing the wood with warmth and highlights the grain. The polyurethane provides the much needed protection for high traffic items like a dining room table.

Walnut Veneer Stonehill Drinks Cabinet
Shellac and water-based topcoat on walnut veneer

Maintaining and Repairing Shellac Finish

One of Shellac’s advantages as a finish is that it is easy to maintain and repair. Unlike film finishes requiring removal and reapplication, Shellac can be recoated directly after cleaning the previous finish.

 

To recoat old Shellac, lightly sand the previous finish with 220 or 240-grit sandpaper to rough the surface. Use a tack cloth to remove dust, then apply a fresh, thin coat of new Shellac over the existing finish. This will melt into the previous layer and create a smooth, refreshed finish.

 

But what if you need to remove the previous shellac finish? That process is straightforward! You can remove Shellac from wood with these 4 simple steps. 

 

Compared to other clear film wood finishes, Shellac can be repaired, blended, or recoated easily in most cases. Its flexibility makes Shellac ideal for woodworkers interested in maintaining a finish over many years.

Cathedral walnut veneer, coated with clear shellac and varnish

Final Thoughts

In reviewing the pros and cons of Shellac as a wood finish, it’s clear this traditional finish still has a place for specific applications. The all-natural composition and quick drying time make Shellac ideal for small projects with minor wear and tear. However, the lower durability and moisture resistance mean Shellac is not the best choice for tabletops, flooring, or outdoor projects that require maximum protection.

 

Shellac enhances lighter wood’s natural colour and grain without leaving an artificial plastic-like appearance. It brings out the warmth and organic beauty of natural wood. Furthermore, the ease of application, repair, and recoating makes Shellac a good choice for first-time woodworkers restoring antique furniture.

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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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