Getting Shellaced!

These little lac bugs make the shellac resin. Pretty handy!
These little lac bugs make the shellac resin. Pretty handy!

Out of all the different ‘food safe’ finishes I researched for our woodwork (especially the counter and table), I ended up on shellac.  Part of my initial examination of finishes was whether they could be consumed without harming people, and the non-toxic lac resin that shellac is made out of made it seem like a good choice.

Shellac is available in both solid flakes that are dissolved in denatured alcohol before being applied, and as a premixed solution in a regular paint/stain can that only needs to be stirred/mixed before use.  In either circumstance, the liquid/dissolved form can be thinned out more with denatured alcohol until it gets too old and begins to crystallize back out of solution.  While the flakes are harder to find, many woodworking stores have them, while the premixed shellac is readily available at most hardware stores.

Rust-Oleum Zinsser 304H 1-Quart Bulls Eye Clear Shellac (Tools & Home Improvement)


List Price: $18.78 USD
New From: $12.91 USD In Stock
Used from: $11.36 USD In Stock

Dewaxed Super Blonde Shellac Flakes 1/2 Lb, or 8 Oz


List Price: $15.99 USD
New From: $15.99 USD In Stock
Used from: Out of Stock

Shellac has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, and as a (documented) furniture finish as early as the 1500’s.  It really caught on in the early 19th century as eastern Asian trade began to get more trendy and really flourish.  It was the finish for fine furniture from those early 1800’s times until the 1920’s and 1930’s when modern lacquer was introduced, but continued to hold a large market share of use until the 1950’s and 60’s when polyurethane and ‘wiping varnishes’ became the rage.  Marketers played down shellac’s finishes as not being as water-resistant, and pointing out that shellac degrades after it’s been dissolved (after about three years it won’t ‘set’ right), and the public started to move away from it, though high quality furniture makers continued using it.

Some of the different colors of shellac chips.
Some of the different colors of shellac chips.

Shellac resins come in a range of colors based on the type of tree the bugs feed upon and on the time of year harvested.   The most common colors are ‘amber’ and ‘blond’ or ‘clear’ which is actually bleached.  While most shellac used during the 1800’s and early 1900’s is the amber variety, mixes of differing amounts of the two types can give a wide range of intensity of the depth of color.  Clear coats can be put over an amber layer with no problems, creating a ‘topcoat’ for protection that’s easily fixed.  Shellac also has some wax to it (about 5% in natural shellac), but comes in a ‘de-waxed’ type as well that is a little more water resistant.

Now, you might ask why I’d choose shellac when there are more durable options?  Well, first off, there’s the ease of application.  Shellac dries really quickly, and unless you have bubbles of hair or something in the coat you want to apply over, you don’t have to sand between coats.  This is because the alcohol in the shellac you’re applying as a second (or subsequent) coat will slightly dissolve the top surface of the already applied coat and the new layer will just blend right into it.

That leads me into the second reason, that it’s easily repaired.  Denatured alcohol on a rubbing cloth can smooth out a crack.  Crazing or ‘orange peel’ pocking can be smoothed out by misting an area with the denatured alcohol.  A small area can be stripped to deal with issues with the underlying wood without damaging the rest of the finish, and then new coats can be applied to the area to build it back up and blend it into the existing finish.

The third reason is the same one that causes fine furniture makers to choose shellac – it’s look.  Because the coats all blend, the finish looks deep and rich, and the wood is all nicely visible.  As I’m using such nice pieces of oak to begin with, I like that it gets show off so well.

The shellaced counter is shiny!
The shellaced counter is shiny!

 

So this is what you come out with using the shellac.  The oak has a ‘Golden Oak’ stain on it, and once that was dry, the shellac clung to it with no issues at all.

Shellaced benches drying in the back.
Shellaced benches drying in the back.

And I even got a chance to put some shellac on the wood panels that I put in the fridge doors, helping to protect and gloss those as well.  But they escaped pictures, so I’ll have to get them another time.

All that said, it isn’t the ‘perfect’ finish.  It can scratch, so it will be best to try and use buffers (doilies) and avoid using harsh cleaners on the shellac.  If it gets up over 120 degrees, it might start to craze.  But a layer of polish wax can help make it more water resistant, so there are some ways to work with the issues.

Finishing Wood: Counters & Food Safety?

The counter at initial install.
The counter at initial install.

So, as I mentioned in a previous post, I put two nice oak planks together to make our counter.  While I had hit the counter with a Minwax stain, I had held off on finishing it for two reasons.  First, I was hoping to get the sink placed, and second, I wasn’t sure which finish to use. 

Minwax 70001444 Wood Finish Penetrating Stain, quart, Golden Oak (Tools & Home Improvement)


List Price: $8.49 USD
New From: $7.48 USD In Stock
Used from: Out of Stock

There had been some condensation (I think) drips from the roof in the corner all the way back by the fridge and the window, and that had discolored the stain a little, so I wasn’t really worried about using the counter for our trips as it was.  After our Allegany trip last October though, condensation from a hot pot boiling water for tea and the cold closed window produced a couple of dark rings and spots on the oak that I wasn’t happy with.  I was able to take care of them with the orbital sander and some new stain, which proves that the stain did help keep the water from penetrating deeply, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so I needed to finish the counter, sink or not.

That meant that it was time for research.  If you do a quick google search for ‘foodsafe wooden counter finish’ (or something similar) you will find that there are a myriad of options, and it really seemed that each woodworker would only use ‘this’ or ‘that’ and that all their customers were happy with the work.  However, in looking for the product and trying to pin down the ‘foodsafe’ stuff, there’s a problem. in that none of the information sheets seemed to indicate that it had been rated as such.

There were some very common answers in looking at food safety and woodworking, mostly the oils like tung oil, raw linseed oil (not boiled), walnut oil, and mineral oil.  These are soaked into the wood, and all but the tung oil need frequent reapplication to maintain the protective ability, but leave the wood oily to the touch, and need periods of air-drying after.  Great for a butcher-block or cutting board surface that you’ll be putting your food directly on, but kind of inconvenient for a counter in a place where all your space counts, and you have to wait for the oil to soak in or dry to a point where you can set things back on it.

Waxes were another answer, with beeswax coming up quickly.  A soft, nice smelling wax, beeswax is often sold to woodturners as a finish for things coming off the lathe, but can be used as a finish on non-turned woods as well.  While it is water resistant, it can be mixed with oils to be easier to apply and somewhat more water repellent.  Carnauba wax (which I only knew was good on cars) is another option, being a more durable (hard) wax than beeswax and as more resistant to water as well.  It is often used on wooden utensils and as a topcoat over other finishes on wood.

Shellac is another that came up at the top of my searches.  Made from the secretions (lac) of any one of a number of species of  lac insects. Harvested mostly in India, but also a number of Southeast Asian countries, China & Mexico, these resinous secretions are crushed, sieved, and either heat-treated or chemically dissolved to create the solid shellac which is later dissolved in denatured alcohol to produce the finish used on wood. Super blond (clear) shellac is the most water resistant variety, though the amber variety was more used on furniture in the past.

And while most of these pages of information decried polyurethane as a sort of dangerous evil for food safe finishes, some sites said it was their preferred choice, so I did some more research.  Polyurethane is an organic polymer bonded together with a urethane to produce a thicker, tougher, abrasion and water resistant finish than shellac.  While it is often used on floors for its durability, many furniture makers don’t like to use it as it covers fine details and can look overly thick.  It also has a problem in that repeated knocks or flexing can cause the finish to break lose from the wood beneath it (though not from the surrounding finish) causing opaque or milky pockets within the finish.

But people know that polyurethanes give off VOCs as they cure, and thus they must be evil.  Likewise, two-part epoxies can make an awesome covering for a bar, being both thick and amazingly water resistant, but their self-leveling properties mean that they can only really be used on horizontal surfaces as they will drip and run off a vertical or angled surface.

The thing with the food safety of any of these finishes is that they are a smooth, unbroken surface.  Any of the above finishes are food-safe once fully cured, so long as flakes of the finish won’t come up in your food as you take it off.  Cracks and shatters would make the finish unsafe for food.

So, in a way, all my research came down to that – all the finishes on the market would be food safe (baring spar varnish, which never fully cures, though spar urethane is probably okay) so long as they are intact and fully cured.  And, that said, I set on shellac for our wood, and I’ll explain why in my next post …