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.

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