American Woodworker

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Winter 2013-2014

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Tips For Using Shellac


Tips for Using Shellac

Make friends with this beautiful, versatile finish.

By Mitch Kohanek

Recently I was asked to judge a woodworking show. One of the best pieces was a wonderfully constructed grandfather clock. Unfortunately, a quick brushing of polyurethane ruined the clock’s appearance.  The clock’s creator said he chose polyurethane for protection. But how durable does a coating on a grandfather clock have to be? Why put a finish originally designed for floors on a beautiful clock? What a difference shellac would have made. 

Don’t get me wrong, polyurethane is a  great choice for high wear surfaces like a desk or kitchen tabletop.  However, I find people use poly by default simply because it’s readily available as well as  durable. But is durability all that matters?  There are many other considerations that make shellac a great choice for adding beauty and protection to your projects. 

Many woodworkers have walked (stormed) away in frustration after trying shellac. It’s a unique finish and there are some fundamental ground rules one must follow. The tips in this story cover the basics that will get you going on the right track. 

Shellac’s many advantages

Non-toxic - Shellac is one of the safest finishes you can use. It is a naturally occurring material that’s approved by the FDA to coat apples, candy and pharmaceuticals. When mixed with pure grain alcohol, shellac is free of toxic chemicals. 

Repairable - A damaged or worn shellac finish is easy to restore or repair. 

Rubs out well - Shellac is harder than most finishes. The hardness gives it excellent rubbing qualities. 

Excellent moisture barrier - If you want to keep wood movement to a minimum, shellac can’t be beat . 

Fast drying - That means fewer troubles with dust settling into a wet film. You can usually recoat in under an hour for a fast build.

Universal sealant - Dewaxed shellac can be used as a seal coat under almost any finish. 

Less Sanding - Shellac does not require sanding between coats in order for one coat to adhere to another.

Click on any image to view a larger version.

Buying advice 

 Should you buy waxed or dewaxed shellac? Wax occurs naturally in shellac. If shellac is going to be the only finish, then shellac with wax works fine. The wax decreases drag when padding or brushing shellac. If shellac is used as a sealer or undercoat for other finishes, choose the dewaxed version to avoid adhesion problems, especially with polyurethane. Dewaxed shellac also has greater clarity and is more heat and water resistant. You can dewax your own shellac by letting the wax settle out and pouring off the clear dewaxed portion.  

The next decision a shellac buyer makes is color. A good rule of thumb is to use the darker colors on dark woods and light coors on light woods.  

Shellac is a natural product made from lac beetle (Lacifer Iacca) excretions. Shellac comes in colors that range from dark reddish brown to a golden amber color depending on the time of harvest and degree of processing. There are five commonly available grades of shellac from least to most refined: seedlac, buttonlac, garnet, orange and super blonde.

Seedlac is simply collected from the trees, washed and dried.  It  still contain leaves, sticks and bug parts.  Buttonlac has been filtered a bit. It has a rich, dark brown color. Garnet is a little lighter colored and has more red than buttonlac.  Orange shellac is probably the most familiar grade to consumers. Super blonde shellac is the most highly refined. It has most of the color and all the wax removed. All dry shellacs should be strained through a fine filter after mixing. 

The Right mix 

Using shellac that is mixed too thick is the #1 mistake people make. Until you gain experience using shellac, it’s best to thin your shellac to a 1lb. cut (1-lb. of flakes dissolved in 1-gal. of alcohol). Old-time cabinetmakers used pure ethanol, or “spirits”, to mix their shellac. Pure ethanol is still sold at liquor stores in some states as “Everclear” ($20 a quart). Make sure it’s the 190-proof stuff. When mixed with dry shellac flakes Everclear produces an all-natural, non-toxic finish (safer than any water-based finish). When the liquor store cashier wonders where the heck you’re going with a case of 190-proof Everclear, just say, “I’m going to get shellacked”!

Denatured alcohol is the most common solvent for shellac. It costs a lot less than Everclear. It’s essentially ethanol contaminated with another chemical to poison or “denature” the ethanol. This saves you from paying a liquor tax. 

Specialty alcohols that contain no water (200 proof) are also available. These alcohols are blended to dissolve shellac a little quicker and dry a little slower, so it has more time to level out.  

Grind your own flakes

 Shellac flakes take quite a while to dissolve. When my shop is cool, I’ve had to wait more than 2-days. Too often I failed to plan ahead and have been forced to wait for my shellac to dissolve before work could progress. 

You can greatly reduce the time it takes to mix shellac by grinding up the flakes. A simple blade-type coffee grinder does the trick. Warm temperatures also speed up the process. If your shop is on the cool side, find a warm place to mix your shellac. I’ve been known to put a jar in my car on a sunny day. In an hour or less the ground flakes are totally dissolved. 

Smooth out the finish

Brushed-on shellac can “window pane”, leaving fat thick edges.  It can also “orange peel” when sprayed.  This happens most often with heavy mix, so keeping your shellac thin (1-2lb. cut) is your best defense. If you are still having problems, try some “Shellac-Wet”. Just a few drops in a quart of shellac will greatly improve flow-out and leveling. Do not use this additive if you plan to topcoat the shellac with a different finish, as it may cause adhesion problems.

Ready to use 

 Zinsser‘s “Amber” shellac is a ready to use orange shellac and their  “Clear” shellac is a blonde shellac. Both of these products contain wax and come as a 3-pound cut that should be thinned to a 1-2 pound cut before use. 

“SealCoat” is a 2-pound cut of dewaxed blonde shellac. SealCoat is a universal sealer that adds just the right amount of warmth and color under a water-based finish. 

Mixed shellac has a 6-month shelf life.  Zinnser has found a way to stretch the shelf life of pre-mixed shellac to 3 years. Always look for the date of manufacture on the can before you buy. All three products are also available in handy spray cans.

Quick mix shellac

For quick repair work, or for those times when you didn’t mix quite enough shellac there’s “Gold Dust”. It’s basically pulverized shellac that’s light yellow to amber in color. The powder is designed  for r fast, no-wait mixing of small batches. 

Control the sheen 

Most woodworkers are used to buying finishes with the desired sheen (gloss, semi-gloss, satin or flat) right off the shelf. With shellac you have one choice – high gloss. Traditionally shellac’s sheen was adjusted by rubbing it out. Shellac is easy to rub to a glass smooth finish with the desired sheen. However, carved or heavily molded surfaces can be tricky to rub out. Thankfully, you can add a flattening agent like Shellac Flat to adjust the sheen.  Shellac Flat is made with amorphous silica and alcohol. 

Mix small batches

 I make shellac in small batches so it won’t go bad before I can use it up. Mixed shellac’s shelf life is about 6 months. After that it may not dry properly. 

I use a small food scale (available at grocery stores) to weigh out the flakes.  To mix one pint of 1-lb.-cut shellac, dissolve 2 oz. of shellac flakes in 16 oz. of alcohol. For a 2-lb. cut, double the flakes. After the shellac is fully dissolved, strain it through fine mesh cheesecloth or filter to remove impurities. 

Custom colors

Shellac is easy to color. Whether you’re looking for deep, soft brown or garish cadmium yellow, shellac can handle it. Just add alcohol-based dye. For pure colors, super-blonde shellac works best. 

Use the right brush 

Using the right brush is essential if you want your relationship with shellac to start off on the right foot. An inexpensive oval sash brush, like the Biestt-Liebco #12 shown here, is perfect for applying shellac on trim work and molded edges. The natural china bristles easily wrap around contours without leaving big drips. 

Golden Taklon is an amazing synthetic material used on brushes like the Athena 7100 Series. The bristles are wonderfully fine and soft and give you a precise edge and control.

A high quality natural bristle brush with a chisel edge, like the Dunnet Fitch, is great for applying shellac on a large, flat surface like a tabletop.


(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

Homestead Finishes,, 216-631-5309, Shellac-Wet,  #7099; 2 oz. Shellac Flat,  #7080; 16-oz. Dunnnet –Fitch Brush, 2-1/2-in.; Besitt-Liebco Birch Oval Sash, #12; Athena Series 7100 Golden Talkon, 1-1/2”.

Wood Finishers Depot,, 866-883-3768, “Gold Dust” Ground Shellac, 1/2 pound, #SH1-8; Shellac Thinner-200 Proof, 1-quart, #LT200-Q.

Woodworker’s Supply,, 800-645-9292, J.E.Moser’s Seedlac, #848-817, 1-lb.; J.E.Moser’s Buttonlac Pure Flake, #848-824, 1-lb.; J.E.Moser’s Garnetlac, #848-831,1-lb.; J.E.Moser’s Orange Shellac, #848-838, 1-lb.; J.E.Moser’s Super Blonde (dewaxed), #848-845, 1-lb.,, Shellac Colour Sampler 5 Pack, five – 4-oz. pkgs. of PLATINA (Platinum Blonde Dewaxed, Ruddy Amber (Dewaxed),  Kusmi (Caramel Amber) Button, Garnet, Kusmi Seed; DEWAXED Shellac Sampler 5 pack, five – 4-oz. pkgs. of  Dewaxed Super Blonde, Dewaxed Beige (Almost Blonde), Dewaxed Orange, Dewaxed Lemon, Dewaxed Garnet.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker September 2007, issue #130.

September 2007, issue #130

Purchase this back issue.



bricofleur wrote re: Tips For Using Shellac
on 07-10-2009 3:40 PM

I started to use shellac last year when building a storage chest for my daughter. Since I didn't want the inside of the chest to smell, I used shellac since it dissolves in alcohol and leaves no odor. This is great stuff, and cheap. I will sure use it often.

Thanks for this article.



AndyGump wrote re: Tips For Using Shellac
on 07-10-2009 7:05 PM

I started using shellac on wood model airplanes from Strombeck-Becker,'50. Back when I was really doing a lot of woodworking, I used shellac as a stain control, 3lb cut then thin 4 to 1. I do not do much woodworking now, but just built a 3 drawer nighstand my grandson. I used shellac inside of the drawers. I still make a few novility boxes, small projects, coat w/shellac.  Restored a couple of old wood planes recenty, used shellac to acheive the 'Jappaned" finish (French Polish method) .  

Big problem now is finding the stuff. Always liked it.

Larry wrote re: Tips For Using Shellac
on 07-12-2009 5:58 PM

i weave chairs and i use shellac to finish the rush chairs that i weave.  today i "cut" my can of Zinsser Amber shellac for the first time and it lost all of its sheen.........!!!! should i have not cut it?

Morty wrote re: Tips For Using Shellac
on 07-21-2009 6:35 PM

I like your tips, but it would be better, if you set things up for a printable format, that didn't waste so much paper.