Finishing or refinishing a piece of wood furniture is an easy project for just about everyone.
It requires minimal tools and knowledge about woodworking.
Unfortunately, not enough people research the different types of finish before embarking on their project. (What is shellac anyways?)
This is a big mistake because using the wrong type of finish can have a major impact on your wood piece.
Wood shellac, wood varnish, lacquer, and other finishes each serve unique purposes.
What is Shellac?
Shellac is actually a pretty interesting product.
But what is shellac?
This substance is technically a solid: it’s a resin that comes from the female lac bug which is indigenous to trees in Thailand and India.
In that respect, wood shellac is a naturally derived product which makes it very safe when dry or in solid form.
Shellac is first processed into solid flakes which are later mixed with ethanol to create the liquid form you’re probably familiar with in woodworking.
This substance naturally occurs in many colors such as blonde, dark brown, orange, and a variety of warm hues. Eastern cultures have used shellac for thousands of years due to its accessibility.
Outside of woodworking, shellac provides many functions such as
- Cosmetics such as nail polish
- Adding shine to fruits
- Bicycle parts
- Mounting insects onto displays
- Jelly beans
- Custom dental implants
- Ballet pointe shoes
- Fabric dye
As you can see, shellac is very versatile as a binder and protective coating.
Which Type of Finish Should You Use?
Shellac is an amazing item, but is wood shellac the right choice for your wood finish?
Let’s take a look at advantages and disadvantages of some popular wood sealants.
Polyurethane is basically liquid plastic. As a wood finish, it’s available in either water-based or oil-based forms.
Water-based polyurethane is fairly non-toxic and has a low odor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up very well to high temperatures and chemicals. For that reason, polyurethane isn’t a great choice for outdoor items or kitchen tables.
Similar to shellac, wood varnish has a high level of solids which makes it very durable. It’s also resistant to UV light and the elements making wood varnish ideal for outdoor applications.
On the other hand, wood varnish can yellow over time and can bubble if applied to quickly or in the wrong temperature.
Shellac is ideal for fine furniture items and it’s fairly durable, but it does have its downsides.
This finish doesn’t resist temperature extremes or chemicals very well so don’t use it on any outdoor items or kitchen tables.
This is an excellent finish choice because it’s extremely durable, comes in a broad range of colors, smooth, and provides a nice glossy appearance.
Unfortunately, lacquer is prone to scratches and application is resource heavy: you need a high-pressure low-volume (HPLV) sprayer.
How to Apply a Shellac Finish
Wood shellac is a great choice for any indoor furniture item that won’t hold food or drinks such as bookshelves, shelves, frames, and end tables. (Beware of the dreaded white rings from beverage cups.)
Before applying a shellac finish, it’s important to thoroughly prepare the wood item. This process includes sanding, wiping, and sealing the wood.
Although shellac is easy to apply, it’s important to make sure your room is not humid or wet because humidity can turn the finish white and impact its drying ability.
- Sand the wood piece to remove any previous finish and start with a fresh surface.
- Wipe the wood with a damp rag to remove all dust and discrepancies.
- Apply an initial sealant. The appropriate sealant for shellac finish is white shellac.
- Mix the shellac with the appropriate amount of alcohol. (If it’s in solid form.)
- Apply the shellac generously. Wipe with the wood grain in long and gentle strokes.
- Let the first coat of shellac dry for about four hours.
- Buff with a medium grain sandpaper and wipe away the dust with a damp rag.
- Repeat the shellac and sanding process for another two or three cycles allowing four hours drying time in between each coat.
- After the final coat has dried, rub with steel wool moving along the grain to remove the gloss.
- Let the piece rest for 48 hours.
- Apply a high-quality wax coating and buff with either a soft cloth or buffing attachment on a drill.
Shellac is very easy to apply which makes it great for beginners. It’s also a good option if you’re working with a small amount of time because you only need to wait four hours in between coats as opposed to 24 hours with wood varnish.
If you’re feeling up to it, give the French method a try. This involves a special shellac/oil mixture and rubbing in a figure 8 motion which results in a smoother and more durable finish.