Learn How Shellac is Made
From time-to-time here at Fine Woodworking, our editors take a quick break from their standard fair of how-to articles and tool reviews, to present pieces with a bit of a human interest slant. Regular readers probably caught contributing author Vijay Velji’s recent article titled Shellac’s Amazing Journey in issue 215. In it, Velji followed the entire manufacturing process–from the harvesting of lac, all the way through to the production of buttonlac, shellac flakes, and even the canned varieties most of us are perhaps more familiar with.
We’ve asked Vijay back to share a bit more about his favorite finish and he responded with the video you see below. For anyone interested in the origins of what is perhaps one of the most traditional finishes out there, it’s a must-see.
Shellac Origins and Manufacture
By Vijay Velji
Shellac as a finish is quickly catching on with many woodworkers. The many myths that were propagated are slowing proving to be wrong, Woodworkers are realizing that shellac is an easy to use finish that can stand on its own merits.
Since the release of my French Polish Like a Pro! DVD, I have been receiving many questions about shellac. The books at my local library, or even at the Library of Congress, are old and outdated. Therefore I decided to go to India and document the production process. Fortunately I had personal contacts that helped me tremendously. I met with the villagers who cultivate lac, and with the factory owners who process it. It was an exciting and interesting trip.
This video highlights the cultivation and processing of hand and machine-made waxy shellac. Manufacturing of dewaxed shellac is a trade secret that most processors do not want to share. I had the privilege of witnessing it without taking photographs.
Apart from the documentation, I also spent time at the National Library and Asiatic Society in the city of Kolkata to verify the history of shellac. I was able to trace it back to 1500 B.C. This was some 400 years before Ramses III was ruling Egypt. Although I am sure that the use of shellac goes beyond that!
I hope you enjoy the video. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
More on Finishing with Shellac
After the shellac has been stretched over the hot drum, it's enlarger even more. This worker uses his hands, feet, and even mouth, to stretch the shellac out as much as he can. Once the shellac cools, it can be broken up into flakes.
Instead of creating individual buttons, this worker places the molten shellac on the outside of a ceramic cylinder filled with hot water. The worker then spreads it into a thin layer using the stem of a palm frond.
One at a time. Workers pass a canvas tube filled with dry seedlac in front of an oven. As the seedlac melts, they twist the tube, forcing molten shellac through the canvas, where it is scraped off and deposited onto a sheet of tin to form buttonlac.
Follow this finish from the tree to your shop, and learn why it is still unmatched.