Why I love shellac
I hate finishing, but I hate it much less when I use shellac. Backhanded compliment, sure, but if you knew how much I hate finishing, you’d really be impressed!
OK, enough nonsense. Here are all the things I love about this centuries-old wonder finish. First, it smells great as you are using it, kind of old-timey, like oiled leather or fine wine. It goes on with a rag or a brush, depending on how much you’ve thinned it and how you are using it. It dries super-fast, completely cured and ready for sanding in two hours or so, meaning by the time I finish a number of parts and assemblies and take a coffee break. I’m ready to sand lightly and apply another coat.
Also, shellac can add tone, much more safely and predictably than stains and dyes in my experience. You can use the amber variety out of the can, for example, (but thinned a bit) to add warmth when your walnut looks too cool for its own good.
I also love that you can just let your brush dry hard, and just sit it in some shellac for 1/2 hour or so to resoften it the next time. That’s because wet shellac dissolves hard shellac, even hundreds of years later, which is why coats bond to each other so beautifully.
Best of all, shellac just looks and feels fantastic. It is a very hard and crystalline finish, and the wood shines through gorgeously.
Not convinced yet? How about the fact that shellac is also the greatest sealer, going under almost any other finish to prevent blotching? Try a very thin coat, wiped onto on cherry before applying oil. Fantastic. Phenomenal. Unparalleled. Etc. Best of all, any other finish goes over the top of it, as long as you used the unwaxed variety of shellac. Out of the can, that measn you’ll need to find SealCoat, not the normal amber and blonde stuff.
Some important tips. Whether you use shellac from the can or mix it yourself from flakes, use the unwaxed variety if you can and be sure of its freshness date. Waxy shellac is not as durable and water-resistant as unwaxed, and old shellac will never fully harden. Always thin shellac, down to a 1-1/2-lb. coat for brushing and thinner for wiping. And don’t linger as you apply it. Put it down as evenly as possible and move on, otherwise you’ll begin to drag the shellac as it gets gummy. For more info, FWW.com members can read Mario Rodriguez’s excellent recent article: “Make Shellac Your Go-To Finish,” in FWW #234.
I used shellac on its own for this Asian-style bed, brushing it on in thin coats. I started with amber shellac out of the can, to warm up the walnut, before finishing with the clearer SealCoat variety, also out of the can. Still looks phenomenal after 10 years.
For my Nakashima-style dining table, also walnut, I started with dewaxed garnet flakes to warm the tone, before switching to polyurethane for a bit more durability.
My favorite way to apply shellac is with a brush. I like the ones with natural China bristles. Note that I've thinned this shellac out of the can.
The first sealer coat raises the grain, and one or two hours later, it's ready for light sanding.
Now I'm using some shellac mixed from beige flakes to add some subtle tone to this white pine.
I prefinished these door panels with some of the beige shellac. Note the subtle color, compared to the door frames. I'll continue to add coats of the beige shellac, adding a warm glow to the pine, just another one of shellac's magic tricks.