The Virtues of Shellac – One Hundred Years of Shellacitude

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Shellac, brothers and sisters… I am here today to preach to you about the virtues of SHELLAC! Truly one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind, shellac was once a cornerstone of American life. Nowadays, it is often relegated to the bottom shelf in the finish isle of the paint department, sold in lowly quart cans as a pre-paint stain blocker (which it works quite well for). But shellac is so much more! Let us explore the miracle of SHELLAC!

Okay, it may be a hard sell to get people truly excited about this really old-timey product when there are so many options available these days for wood finishing. But there is one thing that no other product can do, and that is…look like shellac. The rich, orange-gold finish that you see on so many vintage and historic surfaces is probably shellac, and no combination of modern stains and finishes, not even tinted lacquer or urethane, will give you the rich, natural color of shellac. So what the heck is this stuff, anyway?

Here is where the incredible coolness of shellac begins. It is excreted by beetles in exotic forests in places like Thailand and India. No, I’m not kidding. The Laccifera lacca creates the resin, referred to as “Lac” (from the Sanskrit word “lakh” which means “one-hundred thousand”). The Lac bug deposits the resin on trees, forming a cocoon around the insect. This cocoon is called “sticklac”, because it contains the resin, plant parts and bug bits, and it needs to be refined down to the pure goodness. It’s like harvesting silk, or spice mining (that is, if you are a Dune, fan.)

From the days of the Roman empire up to the end of the Victorian era, Shellac was one of the most valued chemicals around. It is was (and still is) used in tons of stuff. Leather polish? Shellac. Electric insulators? Shellac. Pill coatings? Shellac. Phonograph records? Shellac. Candy Corn? Shellac. Yes, I said candy corn. For everyone’s sake, I’ll just stop there.

Lac in the wild! photo – Jeffrey W. Lotz, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,

Shellac for Wood Finishing

For our purposes, though, let’s talk wood finishing. For older folks, shellac may conjure up the memory of drippy, streaky woodwork in an old farmhouse, or a Boy Scout’s first attempt at finishing a bird house. I’ll be the first to admit, a lot of stuff out there with shellac slapped on it looks, well, like crap, to be perfectly honest. It’s not the easiest finish to work with. However, if you have ever seen a piece of furniture with a classic French polish on it, you know how beautiful shellac can be. Guitars and pianos are often finished with shellac. The stuff can look amazingly high polish, or wonderfully funky.

What I love about it, is that it works so well alongside contemporary synthetic stains and finishes. It is, after all, the base for most of the stain-killing sealers and primers you see out there. It will go on fine over just about any stain, and you can tip coat with varnish or poly. You can easily make a piece that looks like it’s 100 years old, but still has a tough modern coating on it.

Shellac gives this 100 year-old trim it’s beautiful amber richness.

As for applying shellac, there are just a few tricks. Most people apply it with a brush and tend to over-brush it. The Lac is suspended in pure alcohol, so as the alcohol evaporates, it gets gummier. So, the more you brush, the faster the spirits vaporize, and the gummier it gets. This can be frustrating, and some folks will wait until it dries, sand it out and try it again, but you can run into the same problems and actually make it worse by re-activating the old stuff. The key is to remember that it dissolves in alcohol. Don’t hesitate to play around with keeping a rag and a can of denatured alcohol nearby to experiment with rubbing out the finish. Once you realize how versatile it is, you can really have fun with it!

Zinnser Shellac
Buy it in a can down at the local hardware, or mix your own!

Shellac – A Few Things I Love

  • It is an all natural product, and non-toxic
  • It is a very workable (and repairable) finish for the lifetime of the piece.
  • It sticks to ANYTHING.
  • It looks amazing, and is super versatile.

Shellac – A Few Things I Don’t Love

  • It scratches
  • It dissolves (don’t spill your bourbon on it)
  • Not-great heat resistance
  • It has a pretty lousy shelf life.

The downsides are pretty minor, when you think about it. To make it tougher you can easily top-coat it with varnish, as I mentioned before. As far as shelf life, if you become a real shellac nerd, you can buy dried shellac flakes and mix your own with denatured alcohol.

shellac on pine
Slapping a little shellac on pine- instant age!

Oh, and one last thing…. while you are working away in the garage, it is important to have the right music for the job. In this case, I suggest the great Steve Albini and his amazing Chicago-based post-punk band, called, appropriately enough…. SHELLAC!

Photo of author

About Rich

Rich Dana loves to build things, to tinker on things, and to grow things. After more than a decade as a historic building remodeler in Brooklyn, New York, he and his wife Ericka moved to their back-to-the-land dream home (and fixer-uper nightmare), an 1870s farmhouse on 15 acres in eastern Iowa that they call “Catnip Farm.” For the last 18 years, Rich has specialized in super-efficient historical renovations and solar PV installation. He is working to convert much of the farm into perennial food crops like nut trees and berries, and he helps Ericka out with her heirloom seed project. His latest passion is learning to sew.

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