Why this traditional finish may be the best choice for your next woodworking project
If you do a quick search of the internet for articles on shellac you will find hundreds, maybe even thousands of them discussing different aspects of this historic product. You will undoubtedly find articles discussing shellac’s history and origins. Just in case you don’t know, shellac is a resin secreted by the Lac Beetle and primarily harvested from India and other countries in South Asia. Favored by furniture makers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as antique furniture refinishers and period piece makers today, it fell out of general favor after the development of lacquers and hard-wearing polyurethanes.
Modern woodworkers have created dozens of lists explaining why you should or shouldn’t use shellac. All these lists are written by people with years of experience and mounds of success with the various products they support. Without having to recreate the Lincoln-Douglas debates over the subject, both sides are missing the number one reason that sets shellac apart from other finishes available today, safety.
Shellac Top Coat
I’ll explain. So, there you are in your shop. Your new baby is inside your home starting to crawl and play (and chew) on everything in sight and you have decided that your child will have only the best and finest crafted wooden toys. All made by you; parent, hero, and most importantly woodworker. As the first few toys come rolling off the assembly table, you start thinking about the paint thinner, latex gloves, and the various toxic components in oil-based polyurethanes, not to mention the mess that has been required for every other project you’ve completed. That doesn’t sound like anything that you want your new pride and joy to cut that first incisor on now, does it? Shellac to the rescue.
That’s right; parenthood and shellac go hand in hand. Why do you ask? The first and best reason is that shellac is non-toxic once cured. So non-toxic in fact, that a shellac/wax mixture is used to coat apples in supermarkets. It is also used as a coating for pills, candy, and the inside of ice cream cones. Far more shellac is used by the food and pharmaceutical industries than the woodworking industry. I still wouldn’t hand your child a bowl of shellac flakes and milk, but it’s nice to know that your teething toddler isn’t getting a mouthful of toxic chemicals.
Safe For Kids
So, shellac is safe for the kids. That alone should be the reason to use it, but there are others. Children as most parents will tell you are incredibly destructive. Who wants to refinish a toy that has a chipped and cracked poly finish all over it? That is a lot of sanding and headache to get a surface ready to be refinished. However, with shellac, a light scuff sanding and then a fresh coat will fix everything. The new coat will melt right into the old, creating a piece that looks like new. Plus, it is incredibly quick to dry. Thin coats (recommended) will dry in minutes. If the finish is applied in the morning, your little one could be playing with that favorite toy before the day is out.
Here is a short list of a few more benefits:
- Incredibly clarity, even with the darker toned shellacs
- Wood looks more natural, feels better to the touch
- Can add color to the wood without the use of other stains
- If you are using pine, shellac will seal the knots and stop the pitch from bleeding through
- Forgivable and repairable
- Contrary to popular belief, is quite tough and durable
- Versatile application methods – can be wiped, padded, brushed, or sprayed
- Fun to mix up (I like mixing up shellac – what of it)
Convinced that you should give shellac a try, but still scared of those pesky flakes? Well, it’s time to get over it. You stepped up to the plate to become a parent, didn’t you? Using shellac is a lot easier. Shellac flakes are easily and readily mixed with denatured alcohol. Add flakes to the alcohol and let dissolve, gently shaking occasionally. This can take between one and two days, so plan accordingly. Two pounds of flakes poured into a gallon of alcohol creates the well-known “two-pound cut”. If you mixed four pounds of flakes in with a gallon of alcohol you would have a “four-pound cut.” Do the math on smaller mixtures to stay in proportion. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. The key to remember though is that shellac does have a shelf life of only about a year, so try to mix up just what you need for a project. If you do mix more, a good rule of thumb is to date the mixture. Once you get your shellac feet about you, you can upgrade to buying bulk flakes and provide your own alcohol. Try storing your mixes in sealed mason jars. Now get out there and shellac a few toys for the kids.