How to apply shellac as practical wood finish

Brushing on Shellac: A Glass-like Finish

I use shellac for all of my projects; either as single sanding coat before painting or varnishing, or as a full finish. Many sanding sealers are nothing more than thinned shellac. It is fast, easy to apply and it gives good protection regardless of what manufacturers of other finishes may tell you. If you want a plastic feel to your woodworking, use polyurethane or catalyzed lacquer. If you want depth, smoothness and vivid grain enhancement, Shellac gives all three.

 

In the everyday of life I use a brand called Liberon Spirit Sanding Sealer to finish many of my projects.  I also use it as a sealer coat, sanding coat and main bodybuilding finish. Buying a prepared finish saves time and gives me the convenience I need. Companies like Liberon give fancy names to their product but at the end of the day what they are giving you is just shellac. Any old shellac. Shellac is readily available from B&Q and The Home Depot in the  USA. You can make your own shellac finish by simply buying Shellac flakes and and alcohol and mixing your own cut. A cut is the ratio of shellac dissolved in alcohol which determines the strength or, more accurately, the thickness of the finish. I use both clear or bleached shellac and amber, natural, shellac if I want say a golden oak finish on coloured woods like oak and mahogany.

 

I use a dye in the shellac itself and add leather dye to get the colour I want. These dyes fade a little in full sun, but I enjoy this result. For most of my work I stick to clear shellac.

 

Three to four coats is generally enough to give the work a fully protective coat. The first coat seals the wood and the second gives it enough body to sand, level and recoat without cutting through these base coats.

 

 

 

The first coat can be applied with a rag or a brush, depending on the surface area you want to coat. I use what is called a hake paint brush for all small work and it also works for many larger projects too. Sometimes I will use the hake and rag, using the hake for tight areas and corners and the rag for the larger open areas. The hake is a brush used by watercolorists to apply a wash coat to larger areas of their paintings. I use  a 1″ brush for most of my work.

I sand the second coat dead flat which with sanding sealer shellac takes only seconds to achieve a perfect finish. These next coats are critical to good results. One thing to remember is that for shellac, using a brush gives much larger volumes than say using the technique of French Polishing to apply shellac. When you apply shellac, each subsequent coat dissolves the previously laid coat or coats. However there is a fraction of time to work the next coats one by one after the previous coats have dried. Waiting for the coat to dry before applying the next is important. so even though it may feel touch dry, make sure you leave it long enough for the alcohol to evaporate and the remaining shellac to cure. Half an hour to one hour is usually enough in any case. Applying the third coat requires speed, and accurate brush work is core to this. Accurate brush work means loading your brush with the right amount, not to little and not too much. Unlike paint or varnish, you cannot place the finish on the surface and then work it out from that point. You must place the finish alongside a wet edge, draw out the finish along the edge of the wet edge and then lengthen the strokes with no more than one or two pulls. Otherwise, working the coats as with paint and varnish, would pull the now softened layers below which results in drag, bit like a frozen tidal wave, in the finish.

 

 

Buffing the surface with 0000 or superfine steel wool enables you to see if the surface is ‘filled’. Look for any flat spots whereby the light fails to reflect evenly across the whole surface. If it does have flat spots add a further coat. You will not usually need more than four coats. The last phase is to steel wool the last cat with 0000 steel wool.

 

 

This will even out the surface leaving it supersmooth. Depending on the wood type, i apply a further finish of paste wax. I use National Trust Furniture Polish for a clear wax finish or Briwax for a coloured wax finish. On open grained woods like oak, the darker waxes fill in the pores and give added color or visual texture to the final appearance that I like.

54 comments on “How to apply shellac as practical wood finish

  1. Does anyone know where in the USA to find the Liberon bleached sanding sealer shellac Paul references in this post? I’m having the hardest time finding any bleached shellac in the US for that matter so I’m open to other brands as well as long as they are bleached and dewaxed. I can work with flakes, buttons, premixed, or even cuts thicker than the sanding sealer cut. It seems super blonde is about the lightest color I’ve found. Thanks in advance.

    • Woodcrafts has blonde shellac flakes and also has Zinssers clear shellac and you can cut it with denatured alcohol to make it a sanding sealer.
      The big box stores usually stock Zinssers shellac products as a premixed liquid and it works exactly the same as Liberon.

      • You can also buy Zinssers SealCoat, which is a 100% dewaxed clear shellac and is a little bit thinner than the BullsEye Shellac. I believe it is a 2-lb cut, compared to the 3-lb cut of Bullseye.

  2. Hello Paul, do you have a recipe please for sanding sealer. I have been charged up to 8 pounds for half a litr in the past and am fairly sure could mix it myself if I knew what to use. I assume due to the smell it is a mixture of shellac and meths,
    am I correct. Any info you could pass on would be much appreciated.
    Thank you
    Eve

    • Sanding sealer is only diluted shellac usually though there are other proprietary brands made from chemicals too. Shellac is natural and sustainable. Usually we simply add meths which is denatured alcohol (DA) to an existing mix or you can buy flakes and mix your own. Buy the alcohol as meths or get the DA from a pharmacy. Add the DA and gently shake or stir and leave to settle a minute or too.

    • Eve, Without seeing what you already have it’s difficult. If mixing your own this blog I did for making your own shellac earlier this year might help you. If thinning an existing mix, you really cannot fail. A thin coat still leaves enough for a sanding sealer. Apply two coats for twice as thick and three for more.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I’m new to shellac in general but had a particular application in mind. I’m an oil painter and have recently been experimenting with creating my own panels. Do you think shellac would stick to gesso primer or acrylic primer, or is it best applied to sanded, porous surfaces like straight wood? I was thinking of using it as a sealer for panels I’ve already primed (before I was alerted to the fact that gesso does not seal hardboard the way I thought it would). I know in the olden days they painted with oils over shellac but am not sure if it would stick the same to modern, acrylic based primers.

    Or maybe I’m missing some crucial information?

    Thank you for any and all help!

    Lovepreet

    • I think the safest way is for you to test it on a samples. I have occasionally had paint flake on top of shellac, but I suspect I used too much shellac instead of just a thin sealer coat.

  4. Paul, Is the leather dye you use oil base? I have always used transtint dyes, thinking an oil would not mix well with shellac.

  5. Hi Paul

    I’m working on a new project and wondering what you suggest for a finish. I need something very hard wearing but clear. I’m cutting a recess out of a coffee table and placing a monopoly playing board in the gap. I want it to look like part of the table so don’t want a glass or Perspex cover. I need to use a varnish or shellac which I can use on the playing board and wooden table top. Does that make sense?

    I would really value your views on this.

    Kind regards

    Heather

    • It depends on the kind of finish you want to feel. You can use a pour-on bar top finish for one option. This totally transparent. This is a thick finish and the kind they use in bars. I don’t know what look you are looking for. You could also use one of the waterborne finishes they use for guitars. Look in that direction too. But I am sure one the waterborne floor finishes will work too. These are extremely hard and durable and not a lot different than the regular finishes we use on furniture if they are not one and the same. You basically apply several thin layers and then sand it out until suitably smooth. You must build up many coats though, so as not to sand through the finish.

      • Wow thanks Paul! So helpful! Il look at these. The bar finish sounds about right. I’m still unclear on the need to sand between layers and how to go about it but I’m sure il find the answers on your site. I think it’s the grade of paper I’m confused about.

        Thanks again 🙂

  6. Hello Paul, never played with shellac before but I find myself in the midst of an 1890 house with gorgeous original trim. All of it shellaced including the floors and stairs! Any advice on where to start cleaning and fixing? I think where its intact I can do a mild dawn dish soap cleaning or naptha cleaning? Then can I just reapply shellac and it should blend where needed? There are some alligatored areas on handrails. Two windows that had water damage and need to be redone and then the floors! The rest just needs cleaning esp since it softens in summer and fleece blankets left some fuzz behind. Also, my floors are hard as rock finished. It is shellac but everyone now says it doesn’t last. Its over 100 yrs now! Did they do something special for that hard finish? Thanks for the time and any advice or direction.

  7. Paul – I sure would like your answers to this one. I’m in the same boat and think I might be sanding more than needed for my floors. I have wiped with oderless thinner to remove wax then lightly sanded for imbeded grime (only getting to wood in the high traffic/warn) areas My recoat was with box store shellc cut 50/50 with hope that will help the melt of prior coats. Then I have sanded between costs… Wonderful results, but….. The sanding between coats seems a waist of time, material and my wrists.

  8. Hello Paul- I’m makin a eastern red cedar log baby crib. Would shellac be the best / safest finish? Or what do you recommend? Thank you for your time and sharing your knowledge!

    • Go either with shellac or waterborne finish. Shellac will feel smoothest and when you consider that most candies are indeed coated with shellac to make them shiny and that its the base ingredient for fingernail painting too, you get some idea of how safe it is when children eat candy and people bite and suck their fingers. My choice on a baby crib would be shellac first.

  9. Hey Paul, great info. I’m struggling with refinishing a slab wood table in Shellac. The problem is; I have waves in my shellac after 3 Coats. I’ve been sanding in between coats but now I have uneven surface accross. I’m using bullseye and a 2 inch China bristle brush. I suspect my problem is bad application technique. Should I go to a rag application? Should I sand it back down to wood and start over? It’s a 3ft by 6 ft conference table. Any suggestions would be super appreciated.

    • The common faults applying brushed shellac are:
      1: Apply too much at one coat.
      2: Applying too thick a coat.
      3: Labouring the application and dragging the softening finish previously applied.
      The art is a heavier first coat, thinned slightly for second and a little more for subsequent coats. It may well be best to soften with denatured alcohol and scrape off.

  10. Thank you for all of this great information. I was thinking of using shellac flakes for a hollow form I have but I’ll try the sanding sealer. What do you think about doing a French polish on a woodturned piece of art? I’m wondering if it’s too delicate. I wouldn’t be using French polish on utility items just shelf sitter.
    Thanks for the great info! Best Regards, Scott

    • Shellac is one of the most durable finishes and easy to repair too. It just melts with alcohol that’s it’s main fault. It was the industry standard for turners at one time. Anything over 100 years would be shellac. It doesn’t tolerate hot fluids either. French polish may be sold as a wood finish but French polish is the act of applying shellac not a finish as such; French polish is shellac.

  11. Paul
    I’m refinishing an old wardrobe that my wife, whom I love so well, purchased at a charity thrift shop. I’ve used a Minwax red mahogany to stain the vernier surface of this piece. My inclination is to use an amber shellac. My question is this, since there are large broad surfaces , what would be the best technique for maintaining a wet edge because shellacs dry so quickly ?

    • You can pad shellac on in thin coats. This usually means loading the pad. The pad is made up of enclosed cotton wool in a lint free cloth like a tee shirt rag. Fill the cotton wool and wrap the cotton outer around it. Squeeze to encourage the shellac to bleed through the cloth and pad on.

  12. Paul,
    As I’m new to your site, I have a second question. My wife, whom I love so well, and I remodeled our 1926 farmhouse to accommodate my wife’s elderly and infirmed father. In the process we removed two closets and in the process we developed a lot of old heart pine real 2 by 4s. I plan to carefully run them through the table saw , then glue and clamp the strips to make a cutting board.. Should I only use mineral oil as the final surface finish ?

    • Mineral oil is usually food safe. Beeswax on top is often done.

      However, my concern would be about using reclaimed wood for a cutting board. What if a toxins from old stains or paints have leeched into the wood? Doesn’t seem worth the risk to me–I would use the wood for a project unrelated to food prep.

  13. hi paul

    Im in the UK too looking at making up my first batch of shallac

    So you strain yours though a filter after making it?

    thanks
    Brendan

    • I don’t recall saying that I strained my shellac because usually I don’t unless I have picked up some bits that contaminated the mix during or after mixing or using it.

  14. Paul, can clear shellac be used as the top coat for a white pickled finish to preserve the whiteness? I have found that even water based poly finishes tend to leave a yellowed cast to wood. The project is a bed made of ash.

  15. Paul-

    Great information here! I have a 1912 Four Square with a lot of unpainted original oak woodwork. Certain sections of it are in need of touch ups and are looking a bit dingy in small areas. I am hoping to apply a new coat of shellac to each room to freshen everything up but I am confused on the exact process. Could you please clarify the method you’d recommend ? Any help is appreciated!
    Thanks,
    Ben

    • Shellac can be sprayed, painted with a brush or applied with what’s called a pad or, in the UK a rubber (not one and the same thing with USA). The pad is usually a cotton cloth 15″ square and filled to a small handful with cotton wool. The wool is charged peridically with the shellac and squeezed to release shellac into the pad as it is worked into the wood. Using a figure f eight motion working side to side creates a method known as French polish. French polish is the act of application not the type of finish as such. Brushing on applies thicker coats depending on the weight of the mix. The idea with French polishing is it applies very thin coats that build up with many applications. When someone says I applied 30 coats of `french polish it’s more a boast than reality because each coat applied no matter by which method becomes one coat whereas with varnishes and other finishes they are layered coats. So you can also dip a pad into shellac with a larger pad and make long straffing strokes to apply shellac but just don’t let the finish itself drag as you do this. Brushing in localised areas like base trim with a 2″ brush may well be the best way. Go from wet edge to wet edge and you will be safe. The spirit used, denatured alcohol, spirits off quickly so you too must work methodically and quickly. Don’t fuss over the finish as you might a little with other varnishes. “Brush on and move on” is the way I recommend.

  16. I have a birds eye maple veneer on maple wood window framing i plan to use liberon blonde shellac, then finish with a General Finishes Arm-R-seal oil & urethane topcoat. It is for a window frame and ledge.Is 3-coats of shellac brushed on adequate. I am using it to pop the birdseye.

  17. Paul, I have just ordered 11 interior oak doors, unfinished. I remember using shellac in woodwork when I was at school 30+ years ago. We always used it then as a top coat or an alternative to one coat varnish that takes hours to dry. The Liberon shellac that you mention, is it natural colour and will it change the colour of the doors significantly? Thanks again for your advice.

      • Thanks for the quick reply. I am in the UK. Is the Liberon likely to darken the wood significantly? Where can I get the ‘blond’ and who is the manufacturer of that?

        • No. It’s colourless. You can buy Liberon sanding sealer, which is shellac, bleached, ready to go. Or, as I do, you can mix your own. Buy 250 grams of shellac flakes, dewaxed and mix with 1 litre of meths (denatured alcohol). Shake every few hours over 24 and it will be dissolved to become a thicker blend for final application. Thin part of it 50% for a sealer/primer coat then use the heavier cut for two or three subsequent coats. The meths is coloured purple but that evaporates as the shellac dries to clear.

  18. Thank you for this post, I wish I had seen this earlier and could have used your technique.
    I have a question/issue:
    I am in the process of applying a shellac finish onto an electric guitar body and neck, that I previously spraypainted with Krylon Glitter Blast on top of Rustoleum Gloss Protective Enamel.
    I sprayed on the first coat of shellac with a spray can, because I did not want to disturb the glitter. Then I started putting on shellac coats with a brush.
    What I am noticing is that there are spots that seem to repel the shellac, and I need to dab on a larger amount of shellac for those spots to be covered, and even then it seems like the shellac is cringing away from certain spots.
    I want to get a decent thickness of shellac onto the glitter before sanding, in order to not take off any of the glitter while sanding, so I have been brushing on shellac lightly on most areas, and dabbed it onto the spots I mentioned. Those spots seem to be loosing ground.

    I would actually be fine if the shellac coat is not completely uniform in thickness, but I would want everything covered with shellac.

    Do you have any ideas or opinions about what I am trying to do and how to fix it? Do you think the thin coating and heavy dabbing is the right way to go forward?
    Thank you, Chris

    • It sounds like fish-eye or what’s also called cratering or orange peel of some kind. It could be something in the sprinkles and can be caused by a range of things from dust alone to silicone and oil. I cant really say what the answer is as you don’t want to or cannot go back to base. There are products designed to help with the finish or the surface treatment so a little more research with the industry of finishes will be your best direction. Try Zinssers.

      • Thank you.
        I guess I could sand it down and start back over, but I would rather not.
        It’s good to have the terms ‘fish-eye’, ‘cratering’ and ‘orange peel’. I will do some more research.
        If I find something good, I will report back here 🙂

  19. Paul, would you recommend Shellac as a finish for car interior wood? I’m restoring the wood on a 1960’s Jaguar which is a mixture of walnut veneered and non-veneered pieces. Once I have removed the old lacquer I want to achieve a finish that is neither too shiny or too dark.

  20. Hi Paul 🙂
    WOW! What a fantastic website!
    I came across your site quite by accident whist researching making my own shellac paint.
    I wanted to say what a fantastic site it is. The articles are clear, concise and entertaining and the images are first rate. Your site excels further by the virtue of the attention you give to your readers.
    You take the time to answer questions and assist or inform your readership with a level of commitment i have never seen anywhere to such a standard.
    I would like to extend my congratulations on a job very well done and on your standards and also Thank You for an excellent read.
    Very best wishes,
    Karl.

  21. Paul
    I am finishing two barn doors 42″ x 83 ” with 3 horizontal 1″ x 6″ on each door. The doors are hard maple with some attractive grain and color patterns.
    Using dewaxed shellac and maybe a bit of dye and using general finishes clear as the topcoat.
    I am struggling with the application process on such a large piece. I do not have a sprayer so that leaves brush or pad application. Am afraid the brush would dry too quickly and the pad would be a lot of work. Willing to try either but want to do it right the first time.
    Your thoughts please!!

    • Either that or redesolve it with denatured alcohol and scrape it off with a flat scraper when it softens. Shellac does not do too well with heavy applications but three or four light ones with a brush or sprayer or of course by pad as in french polishing.

    • You can; either that or redesolve it with denatured alcohol (the meths) and scrape it off with a flat scraper as it softens. Shellac does not do too well with heavy applications but three or four lighter ones with a brush or sprayer or of course by pad as in french polishing.

  22. Hi Paul, I have had my grandmother’s old cedar chest (pre-1900) for the last 40 years. Of course, the interior of the chest does not have any finish on it. The finish on the exterior looks like it probably is shellac, but I don’t know enough about wood finishes to be 100% sure it is shellac. The exterior finish is very uniform, but it is uniformly “crackled”, for lack of a better word. It is not loose, does not come off when rubbed, just looks kind of like a good alligator purse. Is this normal after 100+ years, or does it indicate the finish has been damaged by humidity ( I live in Louisiana), air conditioning or something else environmental? Should I leave it as it is with its crackled finish, or try to remove the old finish and apply a new one. If the latter is the way to go, would shellac be the most authentic finish for the time period of the chest? Is there another finish that would be a better choice? Thanks so much.

    • It sounds just lovely to me in every way. The insides of cedar chests were left unfinished for good reason, they cedar is aromatic and it was to keep the moths at bay from laying their eggs inside and or to stop moths from chewing on fibres. The cracklt only happens to shellac so most likely French Polished with shellac. You don’t need to do anything unless it bothers you. Old shellac will do this in some pieces but it will stay in place. If you did decide to refinish there is no need to remove the old finish as denatured alcohol in a fresh batch of shellac dissolves the old finish and the new melds with it. so a fresh coat of shellac high in meths (not on meths) will resolve it if you go that route.

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