For more information on Finishes, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

Here is the dovetailed box I did on YouTube; to show how to apply shellac with a brush. I am using an artist’s 1″ Hake brush, which I use for most of my finishing. For a more detailed article on shellac see my earlier blog from April 2011.

I think that we have been deceived into believing modern day finishes surpass shellac and that shellac simply doesn’t hold up like lacquers  do. It’s not true. On the other hand, modern day lacquers that replaced shellac actually go gummy through contact with the oils from our human skin, and so it quickly deteriorates on pieces such as dining tables and the arms of armchairs. Shellac is the substance we use to achieve a French-polished surface. French polishing is the process, shellac the substance of the finish applied using the process of French polishing. Shellac’s main disadvantage is that it will not withstand alcohol spirit. Spill a drop of whisky onto a French polished table and it will dissolve the finish. For boxes, using shellac creates a wonderful and durable finish and I don’t really care too much about what any manufacturer or expert in finishing tells us.

I have used shellac as a finish for decades. I would not generally use it on dining tables, coffee tables or occasional tables. On beds, most chairs, chests and small projects. shellac is a great finish.

9 Comments

  1. Bmwkees on 8 December 2011 at 10:30 am

    Hi Paul,

    Very much like your blog!
    I’ve wanted to try out shellack for some time, so I was happy to view your video.
    What kind of finish do you use on dining tables? Our table has such a sticky, gummy varnish on it, and I’d like to replace that with something stronger.

    Greetings Kees (from The Netherlands).



    • Paul Sellers on 8 December 2011 at 10:47 am

      Hello Kees.

      You can use shellac on every aspect of a table except the tabletop. You may not like this but the most durable finish is the conventional oil-based polyurethane. You must build up the coats to a sufficient thickness and then leave enough there to even out the coats by abrading with sand paper and a block. The evenness of the surface depends on how you apply the finish. Wipe on poly’s give a very even surface and are less invasive and troublesome than brush and spray methods if you are not set up for spraying especially. I use water-based polyurethane quite often now because they are simple and can be wiped on with a cloth,which means no brush marks and thinner coats. In two hours you can build up the coats to a working finish and use the table within an hour of the last coat.
      Ronseal seems to be one of the better ones but the best is made by the US company General Finishes and is available here in Europe.



      • Pete on 2 August 2012 at 9:24 am

        Paul,

        We’ve got a big farmhouse table under construction and with VOC/allergies/solvent issues we’re leaning towards shellac… The table is pine “S-P-F” and I haven’t had good luck with any of my tests of oil stains. If we shellac everything but the top with something like half amber/half clear, what you recommend for the top?

        thanks & the site has inspired me to ditch some of the “hidden pocket screw” joints for some half laps & mortise/tenons.



        • Todd Johnson on 14 January 2013 at 2:01 am

          This response may be a bit late, but you might consider Tried & True Varnish Oil, which is completely non-toxic and produces a beautiful finish. I’m now trying Shellac on some projects based on Paul’s recommendation and the results I saw at the Woodworking school in Waco where Paul used to teach. But until now I’ve used Tried & True exclusively, including on the dark walnut table that I made at the school in Waco. I have used that table every day for 3 years, put drinks on it, spilled wine and water on it, and it looks as good as the day I finished it. Touch up is also really easy if needed. The only issue is that it is a slow and labor-intensive finish that requires a lot of rubbing and 1-3 days between coats depending on the humidity.



  2. Harry Schak on 12 January 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Paul, Why the Hake brush? Seems like they loss hair like a cat.



    • Paul Sellers on 12 January 2015 at 8:51 pm

      Well, I have been using three Hake brushes, the same ones since 2007 but they did have a one year break so say seven years and they show no signs of giving out. I haven’t noticed any hair loss on any scale. Perhaps one in an hour of use.



      • Harry Schak on 12 January 2015 at 9:51 pm

        You had mentioned getting them from amazon, but they seem to have a lot to choose from. Any particular brand you favor?



        • Paul Sellers on 12 January 2015 at 10:19 pm

          I use a 1″ Ron Ranson but there are other makes.



  3. Scott Chensoda on 4 July 2015 at 11:32 am

    Anyone who spills whisky, under any circumstances, should be given a term of imprisonment on sacreligous charges.



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