Restoring a Shellac Finish

My famous box got bashed about through the years of display and handling. Actually, apart from being dropped on concrete twice, it’s stood up very well, such is shellac. The coats have not worn through anywhere despite being well handled by visitors, but regardless, repairing and restoring  shellac is very quick and easy.

Steel wool comes in grades of coarseness and we generally avoid coarse except for stripping back a finish with a solvent. Usually shellac needs no such treatment as shellac is readily dissolved by the repairing layers of shellac coats you apply. The fine level steel wool we use for repairing and not stripping is classified by a series of four 0000’s marked on the packet. This is the finest level we might need. We also look for long strands rather than pads. In this case the steel wool is rolled as you can see. The long strands enable us to pull off six inches or so that we then fold. The wool lasts longer and is less prone to crumblling this way. Liberon is my provider of choice. It has only the lightest amount of oil, just enough to inhibit rust and it doesn’t affect the finishes I apply.

Rub with the grain where possible. Steel wool is different than abrasive as it cuts the surface rather than abrades it with particulate. It also creates less abrasive particles too. With a few rubs the surface is ready for coating. I did the whole of the outside and the rim of the box.

The 1″ hake brush places the finish nicely. Long even strokes overlapping the wet edges ensures order and structure and I know exactly where I am up to. It takes only a minute. Leave for half an hour to fully dry and check the sheen for any flat spots or lack of lustre. Apply another coat if you feel it needs it. I usually buff out the surface with steel wool but leave it another half hour if I do decide to. That way the shellac is fully cured and hard enough for steel wool buffing. After that added coat I apply wax applied with the same steel wool I just used. Leave for ½ an hour and buff with a soft (yellow) duster.

If the damage is very localised you can build up layers in the immediate area and may not need to do the whole. Sometimes I will repair locally and then go across the whole with an additional coat.

I hang my steel wool because between me and others in my shop that use it it is not hanging long enough to start rusting.


  1. A testament of a hand tool shop. I will admit that my current skill level would render that roll a dust wreath.

  2. Paul,

    Don’t remember if you have used other finishes?


  3. Thanks Paul. You mention how to treat localized spots above. What would you do differently if someone had placed a glass on the surface and left a circle in the finish?

    If I had to guess, I would say, sand the impacted area 220 grit and then reapply shellac.

    1. That will work fine. It depends on what the glass ring caused. If it is spirit alcohol that means the finish is often damaged by the alcohol being a solvent that softens the finish and causes the surface to ‘melt’ until the alcohol evaporates and leaves it hardened in an uneven state or removed altogether. In that case sand smooth with a block and 250-grit paper and then apply the shellac as described in the blog.
      If it is a bloom caused usually by heat or damp then apply heat of some kind, a warm iron and towel between as if ironing clothes usually works.

      1. Hello Paul,
        I’ve got used to wax everything I make after applying shellac. I am often wondering how you de-wax furniture before you start restoring it (in particular shellac-coated furniture). Is there any product or method better than the other?
        Regards from France

  4. Paul, can you give me some advice on restorations? I keep thinking that if I strip and remove the patina of some old brazilian rosewood clock, it would look amazing (as it is right now, its totally black, due to the oil that they used as finish I guess). But then again I think that it would be disrespectful to do that, even if probably the craftsman never intended to achieve such a dark color anyway. should I do it? Better still: there’s something that I can do to restore without loosing the old look?

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