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Applying Shellac to My Shelf

I didn’t recall the finish I applied so I found out and it’s not shellac. It’s a varnish from the pre water-borne finishes era as nothing seems to touch it. Varnish was very much the standard in the mid section of that century. The oak had planed out well with such minimal tearout I could scrape with a scraper and sand with 240-grit abrasive paper. Pulling the long strokes along the rounded front edges of the side pieces, watching the brush hairs bending and conforming to the curves followed by the composition light played in reflecting the shape, I surprised myself with just how much the project evoked such fondness for my beginning as a woodworker. It’s a combination of things that play one sense against another and then suddenly it seems they each wait until they all somehow agree. This kaleidoscopic mosaic of parts compelled me like nothing I can ever remember. I started taking books from the local library. Sat at the tables naming the tools I needed. I would sketch woodgrain. Colour the grain on the paper with poorly matched watercolour paints to try to mirror what meant so much.

Pulling my strokes today I was able to share with everyone what this project still meant to me. My joints would never have held these 50 years had I not used screws as well as glue. The plugs are rough and the gaps along the housing dadoes are large enough to crawl inside. What am I saying? I’m saying it wasn’t the quality of my working that impacted me. Something was erupting inside me that defied the gravity others might consider more important. When I started work I didn’t even know I was going to get paid! That I would be entitled to pay. I know, it was a bit naive if not plain stupid. How could someone base is future on some shavings of wood and the shaping of it? But I did! It’s important to see that some things defy pay even though we must put bread on the table. It’s important to not only trust our instincts on things but also to trust our children’s instincts and abilities to choose their future even when we can’t see the value on what they are basing it on. Mostly I’m saying listen to your children even when they are very young. We can provide the support they need as well as wise counsel.

I ran a third coat and the grain filled up beautifully. One coat of paste furniture wax applied with #0000 steel wool and the shelf was done. I


  1. Anthony on 16 May 2018 at 1:18 am

    Very nice Paul. I’m very new to different types of furnishes. Varish better then shellac? New varnish not as good as varnish used when you started woodworking? Using oil for large projects, however, is now something I consider.

    • Paul Sellers on 16 May 2018 at 7:44 am

      Depends on the function of the piece and the feel you want. For a shelf where hands touch the surface minimally shellac is the most perfect finish. For tabletops where we dine, chair arms and such, where hands and forearms rest, the oils in the skin break down the finish rapidly and the surface becomes gummy. Polyurethane is one of the most durable for hardwearing needs.

      • Alexander Simonov on 16 May 2018 at 11:32 am

        Could something be applied over shellac to give it extra durability? I plan on building a laptop desk by your specifications, but I fear that sweaty hands, hot mugs, etc will wear the shellac out pretty fast.

        Is it even a good idea to put anything (e.g. acrylic lacquer?) over shellac, or should shellac be used only on its own?

        • Paul Sellers on 16 May 2018 at 1:18 pm

          It will be to do with adhesion between coats. Whereas shellac is often used as a sealer coat, and other finishes can be applied over it, it doesn’t always do well when the base coats are built up and a subsequent finish applied. That said, you might experiment. I say this apprehensively because I have seen water-based coats peel away after a few weeks.

          • Alexander Simonov on 17 May 2018 at 10:19 am

            Thanks a lot! I guess I’ll do some research and experiment on a few scrap pieces first.

      • Antyhony on 16 May 2018 at 12:36 pm

        Great. Thank you.

  2. John 2v on 22 May 2018 at 11:46 pm

    Hi Paul
    I am dead chuffed to be able to say I have perfected my stopped housings to the same degree of accuracy as you show in your shelf pictures.
    I use amongst other sharp tools my amazing home made vertical height adjustable router, using an Allen key sharpened.
    Also as George told you…..a sharp pencil………thank you again for all you have taught me

  3. John Howard on 30 May 2018 at 12:23 pm

    My first job in the early seventies was with a boat building company and I learned the wonders of marine varnish. 12 years ago when I stripped the bedroom floorboards back to bare wood, I applied 3 coats of marine varnish and I haven’t had to touch it since. All the foot traffic, chair scraping, dropped liquids, regular sweeping and washing it has had since and it still looks almost as good as the day I applied it. I love varnish.. 🙂

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