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Expert's Corner — lacquer

TIP: A Short History of Shellac

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TIP: A Short History of Shellac

Here’s a short history of shellac, some of it from my own experience. Shellac was almost the only finish used on furniture from the 1820s to the 1920s when nitrocellulose lacquer was introduced. Shellac continued to be used widely as a complete finish by painters working in buildings until the 1950s. By the 1990s the only remaining supplier of shellac in liquid form was Zinsser, which sells the shellac under the brands “Bulls Eye,” and “SealCoat,” which is a dewaxed variety. Zinsser specializes in sealers and primers, so it markets the shellac as a sealer. The marketing strategy seems to...

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TIP: Differences between shellac and lacquer

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The principle differences between nitrocellulose lacquer and shellac are ease of application and their ability to block off problems in the wood. Both finishes are evaporative finishes, meaning that they dry entirely by solvent evaporation; there is no crosslinking as there is with varnish and catalyzed finishes. As a result, both lacquer and shellac are more vulnerable to being damaged by coarse or sharp objects, heat, solvents, acids and alkalis. Shellac is more vulnerable than lacquer to being damaged by alcohol spills, of course, but keep in mind that beer, wine and mixed drinks are usually very watered down, so...

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Stripping with Solvent

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With shellac and lacquer finishes, which are the finishes used on almost all old furniture and woodwork, you can use their solvent for stripping instead of a paint-and-varnish remover. Depending on the object being stripped, I often find this method easier in the sense of spending less total time. It’s also less messy. Use denatured alcohol for shellac and lacquer thinner for lacquer. You can test the finish to find out which it is by dabbing a little of each solvent onto the finish. The alcohol will soften shellac and make it sticky or remove it. Lacquer thinner will do...

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Coating Over an Existing Finish: A Risky Business that Sometimes Works

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Finishes deteriorate as they age. First they dull, then they begin to crack. Exposure to light in the higher ultra-violet ranges, such as sunlight and fluorescent light, accelerates the deterioration. Finishes also get damaged from abuse, which can cause a surface to look bad. In some cases, the only way to repair the deterioration or damage and make the furniture or woodwork look good again is to strip off the old finish and refinish. There are many situations, however, where applying a coat or two of finish on top of what is already there can make the old deteriorated or...

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How To Remove Stripping Sludge With A Wide Putty Knife

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How To Remove Stripping Sludge With A Wide Putty Knife

On large flat surfaces it’s most efficient to remove the bulk of the softened or dissolved finish or paint using a wide putty knife. Scrape off the sludge into a cardboard box. No matter which type of stripper you use, keep it wet until it works its way through the coating so you can remove it easily. Don’t fight it. “Let the stripper do the work.” Clear finishes on almost all old furniture and woodwork are either shellac or lacquer. These will dissolve into a “gunk.” After scraping off the bulk of the finish, reapply the stripper and remove the...

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