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Expert's Corner — shellac

Remove Watermarks With Steel Wool

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Watermarks can happen in all finishes after they have aged and become somewhat porous. The marks appear light gray to white and are almost always very superficial – that is, right at the surface of the finish. So one way to remove them that almost always works well is to abrade off the very top surface of the finish with fine steel wool or abrasive pad. Usually, the discoloration will be removed with very little effort, as shown in the two accompanying pictures. The downside of removing watermarks in this manner is that you may change the sheen of the...

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Finishes Differ in the Color They Impart

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Finishes Differ in the Color They Impart

You might choose a finish for its durability, drying speed, ease of use or cost, but you might also choose for the color it imparts to the wood. The accompanying picture shows unfinished oak at the top left, then seven common finishes and their color. If you haven’t done this comparison side by side, you may be surprised at the amount of difference. On top row from the left: unfinished, clear paste wax, water-based finish and nitrocellulose lacquer. On bottom row from the left: clear/blonde shellac, amber/orange shellac, polyurethane varnish and boiled linseed oil. In practice, wax would be an...

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TIP: Stir Homemade Shellac

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TIP: Stir Homemade Shellac

Shellac is available in two forms: as a liquid in cans you buy at paint stores and home centers, and as flakes you buy from woodworking suppliers. The advantage of dissolving flakes (in denatured alcohol) is to ensure the shellac you use is fresh. The fresher the dissolved shellac the quicker it hardens and the more water-resistant the dried finish. Unfortunately, the sole remaining supplier of already-dissolved shellac no longer supplies a date of manufacture, so you have no idea how long the can has sat on a shelf or been stored in a box somewhere. When finishing important surfaces,...

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TIP: Dating furniture by the finish used

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TIP: Dating furniture by the finish used

Because different finishes have been used at different times, it’s often possible to date furniture simply by the finish on it. In the 18th century and earlier, makers used whatever finish they had available, usually wax or linseed oil. If the maker lived near a port city, alcohol- or turpentine-soluble resins may have been available. By the 1820s, transportation had improved and shellac flakes, along with other alcohol-soluble resins, became widely available. Alcohol evaporates rapidly so these finishes dry fast and don’t collect dust. As a result, shellac became the overwhelmingly dominant finish used on almost all furniture and woodwork...

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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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