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Expert's Corner — shellac

TIP: Finishing over waxed wood

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It’s not all that common, but sometimes you come across furniture, cabinets or woodwork that has a wax finish, and nothing else. There may be cases where you want to coat over with a more water- and scratch-resistant finish. How do you do this without having to go to the trouble of stripping the surface? The first step is to remove most of the wax. Do this by washing with a mineral-spirits, naphtha or acetone solvent. Wash, don’t just wipe. That is, soak a cloth or paper towel with the solvent and wet the wood well. Then dry it quickly...

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TIP: Polyurethane and Sealers

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Oil-based polyurethane is a very durable and hard-curing finish. It bonds well to itself, especially if each coat is sanded a little after it has dried well enough so it powders. This creates fine scratches, which improve the bonding of the next coat. It’s a good idea to do this fine sanding between coats anyway to remove dust nibs. But polyurethane doesn’t bond so well over finishes marketed as sealers, especially over sanding sealer. This sealer is good for use under non-polyurethane varnishes because regular alkyd varnishes gum up sandpaper. So to speed production, a sanding sealer can be used...

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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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TIP: Two tricks to successful French polishing

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There are two very useful tricks to getting good results when French polishing. The first is to achieve a one-foot-or-less “comet’s tail” trailing the pad as you move it over the surface—as shown in the accompanying picture. This tail is made by the alcohol in the French-polishing solution evaporating through the oil (also in the solution). If the tail is too long, the pad is too wet, and you’ll probably damage the surface. When the tail gets really short, just a couple of inches, this is the signal that you need to add more shellac, alcohol and oil (I use...

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