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Thread: Letís talk Shellac

  1. #1
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    Letís talk Shellac

    I was recently reading through ďFinishing 101Ē by a well respected finishing expert. While it mentions Shellac, the author spends zero pages on instructional technique. Got me wondering why such a time tested finish would be dished in a ď101Ē book.

    I use shellac for 90% of my projects. Durability seems to be the dominant negative comment. But how durable do you really need a finish to be? Sure, kitchen tables, coffee tables, end tables require some serious durability. But anything else - sofa tables, boxes, frames, clocks, art pieces, even tool handles and the like just donít need a high durable finish.

    The pros, IMHO, far outweigh the cons.

    Pros: easy to apply, dries quickly (so multiple coats can be done within an hour, no time for dust to settle), no need to sand between coats, easy to fix blemishes or issues later on, multiple tones, brings out nice wood character, minimizes blotching, environmentally friendly, non-toxic, buffs out well

    Cons: if thinned (1 to 1 1/2lb cut) will need a lot of coats to form a film (8-10 is my usual routine), not durable for high use applications, will dissolve if exposed to alcohol

    Other than maybe needing more patience, what other downsides are there? I guess I was just suprised the ď101Ē book left it out. A shame, I think, for those starting out.

  2. #2
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    I'm a fan of shellac for many things, from a barrier coat between dissimilar finishing steps (my most frequent use) all the way to it being the final finish on things where it's appropriate.

    The biggest challenge with shellac is learning how to properly apply it when spraying isn't the solution...brushing and wiping shellac requires a completely different technique than things like varnishes and it's easy for folks new to the process to struggle with that.
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  3. #3
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    I don't know the book nor the finishing expert, but it can be difficult to write convincingly if you don't know a subject first hand. Write and ask him why.

    Properly applied shellac is hand rubbed to compact the finish, fill the grain and thus give it greater durability than if it is brushed or sprayed. This is physical work that in the past required you to have your hands immersed in alcohol for 40 or more hours per week. This is before any relevant enforced safety regulations. The end result was a trade of alcoholics with terrible tennis elbow. This is fact, not exaggeration. For example, the withdrawal symptoms meant we would all be sick for the first 3 weeks of annual leave, start to feel good in the final week just in time to go back to work. So now you all know why I don't have much time for shellac and why I don't drink.

    Sprayed nitro lacquers were a godsend. With the right combination of stains and minimal hand rubbing, you could duplicate the appearance of shellac in a fraction of the time with a more durable product.

    If you are doing the occasional job at home, shellac is fine in the right situation. However, as a trade skill it has lost its popularity as there are faster more durable and cheaper ways to polish, and it's always the money that talks loudest. Cheers

  4. #4
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    Wayne, I think you are correct that for any kind of production work, there are certainly much better solutions these days, even in the small shop that cannot safely spray NC Lacquer like mine. But for some projects that individual makers, well...make...shellac is certainly a very nice option and there's little chance of any prolonged issue with the alcohol, IMHO, because the exposure is minimal. There's something about shellac that's appealing to work with. And what's not to like about something that also coats some candy to protect it from the evil human hand.
    --

    The most expensive tool is the one you buy "cheaply" and often...

  5. #5
    I like shellac and I use it often. (But I'm not doing it for a living like Wayne.)

    I also like it as an undecoat when I am going to spray paint wood with a rattle can. I find it really helps the paint lay down smoothly.
    "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
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  6. #6
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    Appreciate the background, Wayne, had no idea. I can certainly understand why itís not the go to finish in production shops. I have to say I struggled with it at first, then switched to a quality taklon brush and it made a huge difference.

  7. #7
    I've never read anything about French Polishing making the shellac more durable. I read the old reprinted well known
    manual many years ago. Gave me some understanding ...but no skill. Many use fillers like plaster to fill pores. I've always
    considered FP to be a skill that gives a good and smooth finish,allows the talented to make good money ,and let's the affluent client get expert work done quickly. Interesting about the alcohol, it would be prudent to use bar alcohol instead of denatured (poisonous) stuff. So some drinking could be a problem.

  8. #8
    Shellac is the hide glue of finishing. Excellent for the right application but severely under-respected. Even Zinsser severely undersells Seal Coat. Wayne Lomman's view is interesting as always. I am willing to defer to his experience, but I think it was colored by many factors such as working conditions (ventilation, lack of impermeable gloves). Proper ventilation is a must for any organic solvent based finish but I would much rather breathe a low concentration of alcohol vapor than mineral spirits or lacquer thinner. I would add that I prefer it for the insides of drawers and casework. A coat of shellac followed by paste wax makes drawers slide effortlessly. It does not stink up casework as does lacquer and varnish. I have done a bit of French polishing and the resulting gloss finish is very difficult to achieve by rubbing out varnish.

    I do not know the book or author referenced but my personal favorite authors/experts are Flexner and Jewett and they both recommend shellac highly for some applications.

    Doug

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Hepler View Post
    Shellac is the hide glue of finishing. Excellent for the right application but severely under-respected. Even Zinsser severely undersells Seal Coat. Wayne Lomman's view is interesting as always. I am willing to defer to his experience, but I think it was colored by many factors such as working conditions (ventilation, lack of impermeable gloves). Proper ventilation is a must for any organic solvent based finish but I would much rather breathe a low concentration of alcohol vapor than mineral spirits or lacquer thinner. I would add that I prefer it for the insides of drawers and casework. A coat of shellac followed by paste wax makes drawers slide effortlessly. It does not stink up casework as does lacquer and varnish. I have done a bit of French polishing and the resulting gloss finish is very difficult to achieve by rubbing out varnish.

    I do not know the book or author referenced but my personal favorite authors/experts are Flexner and Jewett and they both recommend shellac highly for some applications.

    Doug
    I've never tried to rub out varnish but I would think you wouldn't get a really good gloss finish. But lacquer, that's a different animal. You can get a very high gloss, deep looking, finish with lacquer.

    Mike

    [Of course, if you put a wet glass on a shellac finish you'll probably get a white ring in the finish. It may be because of shellac finishes on older furniture that we have coasters for drinks in the home. Today we have catalyzed finishes that neither water not alcohol will mark but my wife still wants everyone to use coasters]
    Last edited by Mike Henderson; 02-13-2018 at 12:07 AM.
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  10. #10
    Doug, the book I mentioned is The French Polisher's Manual it was bought from Woodcraft in the 70's. The introduction said it was "written a half century ago".

  11. #11
    Mike, I think the white ring thing was probably again....the result of old product. Several of us here ....at least several have done tests that went far beyond a cold glass. But It might be that the often seen orange stuff is more resistant than some of the other types.

  12. #12
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    Doug, you are right that my views on this are coloured by my experience. Working conditions used to be terrible. The guy who taught me was from England where it was worse. When I started out, a painter/polisher's average life expectancy was 57. Of course you don't find that out before you start. Makes you wonder why anyone does this for a living. It's much better now of course. Ventilation, gloves, respirators and spray guns have made a huge difference. It also helped when they banned lead pigments and sand for abrasive blasting.

    I wouldn't want to stop anyone using shellac. All the other comments are testament to this. Its just dropped off my schedule long ago and never made it back. Cheers
    To break the rules, you must first master the rules.

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by Mel Fulks View Post
    Doug, the book I mentioned is The French Polisher's Manual it was bought from Woodcraft in the 70's. The introduction said it was "written a half century ago".
    Mel,

    I don't think I have read that book. I really backed into FP many years ago when I used it to fill a divot in a finished table (a cigarette burn, maybe). Someone gave me a funny, charming little book, called "From Gunk to Glow", that recommended it. It took an awfully long time to fill that defect but I was impressed by the appearance of the surrounding surface and matters progressed from there. So, I eventually learned how to do table tops (end tables and such). Today I know many better ways to correct surface defects but I still know how to FP. I have never used filler. Shellac, BLO and elbow grease.

    I usually wax my finished table tops and have never had a complaint about a white ring. But OTOH I rarely use shellac for an end table that is likely to get a wet glass.

    I get what Wayne is talking about. The idea of doing large surfaces day over day is daunting to say the least. But I understand that FP was the standard piano finish for years.

    Doug

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Mel Fulks View Post
    Mike, I think the white ring thing was probably again....the result of old product. Several of us here ....at least several have done tests that went far beyond a cold glass. But It might be that the often seen orange stuff is more resistant than some of the other types.
    I don't think it was cold that left the white ring on shellac - it was moisture. A cold glass will usually accumulate moisture (condensation) on the outside of the glass and that moisture will penetrate shellac and cause the white ring under the shellac. I think many times that moisture will work it's way out of the finish, but I'm sure you've seen old furniture with rings in the finish. The rings often turn black with time, maybe because the moisture reacts with the wood under the finish.

    I never heard that there was some difference in the newer shellac that would prevent those rings, but I'm certainly not an expert on finishes.

    Mike

    [I know people of my parent's generation were very careful about wet glasses on table tops (coasters). I'm sure it was from experience, either their own or observing it on other people's furniture.]
    Last edited by Mike Henderson; 02-14-2018 at 2:43 PM.
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  15. #15
    Thanks ,Mike Agree that the "cold" is only the cause of condensation. Water resistance is highest ,I think, with orange and lowest with bleached white. My use and tests have only been with freshly mixed orange ,and I admit reports might not have included that ,and that orange is often not first color choice....but it was Sinatra's favorite color!

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