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Thread: Removing Shellac from Cabinets

  1. #1
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    Question Removing Shellac from Cabinets

    For some reason our knotty pine cabinets throughout the house were finished with shellac. The house was built in 2007. We have water damage from wear and tear in the kitchen mostly. I want to refinish the cabinets but was wondering the best way to do this. The color looks a little amber and I want to regain the look. It would take gallons of DNA to remove the existing finish. Can I use ammonia​ and dry the cabinets off right away to do the removal?
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    Last edited by Robert Zeis; 12-01-2021 at 8:26 AM.

  2. #2
    A heat gun is one possible solution. Heat a small section and then immediately use a scraper to remove the softened shellac. Sanding is another option.

    The color is relatively light - looks more like blonde than the typical orange Zinser product. Are you certain it isn't lacquer? Ammonia would probably be slow and messy. I wouldn't use Zinser Shellac for anything other than sealing knots. Having tried most of the products available from shellac.net, button lac is by far the most durable. Also, spraying yields much better results than brushing.

  3. #3
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    Like Holmes I'm suspicious that they were finished with shellac. Lacquer would be a lot more common in 2007. 1907, sure, shellac, but almost no one finishes cabinets with it these days. But if DNA removes it then it is indeed shellac. If DNA won't dissolve it but lacquer thinner will then it's lacquer. If neither dissolves it then it's varnish or some other finish that cures.

    Regardless of what finish is on it you are in for a big job. The least amount of work might be if it's shellac. You may be able to wipe it with DNA and redistribute the shellac to cover the damaged areas. You would want to clean them first with mineral spirits to remove any dirt, grease, etc. Alternatively, you could try padding on new shellac to fill in the damaged area and then over the entire surface.

    If this or some version of it doesn't work then you likely will have to strip the cabinets clean. I would not use ammonia. I don't think it will remove the shellac completely, there's a good chance it will damage the wood, and there's a good chance you'll gas yourself in the process. I would use commercial stripper. Never a fun job, but it will work without damaging the wood or you if you use a "safe" one.

    John

  4. #4
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    Another heavy shellac user here that doesn't feel confident that that is shellac. It is easy enough to test. Put some 90+% alcohol on a cotton ball and hold it against the surface for 30 seconds or so. If the finish starts to liquefy, it is probably shellac. If it does not you can look at traditional strippers.
    Take me to the hotel - Baggage gone, oh well . . .

  5. #5
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    It looks like water trapped below the finish. Try the heat gun on low enough to get it hot, but not enough to blister the finish. On the flat surfaces you can use a hot clothes iron and a linen towel over teh wood, Press the towel against the wood with the iron set on cotton.

    If the finish is lacquer you might be able to apply a light coat and the white spots will disappear as the new finish dissolves the layer underneath.
    Lee Schierer
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  6. #6
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    Thanks for the idea however there is just too much surface area to do this with a heat gun. The finish comes off when rubbed with DNA so I am thinking this is shellac.

  7. #7
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    Lacquer thinner did dissolve the finish....

    OK, I came to the right place with my question. I decided to try lacquer thinner again on the back of a cabinet and indeed it was not shellac, but it was lacquer! Thank you folks! I spent about 20 minutes wiping down the complete cabinet door front and back and the white areas blended into the rest of the finish. I guess the lacquer was tinted and it was able to spread into the white places. SO, my next question is do I give it a light sanding to smooth the surface and then spray it with a coat of new lacquer?

  8. #8
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    That's a reasonable approach, but unless you've deinstalled the cabinets and have them in a property environment for spraying solvent based lacquer, you may want to consider a different, safer product to top coat them. Lacquer is dangerous, both to your health and for explosion potential. Consider a modern waterborne finish as an alternative. You still need PPE so you don't inhale fines and ventilation to remove said fines from the area, but the whole operation will be a lot safer.
    --

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

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