What is shellac? It's probably not what you think. Sure, it's a finish that is applied to wood to give it added beauty and protection. You probably know that. But, what is it made from? The answer may surprise you; shellac is made from bug secretions. A small insect in India sucks the sap from several species of trees which it secretes as a resin to protect itself and its eggs. The resin is called shellac and this is what is used to make shellac. Now you won't have to ask, "What is shellac" anymore.
Shellac is available at most any hardware store or home center and comes in several different varieties: orange, lemon, blond and white to name but a few. There's so many colors you can usually forgo stain in favor of shellac. Shellac can be purchased two ways: in flakes or premixed with alcohol. Many woodworkers prefer the flakes because of the indefinite shelf life; premixed shellac is only good for about 6 months.
If you opt for using the shellac with flakes, you'll have to mix it with denatured alcohol. For a topcoat, figure about 2 pounds of flakes to one gallon of alcohol. If you're sealing, 1/2 to 1 pound of flakes should be fine.
Before you apply the shellac, the wood should be prepared properly. This involves sanding the surface with 320-grit paper. When using shellac, sanding is key to having a finished product you're happy with. After sanding, make sure you remove all dust with a cotton ball moistened with paint thinner. Then wipe again with a rag dampened with alcohol.
When applying shellac, you have several options from which to choose. It can be sprayed or applied with a brush or cloth. One thing to keep in mind is the fact that shellac dries very quickly. If you find that your shellac is drying too fast, you can add shellac retardant to your mixture to buy yourself a little more time. You should be able to get this where you purchased your shellac flakes.
If you decide to apply your shellac with a brush, which is what most woodworkers do, there is a procedure to follow to get the best results. Let's take a look:
Dip the brush only halfway into the shellac and wipe the excess on the side of the can.
Begin about 1 1/2 inches from the wood's edge, lightly dragging the brush to the edge, then reversing and going toward the other edge.
Next to the stroke you just made, make another and overlap by 1/4 inch.
Repeat this procedure until the entire surface has been covered.
Repeat the first 3 steps on the edges.
Allow it to dry for at least an hour, then sand with 320-grit sandpaper.
Clean the surface with a rag -- make sure it's free of lint.
Put on another coat of shellac and allow it to dry for about 12 hours.
Using 320-grit paper again, sand the second coat and follow up with #0000 steel wool.
Repeat all steps until you have applied 4 or 5 coats.
The last step is to rub down with #0000 steel wool until the finish looks the way you want.
Shellac is nontoxic, very easy to apply and repair, and cleans up like a dream. But it does have one drawback; it doesn't hold up well to heat, liquids or scratches. One way around this is to use dewaxed shellacand cover with varnish. Applying shellac is time consuming but well worth the time and effort. Try it on your next project.