Shellac is a finish that gives a great finish and dries relatively quickly. However, there are a number of things to take into consideration before leaping into a new project with shellac, especially those who are new to using shellac or finishing in general. Here’s the basics on applying shellac to projects both big and small.
To begin with, let’s take a quick moment to understand what exactly shellac is. Shellac is a lacquer that is resin that comes from the cocoon of the lac beetle as it rests on the trees of Thailand and India. Producers harvest the resin and sell it as little chips that come in a variety of shades from light to quite dark amber. These chips are dissolved in an alcohol, and the result is shellac. Shellac is sold in two forms, spray and liquid. The spray is very easy to use, but most experts recommend only using on smaller pieces of wood craft. Using the liquid form for larger furniture pieces will ensure a more even coat, but this method is a little more tricky.
One final consideration is important before you begin. Understanding how your piece will be used will determine if shellac is the right choice for your particular project. For instance, shellac is famously unresistant to water, so it’s not a great choice if beverages might be resting on the surface of the piece. On the other hand, shellac is very hypoallergenic, making if your work will be frequently handled by children, pets, or other sensitive individuals. Believe it or not, shellac is so safe that an industrial produced version of it is used to coat certain foods (just don’t tell us what it’s made of, please). As AC writer Georgia May pointed out in her article on the green uses of shellac, this finish is considerably better for the environment than polyurethane products.
Okay, moving on to the actual application of shellac. Let’s start with the more difficult option, apply liquid shellac with a brush. Make sure you’re in a well ventilated work space, and begin by ensuring that your project is complete clean of dust or other matter by wiping everything down with a slightly damp cloth. As you prepare to begin brush, understand that shellac dries very quickly, so it’s important to get it smoothed out just right pretty fast. Jeff Jewitt’s comprehensive guide to all things shellac recommends using fitch brush or white china brush if you can. Start on one side of a plane and brush all the way across, then come back the same way to smooth it out. Keep doing these long, smooth strokes along the grain of the wood, using a fairly liberal amount of shellac. That’s pretty much all you need to do, and it should be smooth if you have a nice brush. Continue through your whole piece and let dry for a few hours. Repeat coats as desired.
Spraying shellac onto a smaller project is considerably easier. Again, make sure your work space is ventilated and your piece is very clean. Set your piece on top of some newspaper or other desposable textile. Shake up the can liberally and spray the shellac over your piece at a distance of ten to twelve inches. This distance if the most important part as spraying to close will result in an uneven distribution of the shellac that is problematic to fix. Use short, smooth sprays until all is complete. The shellac is usually dry within twenty minutes, but you may want to follow the can’s instructions and wait a full hour before applying another coat. Repeat until the desired number of coats is applied.