This week’s post is a song of praise to my favorite wood finish: Orange Shellac.
Riveting, huh? Bear with me…
We all have certain things that we lay claim to being a connoisseur of, be they wines, audio equipment, or Star Trek episodes, and for me, it’s wood finishes. Having spent my adult life staring at and trying to successfully apply all of them, from beeswax to water-based urethanes, I’ve found nothing that rivals a well-applied orange shellac finish. It creates a warm, honey-like glow that yields an instant patina.
Most of the 19th century furniture and woodwork you’ve seen with its original finish is shellac, and its richness and depth, once you’re familiar with it, is unmistakable. Most other clear finishes, such as varnish, lacquer and urethane, seem harsh and sharp, and yank you into the present. Shellac eases you into the past.
Shellac intimidates folks because it sets so quickly and because it is somewhat easily damaged by water or alcohol. The setting issue is easily addressed; never brush over where you’ve just applied the finish; let it dry, and wait until the next coat. And purchase the best brush you can…if you’re going to use shellac, buy a 2 or 2 ½” badger bristle brush. It’s going to be about $20-30, and it’s worth every penny. The finish they provide is almost as smooth as spraying. Don’t clean the brush after each coat; just keep it dangling in a coffee-can of denatured alcohol. I’ve had bristle brushes last for years.
You can build up coats quickly, and because shellac sets so fast, it doesn’t get dust specks or bubbles in it. In many cases, all you need do is rub it out with 0000 steel wool and then wax and buff. If you’re trying for the mirror-like piano finish, yes, you’ll need to knock the surface down by wet-sanding the hardened top coat with 600 grit paper, rottenstone and pumice before waxing, but unless it’s a broad horizontal finish, this is usually not necessary.
The alcohol/water resistance issue can be mitigated by applying a coat of hard paste wax, such as carnauba, over the cured shellac. Just try not to leave potted plants on it (these would eventually ruin any finish) and avoid mixing martinis near the shellac as well. The other cool thing is that you can repair a shellac finish with more shellac; it’s not so easy with other finishes.
You can also top-coat shellac with a natural varnish to protect it, although I would avoid using polyurethane, as it can lift a shellac finish. (Some people claim that it won’t, but if you’ve just spent hours building up and rubbing out three to five coats of shellac, do you really want to find out if it will lift? I didn’t think so…)
I know there are other who prefer penetrating oil finishes, but these are not accurate for 19th century furniture and woodwork, and those working on 18th century pieces who want to apply linseed oil using the “coat a day for a month, coat a month for a year, etc.” method are more than welcome to do so.
Perhaps you’ve heard of French-polishing. This entails cutting shellac down with alcohol until it’s very watery and applying it in a vigorous rubbing circular motion. Repeat 30 times, and you will have replicated that amazing thick finish found on 18th century French furniture. This technique is much more of an art, and I would suggest reading up on it and practicing before you slime a favorite piece.
You can buy ready-mixed shellac at most hardware and paint stores. Make sure it’s not past the expiration date printed on the can. I use this kind for woodwork and mid-level antiques. If I’m working on something special, I’ll mix my own from flakes and alcohol. It dries faster and harder that the off-the-shelf type, but it costs more and takes time to prepare. You can also tint shellac with aniline (spirit) dyes. This is an excellent method of matching new wood to an old finish. Shellac also comes in white (aka clear, blond or bleached) shellac, but I find it’s not as rich looking. There are also darker grades of shellac flakes, such as brown or button lac, but typically, only the would-be furniture conservator gets involved with these.
I’m not a huge fan of lacquer, when it’s brushed or sprayed on wood, (it does however, look great on cars, Art Deco furniture or electric guitars) but on a pre-1900 antiques, lacquer always seems dull and lifeless. Amber varnishes are okay, and are necessary on such things as counters and front doors, but when recreating a historic finish, nothing works like shellac.