A Silky-smooth Shellac Finish

Shellac is my finish of choice for furniture. I like the quick dry time, the easy build and the warm color that shellac adds to my work. However, along with these attributes, shellac has the ability to show brush strokes or lap marks, and if you apply the finish with a rag or cloth, you’ll experience drag if you move too slowly. In each scenario, the finished surface is not exactly smooth. For those reasons, I spray shellac, but I know that there are still those out there who won’t take a dip in the spray finishing pool. Another solution may be this technique shared with me during a seminar in New Jersey this past weekend.

The technique is to add mineral oil to shellac in a ratio of 25 percent oil to 75 percent shellac. The oil allows the cloth to flow over the shellac without any drag or noticeable lap marks. OK , the key word here is cloth. This technique works only when padding on the shellac , much like one would do when French polishing. (Stay with me, I’m not suggesting that you do a French polish.)

I experimented with this mixture and was amazed at how it worked. I found the shellacked surface was smoother than the surface on which I ragged on straight shellac. There was little difference in build between the two products, and as you can see in the photo below, the sheen and build are nearly identical, at least to my eye. (The left-hand side is the mixture and the right-hand surface is the right-from-the-can shellac.)

An oil/shellac mixture is not like an oil/varnish mixture. An oil/varnish finish usually needs three or four coats for a nice build. It took 14 layers to get the build shown in the photo , way too much time spent and muscle depletion for me. I’m not using this mixture only as my finish, but I would consider this a last coat possibility.

Here’s what I would do. Brush the shellac onto your piece to build a solid thickness. Don’t worry about brush marks, but try to keep them to a minimum – I still believe in the saying, “A better brush gives you a better job.” Once you’ve established the build, sand the entire project to remove any brush marks that do appear then apply a coat or two of the oil/shellac mixture. It’s easy to apply and quick to dry.

You don’t have to rush the padded-on mixture to keep a wet edge. As a result, your finish should be smooth. You will find oil sitting on the surface. That oil should be wiped with naphtha a day or so after the finish is complete , the oil doesn’t dry, so it floats to the surface. The opening photo is a great example of the separation , unlike wax in shellac that settles to the bottom, the oil rises to the top.

-Glen D. Huey

For more information about finishes:

  • Go here to read Bob Flexner’s article about finish compatibility.
  • Visit here to pre-order a copy of Flexner’s upcoming book “Flexner on Finishing.”
  • Click here to purchase a DVD on “Finishes That Pop” and learn how to make your projects stand out.

7 thoughts on “A Silky-smooth Shellac Finish

  1. megan

    Huh. My guess is it’s illegal to sell it in Canada, ‘cause here, you can buy it off Amazon (I checked amazon.ca and it doesn’t show up). Rockler, too, stipulates that it can only be shipped in the continental United States.

    One of my co-workers (Bob) suggests using mineral spirits instead.

  2. Herman Veenendaal

    Here in Canada we don’t have Naptha. What is Naptha exactly? We have mineral spirits, paint thinner, denatured alcohol, lacquer thinner etc, but I’ve never seen Naptha in any store here. The thing they call ‘Naphtha’ here is camp fuel meant for a Coleman stove.

    Anyone know where I could get Naptha?

    Thanks,

    Herman

  3. Glen

    Bill,

    The pad I used for my experiment a bunched up wad of cotton cloth. This is not padding in the terms of French polish in which you have a round of cheesecloth wrapped in a cotton cloth. Keep things simple.

    As for a brush, a $.50 brush gives a $.50 job. Use a good quality brush. Tools for Working Wood has a very nice shellac brush that I’ve found beneficial to brushing shellac. It’s not cheap, but it does a great job.

    Glen

  4. wm. brown

    Glen,

    Can you comment on how you make the "pad" for this last step? I like how you manage to simplify the complex and would like to get your take on this.

    Also, the idea of mineral spirits sounds like another great idea? Let us know what happens if you try this (instead of mineral oil).

    Lastly, what brush do you recommend for the shellac brushing steps?
    –Bill

    Forest, VA

  5. Bruce Jackson

    Hey guys (and gals),

    This is a real good example of why I keep coming back to this website. You know your audience .. and its diversity.

    When I started this craft in earnest some five years ago, I laid some guidelines:

    1. I don’t need a tablesaw – which is true. I inherited a band saw, a jig saw, and pair of skill saws. A cousin got the table saw, which to this day, I did not really need.
    2. I don’t need spray finishes – I got pretty good with a brush and a roller – and even better with a cloth pad, which I really prefer – along with a well-sharpened card scraper used with a light touch.
    3. I don’t need the latest and greatest motorized or hand-powered gizmo – good blades and bits, well cared for, I found gave decades-old tools new life.

    Applying shellac mixed with mineral oil or spirits seems right up my alley. Thank you.

  6. Ron Hock

    I’ve never tried simply mixing the oil and shellac together. Good idea. I’ve always just dribbled some oil onto the wiping pad. Until guitar-maker Brian Burns told me that he uses mineral spirits (paint thinner) instead of mineral oil as a pad lubricant. It works great and dries all by itself — no need for a wipe down with naphtha. Should work like oil in a mix as well. Give it a try.

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