Chris Schwarz's Blog

Shellac Tiger Flakes from Tools for Working Wood

For me, shellac is a lot like grits. When prepared correctly from quality materials, the results are stunning. But if you buy your grits or shellac already made up, or they are old, or they aren’t top quality, you are going to wonder why people rave about the stuff.

I’ve never had satisfactory results from pre-mixed shellac. And I’ve had mixed results from flakes that were of an uncertain age.

Recently I started using shellac flakes sold as “BT&C Tiger Flakes” from Tools for Working Wood. You can get these flakes directly from Tools For Working Wood in Brooklyn, or at some retail specialty stores, such as Woodcraft.

These flakes are incredibly fresh, dissolve easily in alcohol (read here for a discussion of alcohols) and dry hard and clear. This shellac really is nothing like the pre-mixed stuff, which can be old and have wax in it that makes it difficult to add a top-coat finish over the shellac (if desired).

These flakes are dewaxed, so lacquer or varnish can be applied over the shellac with no worries. As always with shellac, thin coats work best. I like to spray it on, though it can be brushed or ragged on, which is more traditional.

If you have been frustrated with shellac in the past, it’s worth one more try with the Tiger Flakes. (Oh, almost forgot: As always, I bought this stuff myself. I don’t take bug excretions – or tools – for free. Period.)

— Christopher Schwarz

If you are new to finishing, there is one book I recommend to get you started: “Wood Finishing 101” by Bob Flexner. It’s only $12.50 in ShopWoodworking.com.

A folding Campaign-style bookcase I finished with the garnet Tiger Flakes.

13 thoughts on “Shellac Tiger Flakes from Tools for Working Wood

  1. gumpbelly

    Hi Chris

    I had first tried shellac many years ago, terrible results. About 8 years ago I went to a finishing class where Steve Mickley showed us French Polish, have used it extensively since then. Fresh is indeed part of the equation, he said to use Ethanol, but didn`t really get into the science like Joel did on his linked article (thanks for including that). What Steve did mention was his use of German machine made (processed) shellac, which really filters out the impurities found in Indian raw shellac. I have kind of unscientifically tested this thesis, and what I noted was a marked difference in consistency between Indian, and German shellac, with German being far superior IMO. I note Joel`s product is German, but in both of your articles didn`t really mention much about that. I have to say Steve made more of a point about that then anything else. Thoughts?

    I plan to try the MS instead of Mineral oil which I have always felt was the worst part of French Polishing, thanks to the respondent who provided that.

  2. dfdye

    So here’s a pragmatic question: If the shellac flakes go bad after a while, what is the typical shelf life, and how would you recommend storing them to maximize their useful lifetime? I would guess (without any practical knowledge or experience to back this up) that since it is a biological product, storing shellac in a freezer would slow any of the typical natural degredation reactions, but I would rather ask than assume!

    Also, is there a simple test (other than just trying to mix some flakes and see how they perform) to check whether “old” shellac is still good?

    Thanks,
    David

    1. alegr

      Think of it this way:

      If bulk dry shellac simply stored in a dark place would deteriorate in a few years because of oxygen, why would anybody want to use it as heirloom/museum/high-end quality finish?

      Dry shellac is chemically and physically the same stuff as your final finish. If a thin film lasts long time while exposed to oxygen, room temperature and light, why should anything bad happen to thick flakes while in a dark bag?

      The final finish even has a disadvantage, because it went through dissolve/drying cycle, with possible etherification while in the solution.

  3. Duo Sonic Dave

    I absolutely LOVE the stuff and typically use a 1/2# cut Platina as a general sanding/pre-stain sealer for most all of the work I do. Adds very little color and does a great job. I typically use a lot of General Finishes gel stains and laying down the shellac beforehand makes for a much richer and more even stain application – even on hardwoods. And, the 1/2# cut isn’t so heavy that the stain can’t do a good job getting to the wood grain.

    For clear coating, I’ve become a big fan recently of Target Coatings waterborne lacquer and a 1# or 2# cut makes a perfect sealer over oil based stains. I’ve had great results laying the TC lacquer over dewaxxed shellac – especially on musical instruments I make.

    I’m sure BT&C makes a fantastic product. I live in Idaho and get mine on the West Coast from http://www.shellacshack.com – fwiw. :-)

  4. Anderson

    I really like shellac too. I have found the less water the better in the alcohol, and have always used de-waxed shellac flakes too because that was what I was recommended. It is cheap and easy, dust is much less of a problem, non-toxic, and as long as you plan a bit ahead, you can mix up a fresh batch whenever you want. It is also a good primer coat if you have some underlying problems with other finishes.

    I wonder though if, given that it is a very natural and certainly somewhat naturally variable kind of product, if results in terms of waxed/dewaxed etc. might vary quite a bit from different suppliers and different regions the stuff comes from.

  5. renaissanceww

    Not to be one of those internet trolls, but I heard a compelling argument from Don Williams at our local SAPFM meeting that said waxed shellac works just fine and doesn’t cause any future adhesion issues with other finishes. Moreover, the wax essentially voids any expiration. Don admitted that it will expire but that you should get a good 300 years of shelf life until that happens. Sounds like a case for mythbusters!

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      Shannon,

      Don knows more about shellac than the female lac bug that secrets it. However, I have had bad and terrible luck with all premixed shellacs that contain wax and waxed flakes. It could be coincidence. It could be because of a factor unaccounted for in my analysis. But I really do not like the waxy pre-mixed stuff at all.

      1. renaissanceww

        I’m sure much of this has to do with Don’s sources. He told us he had recently purchased 2300 lbs of the stuff and was using a shellac flour that dissolved almost instantly too. Strange things are afoot in the bowels of the Smithsonian. I went searching after his lecture and couldn’t even find waxed shellac flakes (at least from anyone I would consider buying from)

  6. docwks

    I use tiger shellac for most of my woodturning and carved pieces. I have found two things that make it work even better. Pure alcohol (no water) and I use the family food vacuum to remove any O2 from the shellac I don’t use. I’ve also tried putting the shellac in a coffee grinder to grind it up so it will desolve faster…total waste of time. I just use my fingers to break up the big pieces to fit the container opening. Oh on the vacuum I leave the shellac in the bag it came in and put that in a vaccum bag the sharp edges sometimes require a second bag.

  7. Edward_Clarke

    I got to the end of the first paragraph and had a “What did he just say???” moment. Then I realized that it was “grits” and not “girls”. Never mind…

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