Easy Shellac Finish


W
hen I first began woodworking a few years ago, what confused me the most was the huge variety of finishes available, starting from French Polish to Polyurethane, varnish and what have you. It was a bewildering range and I did not quite know where to start. Rather than doing a lot of research, I simplified matters by visiting my local paint shop to find out what was available and what was not. Fortunately I chanced upon a fairly well stocked paint shop in Noida which employed a helpful sales boy, who happened to be a Bengali from Calcutta. As I asked questions, he chattered away helpfully in Bengali and carefully explained a few basics.

I learnt that almost 90 per cent of the finish used in India is shellac based. Shellac or laakdana comes from the sticky secretion of a tiny insect (called Lacifer Iacca) and is harvested from forests in eastern India and Thailand. These secretions are collected and processed into usable shellac of which there are various kinds (see photo below). The types are differentiated by their wax content and colour. I prefer the de-waxed type because I can use it both for sealing the wood as well as for the polishing part. But the waxy type produces a better polish.

A wide variety of shellac is available. These  include the following:
Seed Lac; warm neutral brown
Kusmi Seed Lac; lighter carmel tones
Kusmi Buttons; small carmel 'buttons'
Button Lac; golden light brownish amber
Garnet Lac; deep rich brown
Dewaxed Garnet; brown-red
Dewaxed Orange Lac; Deep rich color
Lemon/Orange; light lemon to orange color
Almost Blonde Dewaxed; pale beige/golden tone
Blonde Dewaxed; light pale
Super Blonde; very light clear
Platina; extremely clear.

Shellac is a most amazing substance and the best part is that it is completely safe for humans - although beware that the spirit in which it is dissolved could be poisonous. Shellac is extensively used in the pharmaceutical and food industries. The shiny coatings on Gems and similar chocolates is Shellac and so are the coatings on a variety of medicinal tablets and capsules. Furniture and other wooden objects finished with Shellac are therefore child safe.

One word of caution, be careful about what you buy for prices of shellac in India have gone through the roof, apparently because of successive years of crop failure. The lower end orange Lakdaana is selling for almost Rs 900 per kg in Delhi. The de-waxed variety costs between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 per kg. The super blond and platina varieties are the most expensive. A lot of mixed stuff is being sold in the market. One way to be sure that you have bought the right thing is to take it home and test it. Genuine de-waxed varieities should leave no sludge at the bottom after it has dissolved in spirit.

A few varieties of shellac – the middle one is the waxy variety

Preparing Shellac
Let me explain the process simply. This is done by dissolving the shellac flakes or pieces in spirit. Traditionally, shellac was dissolved in ethanol but nowadays ethanol sales in India are strictly controlled and few shops sell it. They sell some kind of spirit which is probably rectified spirit or something similar. It doesn’t matter – what does is that the shellac needs to dissolve in the spirit, which must evaporate easily to leave a fine film of shellac over the wood. The more shellac that is added to a jar of spirit, the more concentrated the mixture will be. Use a concentrated mixture for sealing wood and a lighter one for polishing.

It takes about a day or so for the shellac to dissolve fully and after that carefully pour off the clear part, leaving the waxy sludge at the bottom of the jar. This shellac is now ready to be used. By the way, if you are going to do a lot of this, don’t throw away old jam jars and the like. They make excellent containers for preparing shellac. Also, try to use freshly dissolved shellac whenever possible. For, dissolved shellac starts changing chemically and becomes unusable in a few months - after six months it becomes tacky and does not dry properly. Also, I am told that Shellac flakes, powder etc. are best stored in the fridge to prevent deterioration.

Dissolved Shellac - yellow on the left and orange on right. Note the waxy sludge in the last bottle.

De-waxed Shellac. This is an amber variety that has not been bleached. Once bleached, de-waxed shellac is termed "Blond" or "Super Blond" according to the lightness of the colour. This quality of Shellac is not readily available in local paint stores in India. It is more than double the cost of Laakdana.

De-waxed Shellac dissolved in rectified spirit. This shellac produced this warm amber polish which looked fabulous. The other interesting point is that the de-waxed shellac left no sludge at the bottom at all, proving that I had got hold of some quality stuff.

Surface Preparation
The surface of the wood to be finished needs to be sanded as per your preferences. In most cases, rough sanding is good enough but if you want a mirror finish, then spend some time sanding the wood surface using a range of sandpaper starting from about 120, 180, 240 and ending at 320 grit. Before doing this make sure you have plugged all holes and fixed dents and other imperfections on the surface. Do not skip the stages in the sanding process as you will end up spending more time and achieving a poorer result. Using a random orbital sander speeds up the process but sanding by hand is as good. Rough sanding only requires two rubs: first with 120 grit and then with 180 grit. I usually do not sand pieces like windows, shutters and the like for a mirror finish but take time with interior pieces.


Orange Shellac (Laakdana) - my favourite


Sealing the wood
All wood has pores, grain and so on which usually need to be filled. This is a two stage process. First stain the wood with your choice of colour and then brush on a generous coat of concentrated shellac. I prefer the laakdana type with its warm amber tones for most job. When this first shellac coat has dried, apply a mix of chalk power and shellac diluted with a little spirit over the surface, making sure that the excess is scraped off. Once this pore filler dries, sand it with 320 grit paper. Now the pores should be filled and the surface should feel smoother. The rest of the shellac coats go over this.

Applying the Polish
The subsequent coats of shellac should be applied with thinner cuts of shellac. I find it easier to brush on thin coats with a regular paint brush and sand each layer with 320 and 400 grit papers. While sanding it is of utmost importance to ensure that no brush marks, streaks, bubbles or other imperfections remain. Apply as many layers of shellac and keep sanding until you get the sheen desired. The traditional way of French Polishing is with rubbing in the shellac with a wad of cotton wrapped around another pieces of cotton (called the rubber) but this takes some practice.

Rubbing the Finish
Shellac layers applied with careful sanding in between produce a high glossy surface which is good enough in most cases. But if you want a real mirror finish you will want to rub the final layer with some sort of rubbing compound. Traditionally, French Polishers used fine abrasives such as crushed pumice or rottenstone. Nowadays companies like 3M produce excellent synthetic compounds for finishing. I use these synthetic rubbing compounds which are of the consistency of shoe cream. This compound needs to be spread over and rubbed until it dries and begins to produce a high gloss. Buffed with a lambswool bonnet, the results can be amazing. You should be able to see the reflection of your finger on the surface. Some people use a final layer of wax  but I avoid it - wax is always a problem when one wants to redo the polish.

For more information read these two excellent articles available on the Internet:
Tips for Using Shellac By Mitch Kohanek [http://americanwoodworker.com/blogs/shop/archive/2009/07/02/shellac.aspx]
And
SHELLAC – A TRADITIONAL FINISH STILL YIELDS SUPERB RESULTS by Jeff Jewitt [http://antiquerestorers.com/Articles/jeff/shellac.htm]

Indranil Banerjie
12 May 2012

Comments

  1. thats a good article for newbies to woodworking.You have also mentioned Laakdana which is a local term for buying the shellac flakes. can you put in some light on staining of wood. I had earlier asked you about kayle wood, I asked some shops and they confirmed it to be newzealand pine wood. I use this wood because it is soft and give good finish. Can you share your experience about this wood and its properties and it durability.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Faizul
      Kail wood is indeed Newzealand pine and is a softwood. It had hot a lot of knots & water content & tends to bend that is why it is considered to be a weak wood in India. Though it is cheap...... It is used for framing puposes like in sofa, wooden wall partitions, wall panelling etc..... It tend to crack & bend if dried

      Delete
    2. Interesting discovery. I too had a lot of trouble with this kind of Pine - it was a complete waste of time and money.

      Delete
  2. I will write about staining in another blog. As for Kayle, cannot comment without using it first. Thanks for the tip though.

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  3. Can anyone help with identifying what the locally available 'sheenlac wood polish" is?
    I am not sure of the exact details but I think it is the french polish described under here
    http://sheenlac.com/sheenlac-wood-fillers-polish.html
    Local carpenters in my institution use this all the time. It is a sticky liquid. They spread a thin layer on the furniture using a cotton pad. It is supposed to dry in 30 minutes. When they take out old wooden furniture for a function, they apply a coat of this (even on the chief guest's chair) on the morning of the function.
    When they make any wood cupboard or so, they just use this and give two layers of it. It provides a thin film of polish. It is very cheap. I was wondering if this is some kind of ready made shellac. Someone once told me that you can even mix the staining color into it. I have never tried it out.

    Secondly Do you fill wood before or after staining?

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  4. Sheenlac: This appears to be some kind of lacquer and not shellac. As far as I know, lacquer is used as a protective coating and can be polished to a very high sheen. It can be applied over shellac.
    Sheenlac company: This company seems to have some interesting products. It would be worth your while to check out their water based polyurethane and see if it works.
    Staining: Normally staining should be done before filling but staining can even be done after filling but that will be a surface stain and liable to rub off.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have started a blog. It is difficult process for me. Im not good at putting my thoughts on paper. I hope to get better as I go along. I have taken the liberty to add your link on my blog. I hope you dont mind.
    My blog address is http://deccanwoodworking.blogspot.com/.
    Drop in there from time to time. If possible we should make a link each other's blogs and those of other woodworkers in India. Right now woodworking in India does not show up any hobbyists. I had to wade through nearly 4 pages of results before I came up to your blog. More traffic on hobby woodworkers in India will improve the site rankings and probably through up many more people who are involved in it.

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  6. Thanks Indranil for these inputs on using shellac. It is confidence inspiring to see it coming from someone who understands the local context. What I got from the local paint store near Vasant Kunj is the waxy shellac variety. I just finished building a knockdown bookshelf using relatively cheap 18 mm plywood for the shelves and pine wood for the legs. I want to try different finishes on each shelf to see firsthand the differences. I was surprised at how smooth the sanded plywood has become.

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  7. another great post on hard to find information in indian market context.

    thanks for sharing it!

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  8. Hi Indranil,

    First of all, this is a great article.

    I searched for laakdana in the Bangalore market yesterday. I found few shops dealing with it. Couple of them said they are not stocking it as the prices have gone up and expect it to reduce next month.

    One shop had what he called natural for Rs 1200 a kilo. It is brownish in color with wooden pieces and what not in it, and looks like a extract from tree like the ones used for burning as fragrance. The shops said this is the only color it comes in. Unfortunately I didn't ask for shellac.

    Do you think I found the right material? And that blog on staining would be much appreciated.

    Thanks
    Joseph

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  9. Fantastic article, as always Indranil. Very informative. Haven't started working with natural wood yet, am sure this info will be very useful when I get there.

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  10. It would be helpful to know the local names for shellac. I doubt I can walk into a paint store and ask for shellac. And that too what kind. Do they have a local terminology of it?

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  11. To anonymous: You will be surprised how many people in hardware and paint stores know about Shellac - it has been around for decades. In case they don't respond, ask for Lac polish.

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  12. Hello everyone! Could you please help me out with some addresses where to buy shellac in New Delhi? I'm from Brazil and Indian shellac is so expensive back at home that I'd like to buy some while in India. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Mr.Indranil
    Read your article regarding finishing with shellac (laakdana). I m a bit confused here.
    Dissolving shellac in spirit & making cut is alright uptill this step.
    Now after sanding the wood we first put a layer of shellac & let it dry.
    Then for sealing we mix chalk powder with the shellac mixture & apply it.
    sand it & then again start applying shellac layer as desired.
    Now how much time needed between the first layer & the chalk powder layer. Do we have to sand the first layer before putting the chalk layer.
    Then how much time we need between consequent layer after chalk layer & every layer has to be wiped before letting it dry.
    And are pre prepared shellac available in Delhi mkt. like Zinsser???

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought I had answered this query but somehow it did not show up.
      1. Time between first coat and applying chalk layer would depend on the time it takes for the first Sherllac coat to dry. Perhaps 3/4 hours. Light sanding is necessary.
      2. Subsequent layers do not have to be wiped but lightly sanded after they dry thoroughly. Shellac dries pretty fast but I would wait for as long as possible for it to fully dry - perhaps 3/4 hours in summer in north India.
      3. As for pre-prepared Shellac, you seem to have found the source. I am not familiar with those products.

      Delete
  14. Sir
    Please guide me for
    1. sealing of wood pores.
    2. Staing ...................How to stain a wood.
    3.Staining with desired color.
    please guide me in details for initial starts up of polishing a wood.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a big topic and I have written a lot about it. Many people have suggested I hold a workshop on the topic, which I plan do do soon. I will post details of the event soon. Best wishes

      Delete
  15. Sir, I am working on a wood project as my hobby now it is going to complete and I have to polish it that why I seek your guidance for initials in wood polishing to complete my project....Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Quick response:
      1. Sealing - use a diluted coat of Shellac
      2. Buy some locally available stains and experiment. Stain should be applied with a small pad of cotton cloth.
      3. Desired colour can only be achived through trial and error. Be patient as you mix and try colours.
      best of luck in Assam

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  16. Sir,
    I am living in Assam and I will be in Delhi in March 2016 , in third week, if this kind of workshop at that time, so that I will take the advantage of workshop.

    Regards
    R K Moudgil

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sir I want to polish my Diyar wood doors with lakhdana polish and want the wood grains to be visible. What are the steps after sanding the wood. Kindly guide I am new to the process. Thank you. Faraz Alvi

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Faraz, there are many excellent guides on the internet. Have a look at https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjv8dv9yPnMAhUFpY8KHfYsBVcQtwIIHDAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DNtYhQ_w-Kmo&usg=AFQjCNHpr8xQfgcLLupaJmOB3zCHcd6aBg&sig2=CET3LSf5dVnrPGP9k4icfg
      and
      Learn How to Get a Beautiful Shellac Finish - YouTube https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjv8dv9yPnMAhUFpY8KHfYsBVcQtwIIQDAG&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D5lYKVG70KSg&usg=AFQjCNHnmxep1ZG0Wv3ju1AqA5o3ZjgeDw&sig2=7ISdxMRZt2uX7JhZnmxtEA

      Delete
  18. thanks for a great article. I have been using Lakdana and after few coats i then used lacquer. I want to have the most natural finish and want to try shellac which do not have colour like the lakdana. i live in delhi and would really love to connect. Can you suggest me a local name for no colour/light color shellac ? also what should i dilute it in ? after shellac coating should i end with a wax coat ? i will be trying wet sanding now after multiple shellac coatings as i believe that should help. how can we connect :) ?

    ReplyDelete
  19. 1. De-waxed shellac is difficult to find in Delhi but someone managed to source it. I am sure the larger dealers and furniture makers would know where to get it from.
    2. Dilute it is what is locally known as 'spirit" - say it is for lac dana so that they don't give you lacquer thinner which is leathal.
    3. After 5/6 coats of shellac, sand with 400, 600, 100, 1200 sandpaper (with lubricated water); then apply was and buff.
    4. You could always email me at indian.woodworker@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hello - thank you for this amazing information -
    I have a question incase you can answer - when is the best time to polish wood in India ? I'm being told by some that feb/ March is the best time since one should not polish in winters or in the monsoons - since I've never heard of this wondering if you had any knowledge ?
    Thank you

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  21. I polish with Shellac throughout the year with no problems. "Blushing" could be a problem on certain extremely humid days but that is easily cured by giving more time for the drying process. But experts might differ.

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  22. Dear Indranil sir,

    Our local carpenter use the same method as mentioned by you to give the finish coat . But after that they apply the sealer (sanding sealer ) and after that melamine polish finish . Is it advisable to do so ?? I am planning to give PU finish , what is the correct way to do the PU sealing and finish ? I am confused . AS my polish contractor is doing all above steps and then applying the PU sealer and above that PU finish quote.Can you please guide us .

    Thanks ,

    Pawan Singhi

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  23. Pawan, I have no experience with Melamine so I cannot comment. What "above steps" are you referring to - as in the case of applying Shellac? Please clarify.

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  24. Hi Indranil... I am looking for denatured alcohol in delhi to complete my project using Shellac finish. However I am unable to find denatured alcohol.. Do you have any idea where I can buy it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You'll certainly get it in Tilak Bazar, Khari Baoli. I get mine from a small but excellent hardware shop run by an elderly Sikh gentleman in Khan Market.

      Delete
  25. Thank Indranil... I tried Tialk Bazar however could not get one. Do you know shop name in Khan Market... Appreciate your help.

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    Replies
    1. Don't know the name but there are only two hardware stores in Khan Market along the car repair shops.

      Delete
  26. Thanks a lot for this information. This is my first project and these blogs helped me a lot to complete my project.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi Indranil,

    Excellent Site. One of a Kind.

    I wonder if you can help me.

    You see i m working on a Natural Log Wood Project. I want to preserve the Natural Bark on the Wood which if left untreated would peel and fall off.

    I came across this article on wood bark preservation:

    http://www.rockler.com/how-to/bark-wood-projects-glue-shellac-wood-choice/

    Please Advice where do I source this locally and what concentrations propotions should I use for this.

    Appreciate a speedy response.

    Thanks in advance

    ReplyDelete
  28. Sorry, no idea how this works.

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  29. Hi, You mentioned you use chalk powder for a pore filler. The reccommended material I believe, is pumice powder? Does chalk do an equally good job,in your experience. Thank you for this great blog series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pumice powder is much better in my experience though not as easy to procure as chalk powder. Pumice also abrades the surface and gives a finer finish.

      Delete
  30. Hi Indranil,
    Good post. I have a problem with my table. This rosewood table is pretty old, made about 70 years ago. Now the table top joint (two rosewood panels are joined to form the table top) is separating and day by day the distance between them is growing. How do I fill or patch that joint again. I have the photos but how do I upload it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could email the photo to indian.woodworker@gmail.com But let me tell you that if the panel is coming apart it is most probably because of faulty construction and nothing can patch it back together. Better take the two panels apart and re-glue them.

      Delete
  31. Thank you for the prompt respone. I have sent you the photos from my gmail id a couple of mins ago (contactmeadi249). As you can see from the photos, the gap was there earlier and some form of glue and material was used to fill the gap, I am not sure how they had filled it. If you have any suggestions on how to fill this gap, that would help.
    Thanks
    Ramesh

    ReplyDelete
  32. I also enquired a local carpenter here. He says he can fill it with metal paste. Will this metal paste any way damage the wood? Will the bonding be strong so that it doesn't come out easily?

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    Replies
    1. Never heard of metal paste. Maybe its some new product but I couldn't tell.

      Delete
  33. Also need your help in identifying quality shellac brand. I went to the nearby hardware and asked for shellac. He showed me bottle full of black liquid, he claims the shellac to be black. Is it the right product / genuine one? How can I identify the quality of shellac?

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    Replies
    1. Never heard of a liquid black Shellac! Shellac in India comes in flakes as I have explained in this blog.

      Delete
  34. Thanks for the prompt response. Your blog is of great help in novice like me in wood working.

    ReplyDelete

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