Shellac is one of my favorite finishes to use for woodworking projects because of its appearance and versatility. It’s also commonly found on the woodwork of older homes. You can buy premixed shellac finishes at most hardware stores, but I prefer to mix shellac myself to get just the right product.
Mixing your own shellac means you’ll always have a fresh batch ready for use since shellac has a relatively short shelf life once mixed of about six months. So, let’s walk through how to mix shellac yourself so you can get started today.
What is Shellac?
Shellac is a a wood finish created by diluting secretions from the laccifer laca bug in denatured alcohol. This bug is found in India and Thailand and surrounding areas and that is where almost all the shellac in the world comes from.
The secretions are scraped from tree limbs, cleaned and bagged in the form of flakes. Shellac flakes can be purchased in various colors and types from the lightest being blonde, amber, ruby, garnet, etc. so you can choose different colors for different finishing needs.
Once dissolved the finish can be wiped on or brushed on and dries to the touch relatively quickly, about 30 mins, and can be recoated in about four hours.
Shellac is an extremely easy finish to repair due to the fact that, like lacquer, it can be touched up by rubbing the damaged area with a cloth dampened with the carrier, which in the case of shellac is denatured alcohol. The alcohol is both the carrier and solvent for the finish and so by applying it, the existing finish begins to dissolve and scratches can be spotlessly fixed with a small application of new shellac.
Finishes like varnish and polyurethane do not have this same ability and they must be sanded down and have a completely new coat applied since touch up areas cannot blend into the existing finish.
If you’re wondering what kind of finish you have on an existing project there is a simple way to test your wood finish in this post right here.
Waxed vs Dewaxed Shellac
Shellac comes in two forms, waxed and dewaxed. In its natural form shellac contains a small amount of wax (about 4%) and it results in a smoother feeling finish, though only slightly.
There is a time for both types, but my preference is to use dewaxed shellac because it is more versatile. Dewaxed shellac can be recoated with other finishes in the future if desired like polyurethane, lacquer, or it can even be painted over without issue.
Waxed shellac will cause adhesion issues if you try to recoat with anything other than shellac in the future so for that reason I prefer to use dewaxed shellac in almost all my applications.
Advantages of Mixing Your Own Shellac
One advantage of mixing your own shellac is that you can mix the right size batch for your project and still keep some dry flakes for use in the future. Shellac flakes last much longer that when it has been mixed and is ready for finish.
Another advantage is your ability to select your own viscosity. When mixing your own shellac you choose the rate of flakes to alcohol and that better allows you to control the thickness of your finish. Depending on your project you may want thicker coats of finish or thinner coats and mixing your own shellac allows you to make those determinations, whereas premixed shellac usually comes in a standard 3 lb. cut.
How To Mix Shellac
Start by picking the type of shellac flakes you want and grab a container of denatured alcohol and a sealable container to hold your wood finish. Once you’ve assembled everything you’re ready to mix your own shellac.
Step 1 Determine Your Cut
Shellac can really be mixed to any thickness you want, but if you’re just getting started then a thinner mix is easier to apply flawlessly. I would recommend a small batch of 2 lbs cut shellac for your first time. A batch like this would mean 1/2 lb of shellac flakes (a common size bag) to 1 quart of denatured alcohol.
You determine the name of your mix (2 lbs cut, 3 lbs cut, etc) by determining how many pounds of shellac flakes are added to 1 gallon of denatured alcohol. That certainly doesn’t mean you need to mix a full gallon up. A pint or quart is usually sufficient for most jobs.
A 2 lbs cut is thick enough to get good coverage with a few coats, but not so thick that you’ll end up with brush marks in your finish.
Many bags of shellac flakes have a mixing guide or you can use this chart to help you determine the right ratio of shellac flakes to denatured alcohol to use.
Step 2 Measure Up
Pour your shellac flakes into a sealable container. You can use plastic if it’s just for temporary use, but a metal or glass container is best for long term storage.
Once the flakes are poured in add the proper amount of denatured alcohol from the chart above then seal the top and shake the mixture well to help everything blend. You’ll need to shake it often for the first 15-20 mins as things can get gummy.
Some woodworkers recommend grinding up the shellac flakes with a coffee grinder prior to mixing to allow them to dissolve more quickly which can be helpful if you are in a rush since your mix should take 4-6 hours to fully dissolve and be ready for use without the coffee grinder hack.
After you’ve waited and the flakes are completely dissolved, your custom mix of shellac is ready to go! Apply as needed and store the rest in a cool dark place until you need it again but no longer than six months.
I hope this post has encouraged you to try mixing your own shellac. It’s a great way to get the control over your own finishing skills.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.