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Shellac or Poly

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  • Shellac or Poly

    I have used Polyurethane for years to coat items I finish, but I have read post where others are using Shellac. While in Lowes today I was picking up more Poly, and looked around for Shellac. I could only find one can of it, so I ask the clerk and was told that is the only brand they carried....and I can't remember the brand name (it's setting in my shop right now). But I thought it odd they would carry many, many brands of Poly and only one of the Shellac. I have not tried other stores and may find they carry more. I wanted to ask what brands of Shellac you folks are using and what is the price. I paid $15 plus tax for a quart of this stuff today. I see it dries allot faster (1) hour, where Poly takes 24 hours.

  • #2
    Larry, we make our own shellac, which is much cheaper and fresher, from shellac flakes. We use super blonde, which doesn't have the usual orange cast. It mixes with denatured alcohol (I've used grain alcohol for cake decorations), and you can mix it as you need it. Check out Shellac Shack--their prices are good, and the flakes last a long time. For small projects, I use spray shellac.

    Actually, my favorite finish is shellac as a sealer coat, rubbed down, then finished with several coats of clear spray lacquer, which dries almost instantly.

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    • #3
      Hey Larry,

      The reason you only found one brand of shellac at Lowes is that Zinnser is the only company that produces pre-mixed shellac for retail sale. As Handibunny said, there are lots more options with shellac if you buy it in flake form. You can get a wider variety of tones from clear to very dark amber/orange. That said, the Zinnser that you have readily available to you is easy to use and a perfect product to get started with, if you haven't used shellac before.

      Shellac is a great finish for scrollwork. There are a few things that you need to be aware of though. It is devilishly hard to brush and I wouldn't even want to try dipping in it, unless the item was very small. Shellac dries extremely fast and these methods of application will give you fits. Traditional furniture makers apply it using a method called french polishing. It takes some practice, but this provides a very smooth, beautiful finish.

      However, wiping or french polishing is an impractical method for most types of scrollwork, especially fretwork. By far the easiest way to apply shellac on scrollwork is to spray it on. Zinnser also sells shellac in spray cans that should be available at Lowes as well. I don't particularly care for the way the shellac lays down from a spray can. I don't think the nozzle atomizes the fluid enough to give a nice smooth finish, but it's worth a try if you've never sprayed shellac before. Practice on scrap first though.

      I spray shellac with a gravity feed, HVLP spray gun, powered by my compressor. It works great and you don't have to spend a lot of $$ on a fancy spray set-up to get good results. I have 2 guns, a small, detail gun and a standard size gun. Neither one cost more than about $30, so if you already have a compressor, the start up costs aren't excessive. If you think you want to give it a try, let me know and I'll share everything I know about it (which is maybe 1 or 2 sentences more than I've already typed. )

      I'm a big fan of shellac, but I would have never tried it a 2nd time if I wasn't able to spray it. It is my go-to finish for almost all scrollwork now and I even use it occasionally for other woodworking projects. By all means give it a shot. I'll be glad to answer any other questions you might have. Let us know how it works out for you. Good Luck!
      Homer : "Oh, and how is education supposed to make me feel smarter. Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."


      • #4
        Thank Bill and Carole....I know sometime in my life I must have used shellac, but it slips my mind right now. I have be using foam brushes to apply the poly to boxes I have made, but it sounds like I will not be able to do it this way. Maybe I was thinking of lacquer (which is hard to find here as well.) I like using Poly, but the dry time takes so long. What is the dry time with lacquer and can it be foam brushed on. You say brushing shellac does not work that because it is so thick?

        Thank both of you for the info.


        • #5
          Shellac is actually fairly thin right out of the can. It's usually a good idea to thin it further with denatured alcohol before applying it though.

          Brushing shellac doesn't work well because the shellac dries almost as fast as you can put it on (think how fast alcohol evaporates), so you tend to get lap and brush marks, especially if you brush it like you typically would varnish or paint. The denatured alcohol solvent in the shellac will soften any previously applied shellac that you happen to go over with the brush and the brush will drag, causing brush marks. It can be brushed, but it takes a different technique.

          Lacquer can be brushed. It also dries very fast, which is why they market what is called "brushing lacquer". Brushing lacquer is simply regular lacquer with a retarder added to slow the drying. If that retarder wasn't added, you would have similar problems as I described with the shellac. By the way, I think they also sell shellac retarder. Probably have to order it on-line or get it at a good paint supply store though. I'm not sure about a foam brush though. It may not stand up to the solvent in the lacquer. I would suggest using a good quality, natural bristle brush instead.
          Homer : "Oh, and how is education supposed to make me feel smarter. Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."


          • #6
            Bill, when using the Poly, most times I brush on several coats..4 -5 on the boxes. Are you saying when using shellac it will soften other coats that are on the wood? I am not set up for spraying shellac. Not good at spraying and that's the reason I brush. Any spraying I need, the wife uses the shaker cans. I really like the build up look of the Poly, but just do not care for the long dry time. I like the glass look on most items I make


            • #7

              Joe uses shellac exclusively on his furniture. He uses a fairly thin mix, and brushes it on with a foam brush. If you apply coats quickly, they don't soften previous coats. I have not had luck brushing on shellac, but find the spray works pretty well, although I think if you could spray it on with a sprayer, it would work better. I like the shellac for is non-toxicity, but have taken to using it primarily for a sealer coat, then rub it down well (320 sanding mop does a great job) then spray with lacquer. The nozzle on the spray lacquer (I use Minwax clear gloss) works better than the nozzle on the shellac.

              You can give it a try to see what works for you. If things really get messed up, shellac comes off easily with denatured alcohol, and lacquer with acetone. Only occasionally do I have to do that, but sometimes I get sloppy and have to pay for it. Oh--and for padauk, stay away from poly. It just doesn't work well.

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              • #8

                Shellac isn't the type of finish that you build up like poly. Shellac is an evaporative finish, meaning that the coats dissolve into each other. Nitrocellulose lacquer (such as Deft) does the same thing. Shellac dries very hard, so if you apply it too thickly, it's possible that it could eventually craze & crack. Shellac is meant to be applied thinly. It will produce a high gloss finish though, but without the thickness of poly.

                Google French polishing. I've never done it, so I can't be much help to you, but my understanding is that this application method is used to get the highest luster finish possible. It's an old and traditional method of applying shellac and with some practice it shouldn't be too hard to do. It's similar to wiping a finish on, but there is a special technique to it. If your projects lend themselves to wiping on a finish, then this may be the ticket.
                Homer : "Oh, and how is education supposed to make me feel smarter. Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."


                • #9
                  Good thread - I just bought the spray shellac at Lowes last night, but have not tried it yet. I think it was only around $7.

                  Some people say they use it to "seal the wood", then they use Polyurethane on top. I think they are using water based polyurethane, which might lift the grain, so first they use shellac. But polyurethane also "seals" the wood...right?

                  BTW, I bought Krylon acrylic last week and coated a photo/print with it. It is very clear, has UV blockers, and dries in 2 hours supposidly (mine still smells a couple of days later). I used two coats and it looks good (on a inkjet print). Perhaps this could replace Polyurethane?
                  Also, isn't shellac less glossy than polyurethane? If you like a deep shine, shellac might not give you that. The "shellac'd" wood I see online does not have a deep shine, instead it has a thin antique look to it.


                  • #10
                    Shellac makes an excellent sealer because it will stick to most anything and most other finishes will adhere well to it. There is one caveat though. In order for polyurethane to adhere well to shellac, the shellac should be de-waxed. In it's natural state, shellac contains wax. This wax can cause adhesion problems with polyurethane, but most other finishes are fine. Zinnser sells a product called Seal Coat, which is simply shellac with the wax removed. It's specifically marketed as a sealer, but can be used in any way that any other type of shellac is used.

                    Shellac doesn't come in various sheens like varnish or polyurethane. The final appearance is dictated by how it's applied and how it's rubbed out. It is possible to achieve a near mirror like finish with shellac, but it takes some effort and the proper technique. The thick glossy appearance of poly is because it is a finish that is applied in layers, each one building on the previous one. This is a fundamental difference between shellac & polyurethane/varnish.
                    Homer : "Oh, and how is education supposed to make me feel smarter. Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."


                    • #11
                      The Zinnser (spray) stuff at Lowes says you can put Polyurethane over it, but when I checked in the store, I did not see mention of the wax being removed.


                      • #12
                        Homer : "Oh, and how is education supposed to make me feel smarter. Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."


                        • #13
                          Hi Larry -
                          just to add a further comment to Bill's already comprehensive information.
                          Poly, as you build it up to achieve its gloss level tends in my opinion to always look like a plastic looking finish and the thicker it gets the greater is this tendency. A good glossy shellac however gives more depth and a lustrous beauty to the wood its covering.

                          French polishing is great for applying shellac to flat surfaces even though its a lot of work. There's a good article on the technique at this link
                          Jim in Mexico

                          Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
                          - Albert Einstein


                          • #14
                            I checked last night. On the back of the can, hidden in the blah blah blah, it states 100% wax free. It was the only brand of shellac at my Lowes.


                            • #15
                              BTW, I do not think the can says it is the "sealer" type. Their website is terrible, cannot find this info, but it is on the back of the spray can if you read closely.


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