Finishing with Shellac

Shellac Finish

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Ever wondered how to best apply a shellac finish? In this video, Paul goes step by step through each process he uses to get great results. In this project he applies the finish to the tool chest which he made on Woodworking Masterclasses.

87 Comments

  1. Eddy Flynn on 24 March 2014 at 5:41 pm

    thanks for taking the time to take us through this process step by step it really does help to build confidence .

  2. RL on 24 March 2014 at 5:43 pm

    Lovely result!

  3. whitneyturk on 24 March 2014 at 5:50 pm

    What’s the cut of that sealer? One pound?

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 25 March 2014 at 3:20 am

      I am using a premixed shellac. It’s probably close to a 2# cut. Brushing on a shellac finish can be done using a heavier coat than french polishing using a pad.

  4. Charles Bjorgen on 24 March 2014 at 6:13 pm

    Outstanding video, Paul. I may have missed your comment but I assume you mixed the shellac from flakes? What cut did you make? Thanks for this.

    • smfield on 24 March 2014 at 8:18 pm

      I think he’s using that sanding sealer premade from shellac. Usually the seals are 1lb cuts.

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 25 March 2014 at 3:23 am

      No, I wanted something people can use straight off and used a Liberon product of sanding sealer that I like. The solvent (denatured alcohol) evaporates quite quickly in use and you end up with a thicker solution even as you apply the finish.

  5. António on 24 March 2014 at 6:22 pm

    Just simple and lovely!

    Thanks, To You all!

  6. David Gill on 24 March 2014 at 7:08 pm

    Very helpful video Paul, certainly removed a lot of the mystic of finishing a project with Shellac

  7. kelly on 24 March 2014 at 7:24 pm

  8. kelly on 24 March 2014 at 7:51 pm

    I realize there are different types of Shellac in regards to a tint or color, some with wax, some without wax, but is all Shellac a “sanding sealer?” Or is there different types of Shellac (in that regard)?

    And regarding the wax … are there different types of wax for different purposes when using it on wood?

    • smfield on 24 March 2014 at 8:45 pm

      The wax is a natural component of the shellac from the lac beetle. It is removed so that a top coat of wipe on oils or varnish can take and dry.

    • smfield on 24 March 2014 at 8:49 pm

      The higher the lb. cut the thicker and harder the coat. There really is no reason to go beyond a 2 lb. cut in most woodworking applications, unless your sealing wood imperfections or flooring.

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 25 March 2014 at 3:31 am

      Good question. Sanding sealers are mostly made from shellac. The #cut makes the difference. Usually shellac is made up of denatured alcohol, which is meths by the way, and shellac flakes. In the US they use a term ‘cut’. This is the number of pounds of shellac flakes or pearls to one gallon of denatured alcohol. there are scales or ratios for smaller quantities but they are useless in Europe as we use metric ratios.
      Sanding sealer is a thinner version used to seal the wood. i use this most of the time as a premixed manufactured product. As I said elsewhere, however, mixing your own shellac is best, but then the shelf life is limited to about three months. On a fine furniture project I would mix myself a gallon of shellac. On smaller projects like the tool chest, I found it more practical to buy in a premix and also, I want to keep things simple and doable for everyone.

    • Kjord on 25 March 2014 at 3:57 am

      Wax is a natural part of shellac. One of the perceived weaknesses of shellac is moisture resistance. Some shellac is dewaxed to make it less permeable to liquids. Dewaxed shellac will be more water resistant to a water ring if you set a sweaty glass on it, but the regular shellac is actually more resistant to atmospheric moisture, the humidity which makes your wood project move. Shellac might not be the best choice for a kitchen tabletop, but for most furniture it’s plenty durable–and beautiful.

      • smfield on 25 March 2014 at 12:07 pm

        The only problem with shellac and a glass is if the glass has alcohol in it. As Paul said before, you can’t put a whiskey glass on shellacked wood. It will resist water no mater if from the atmosphere or glass sweat. The wax just makes it more resistant. It is desolved by the alcohol.

  9. Toni Khoury on 24 March 2014 at 8:42 pm

    Shellac has such a lovely finish, almost speaks to the wood. Great video Paul, and thank you for the continued effort and love you have shown this great community.

  10. tosyu on 24 March 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Great video. I have finished my staircase ballustrade with water based lacquer, 3 coats, topped that off with wax and polished it thoroughly. I would love to watch some more material on finishing, since, at least from my amateur point of view, it takes at least half of the work on a project.

    PS. Finished railing of the ballustrade I have mentioned http://i.imgur.com/s4QsvE4.jpg A keen eye could find some mistakes I made, but this was a first big (for me) project that I made and a first proper one from start to finish 🙂

    Thanks again Paul for the awesome work You guys are doing!

  11. Jeff Porterfield on 24 March 2014 at 8:58 pm

    Wow. Beautiful. Really liked your explanation about why you use 0000 steel wool in applying the polish. Have never done that…but will now.

  12. Greg Merritt on 25 March 2014 at 12:10 am

    Great video Paul and team. I started using this method of finishing beginning with the Wall Clock project and it has never failed me. Maybe I should say that I have never failed it. This method gives depth, mellow sheen and a very smooth feel. In fact, everyone who touches my projects are fascinated by how smooth they are.

    Thanks for going into depth with this method.

  13. Carlos J. Collazo on 25 March 2014 at 1:10 am

    Thank you for this. This video has now made me want to get to the finishing stage. Shellac is so clearly presented here. The video has taken away the intimidation surrounding finishing for me. Like much of your instruction, it makes one feel one can actually enter realms of woodworking one previously could not.

  14. Steve Larson on 25 March 2014 at 2:00 am

    Great video!! What was the name of the brush you used?

  15. eksund on 25 March 2014 at 2:09 am

    The brush Paul use are called Hake brush. (If I remember it correctly).

    • Paul Jenkins on 25 March 2014 at 4:23 am

      You can find hake brushes in art supply or ceramic supply shops. They hold a lot of finish compared to Synthetic bristles.

  16. bertd on 25 March 2014 at 6:17 am

    Any tips how to clean the brush after your done?
    Mine always gets very very hard after cleanup and I can’t get it as soft as it used to be?

    I don’t have access to the pre-made sanding sealer but I order my flakes from a craft store.
    What mix would you suggest? (my mix is 300gr shellac with 1l alcohol)

    • eksund on 25 March 2014 at 9:39 am

      You don´t need to clean it. Just let it dry and put the brush in alcohol or shellac and let it soften up, 5-10 minutes before you need it.

    • Florian on 25 March 2014 at 9:40 am

      You can clean the brush in the same alcohol you use for mixing the flakes. I don’t clean it at all. It get’s hard and the next time you use it you stick it in the shellac solution for two minutes and will be soft again.

      Your mix is pretty thick. A 2lb cut would be around 230 gr per litre.

    • Paul Jenkins on 25 March 2014 at 5:10 pm

      I don”t clean the brush I use for shellac or the brush I use for lacquer. Just putting the hard brush in the finish will soften it back to being soft and usable again in a few minutes..

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 25 March 2014 at 9:52 pm

      Usually the mix is 250grams of flake to 1 litre of DA or Methylated spirits. Depending on whether you are in the USA or Europe. From there you can thicken or thin to task by adding more flakes or more DA. So, having said all that, you are pretty close anyway.

  17. smfield on 25 March 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Why didn’t Paul just initially use the steel wool and wax straightaway?

  18. Erik Ho on 25 March 2014 at 12:31 pm

    What would be the best finish to use on a family dining table? I want really just want to protect the wood from getting stained or absorbing food/liquid. Thanks for the great videos!

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 25 March 2014 at 9:56 pm

      Polyurethane is the most durable for that type of use. You may not like the feel. The easiest repairable finish is Danish Oil. I like Deft Danish Oil available in the US not the UK. It’s very nice.

      • D.J. King on 27 March 2014 at 6:25 pm

        Jsyk, I’ve heard Deft is going or has gone out of business so it will not be available here much longer (assuming it still is) in America if the reports are true. I hope I’m not spreading rumors here so if anybody knows the real truth please don’t hesitate to correct me.

        • Farred on 28 March 2014 at 3:42 am

          Egad–I hope not. Deft spray lacquer is my favorite finish.

  19. Florian on 25 March 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Great video! One thing I couldn’t understand was the “poor-man’s-hardwood” at around 15 minutes. Are you talking about the sapele or another hardwood you used for the box? Sapele is not really poor-man’s-choice or am I wrong?
    Thanks @paul-sellers

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 25 March 2014 at 9:57 pm

      I should have said the poor man’s mahogany. It doesn’t equal Honduran mahogany and other mahoganies I ave used. That said, it’s not cheap to buy either these days.

  20. NikonD80 on 25 March 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Erick, I built mt dining table out of Oak and fumed it with ammonia to make the grain pop more. This gave it a slightly green look though so I compensated with garnet shellac to warm the colour back up. This treatment included the table top. I then carried on finishing just the top with a home made wipe on poly varnish. I just mixed standard poly varnish about 50/50 with white spirit (mineral spirits if you’re in the US) and applied it with a pad. I gave the tabletop about four coats of poly varnish this way and the finish has survived a couple of years of daily use and still looks like new.

    • D.J. King on 27 March 2014 at 6:27 pm

      One of the things I love about shellac is that it can be used in conjunction with almost any other finish.

      • D.J. King on 19 August 2014 at 5:01 am

        I should have said it can mix with any other finish IF you use the dew axed version of shellac.

  21. STEVE MASSIE on 26 March 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Paul another fantastic video, finishing other than paint is not one of my strong suits. I am going to try this method, hopefully I can find this some where here in the States. Same for the brush I have never heard of it before, but looks like the right tool for the job.

    Steve

    • Greg Merritt on 26 March 2014 at 10:23 pm

      Steve,

      The Zinsser branded shellac works just fine. There is clear and sanding sealer. I’ve used both with good results. The clear still contains wax and is approximately a 3lb cut. The sanding sealer is dewaxed and is approximately a 1lb cut. I purchase mine from Lowes.

      The hake brush can be found at most art supply stores.

      Greg

    • D.J. King on 19 August 2014 at 5:08 am

      Toolsforworkingwood.com has a set of shellac/lacquer brushes that are AMAZING. They are quite spendy, but if you have the means to buy one or all 3 I promise they completely live up to the hype. The best brushes I’ve ever used by far!!! You can search their site for shellac finishing brush or use tis link. http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com/store/dept/TFB/item/GT-SHEBRU.XX

  22. Erland on 26 March 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Hello Paul,

    when I use my steelwol 0000 with wax I get a dirty wax and srface because the steelwole leaves little pieces behind; is that poor quality steelwole?

    very nice video Paul: thank you and your friends!

    Erland

    • Craig on 26 March 2014 at 6:10 pm

      Erland,
      The steel wool breaks down as your using it, so some debris is normal.
      A couple of things to watch out for are:
      The shellac may not be thoroughly dry and being still somewhat soft is being worn away leaving particles behind.
      The shellac may be old . You can test this by brushing a thin coat on some glass. It should dry rapidly (few minutes) and be tack free.
      A light touch is important, If you press too hard or scrub too vigorously(generating heat) that will abrade the coating and generate particles.
      And lastly, It’s important to sand lightly after the first sealing coat to knock down the “nibs”
      followed by removing the dust with a tack rag (available at any paint store).
      Hope this helps
      Best,
      Craig

      • billstennett on 27 March 2014 at 12:04 am

        I had the same problem with steel wool leaving particles behind when I made the wall clock.

        But, it was my first project and I think I just got a bit over excited and didn’t give the shellac enough time to cure.

        I totally second what Craig says – make sure it’s dry; use a light touch and soon shellac and steel wool will be your go to finish!

        Cheers

        Bill

  23. Jamie Duff on 27 March 2014 at 5:02 pm

    This is a great video I’ve always loved the look of shellac but was always put off in thinking the process was quite complicated, can’t wait to build something and give it a go myself …..

  24. D.J. King on 27 March 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Paul, I’ve read that using anhydrous alcohol can produce even finer results. Have you ever heard of this or tried this? My understanding is that anhydrous alcohol has undergone additional processing to remove even more of the water even though typical alcohol has just a fraction of a percent.

    • Craig on 29 March 2014 at 10:02 pm

      xjumper,
      The highest proof alcohol generally available is 190 proof or 95%. The balance is water and denaturants( generally Methanol). This usually works well.
      The 95% level is the highest that can be produced by distillation because the alcohol forms a constant boiling mixture at that level called an azeotrope.
      For anhydrous alcohol, the remaining water has to be removed chemically using a dessicant like sodium sulfate or a molecular sieve.
      Anhydrous ethanol may be available from a chemical supplier and would be costly.
      The alcohol is hygroscopic, picking up additional water from atmospheric humidity which is a good reason to use a small amount at a time.
      Best,
      Craig

      • D.J. King on 19 August 2014 at 5:11 am

        Thanks for the clarification Craig. Have you ever tried it? Do you think it would make a better shellac? If so, do you think the extra cost would justified?

  25. Jason on 29 March 2014 at 4:30 pm

    @paul-sellers,
    You made a passing comment at the very beginning about adding wax filler before doing the finish. I’ve been struggling with the balance between dovetails that are so tight they split the wood and gappy joints. I presume you had some gaps? thinking that eases my frustration. 😉

    I picked up some hard wax to fill some hairline gaps. The packaging says to finish before using the wax. Is that not the case with shellac, or did I buy a different product?

    Thanks!

    • Paul SellersTeam Member on 29 March 2014 at 4:45 pm

      I am sorry if this hurts a bit, but there were no gaps in my joints and never are these days. Remember I make hundreds of dovetails every years so they always work out. i was using wax filler on the pin heads after nailing on my cock-beading to the drawer rim.

      • Jason on 30 March 2014 at 4:15 am

        It’s better for me that the bar isn’t low. I guess I need to practice more.

        Since you mentioned it, I do look forward to seeing videos on the cock beading and drawer veneers.

        Thanks!

      • bit101 on 20 April 2014 at 11:51 pm

        Ha. I had the same thought as Jason. I should have known better. Actually, though, it’s more comforting knowing that such perfection is possible with practice. If Paul couldn’t make a gapless dovetail, there’d be no hope for me.

    • therealdjryan on 29 March 2014 at 6:24 pm

      @Jason, The Tage Frid method of gap filling works really well: During glue up, bash the end grain with a ball-peen hammer and plane flush when the glue dries. It sounds terrible but it looks much much better then filled gaps.

      • Jason on 30 March 2014 at 4:03 pm

        Dennis,

        I’ve tried that method successfully in the past. Now that I’m using Paul’s method, the parts are all coming together flush, and don’t have enough material to hammer. If I did, I would have to do a lot more planning to clean up the dovetail.

        I’ll just keep practicing.

        Thanks!

  26. bigparny on 30 April 2014 at 9:15 am

    This was a true masterclass in finishing. The thought of applying any liquid to your beautiful project after so many hours of hard work can be very daunting.
    I have always used polyurethane for durability but my next project will be finished in shellac as you described here.
    The love and care taken shines through in your commentary.
    Excellent work!
    This has been the best subscription I have ever made.
    Many thanks.

    Tony

  27. moermanben on 7 July 2014 at 6:49 am

    Hey Paul and Co.,

    I have a few questions after attempting to shellac my finished tool chest.

    1. I had some darker pencil marks that did not come off with the shellac finish. How should I get rid of these? Just sanding through the shellac?
    2. I used a pine wood filler on some spots (where I had grain tear-out) that are showing quite noticeably, is there any way to remedy this or is it just a lesson I’ve learned very well now?

    I have completed 2 coats on the chest so far.

    • moermanben on 7 July 2014 at 7:07 am

      To add to this question, do you apply the wax to the sides of the chest as well or just the top?

      • D.J. King on 19 August 2014 at 5:24 am

        Ben, I would say the entire chest should be waxed. I would even wax the contact surfaces on the underside of the drawers and their mating runners to make it glide even more smoothly. The wax helps further enhance the beauty, protects the shellac, and adds durability and water resistance to boot.

    • D.J. King on 19 August 2014 at 5:21 am

      I hope this isn’t too late to answer, but to remove the pencil marks, I would use a scraper as Paul did on the glue spots. You can then blend and feather 2 coats of shellac into these areas to catch back up. Because shellac melts the previous coats and bonds as one solid coat you should have no issues. When I fill small holes or what have you, I wait until the finish is applied. Then I put a small amount of Crawford’s natural oil-based painters putty on a piece of plate glass, then mix in artists oil paints to match the existing finish. Once I achieve a good match through trial and error, I carefully pat h the nail holes. Perhaps you could try this by pulling out just a bit of the filler you used and making the final layer color-matched using this method. Give the painter’s putty a day or two to dry and ten shellac over it to match the existing finish. That’s what I would try anyway. Hope this helps.

  28. David Alzamora on 3 September 2014 at 12:42 am

    Just finished watching and learning. But the most interesting part was right at the end when Paul finishes using the shoe brush, he leans on the cover and has that grin on his face that says, “This is utter joy…”

  29. Betzalel on 12 October 2014 at 5:50 pm

    I am not sure i got this right:
    180 grit sanding (?)
    first coat of Shellac
    Sanding with 250 grit
    Second and third coat of Shellac (or add a forth coat) with no sanding in between (?)
    0000 steel wool
    Wax (what was the name of the wax?)

    In a totally different topic:
    Where can I get aniline dyes in the UK or Europe?

  30. Larry McLaughlin on 14 April 2015 at 7:33 am

    Hi Paul,
    I’m having a problem with an old pine bench I’m trying to finish with shellac. I sanded off the old finish(shellac I think). I have about 4 coats on, and the surface is blotchy, It builds up in some areas and soaks in, in other parts. What do I need to do to get a consistent build up of finish.

  31. Philip Adams on 16 April 2015 at 12:48 pm

    Have you tried sanding and adding another coat? It also depends on the thickness/cut of the shellac and whether the previous coats where fully dry. The other thing to do is to steel wool it afterwards. I hope that helps.

  32. jakegevorgian on 19 August 2015 at 3:43 am

    I usually use the Zinsser shellac and I thin it with denatured alcohol (one part shellac and one part alcohol) seems to work well for me. Is this common for you too?

  33. bigaxe on 8 October 2015 at 7:46 pm

    Would it be beneficial to finish the raised panels before glue up and inserting them into the frame ?

  34. Mihail Stamatelos on 15 October 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Very helpful video thank you

  35. Dario Payne on 25 January 2016 at 9:47 pm

    Great video, thanks very much.

    I think I’ll go and have some beans on toast now.

  36. woodwurm on 21 August 2016 at 9:40 am

    Hello Mr. Sellers,

    I guess I found a supplier for Kiwi brushes in Britain: http://www.sainsburys.co.uk

  37. Adrien Bernard-Reymond on 6 December 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Hi everyone, great video Paul!

    Would you recommend using shellac to finish kids toys, is it non toxic if swallowed or licked? I guess it’s not the more durable finish for this purpose. Maybe with just one coat, for a natural, oil looking finish?
    And by the way are there any wood species that you would recommend or DO NOT recommend in toy making (toxic, splinters, etc.)?

    • Philip Adams on 7 December 2016 at 12:05 pm

      Hello Adrian,
      It’s difficult to give a definitive answer. Shellac made with a non toxic denatured alcohol probably won’t be toxic. It isn’t very suitable for items that get handled a lot. I guess the question is whether the product needs finish on it or not. If so, you could use a food safe finish.

      As far as wood choice goes, it’s best to look up the individual properties somewhere such as The Wood Database.
      Best, Phil

  38. cjbellone on 7 December 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Shellac is what makes M&M’s shine!!

  39. Russell Phillips on 26 December 2016 at 11:43 pm

    Hi Paul.
    You were talking about not being able to find a shoe brush in the UK that is appropriate for your finishing. Have a look at the natural type of curl brooms. I’ve been lucky enough to pick some up at second hand charity shops in in Canada.

    Miss seeing you at the US Woodworking Shows

    Cheers Russell

  40. David Selin on 16 October 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Having just started woodwork as a hobby i have never finished a project yet. This video has given me the courage to give shellac a go. However, after the sanding sealer coat it looks like a different “Cut of Shellac is used, bu i feel i missed the actual product used. Please can anyone enlighten me as to what proprietory clear Shellac would be best.

    • Philip Adams on 26 October 2017 at 10:41 am

      Paul often uses Liberon dewaxed blonde shellac flakes, but it depends on what is available where you are.

  41. Harvey Kimsey on 17 October 2017 at 4:07 am

    I have mixed my own using dewaxed shellac flakes and denatured alcohol. Usually a 2 lb. cut works well. That’s 2 lbs per gallon, or 2 oz. per cup. Takes a while to dissolve but goes faster if you warm it in a water bath. No open flames, however!!

  42. Waldo Nell on 24 May 2019 at 6:40 pm

    One thing that would be great to see in a future video is how to fix mistakes, and what not to do. I made the mistake of applying paste wax after I applied shellac, only to then discover I had brush marks I needed to get rid of. As far as I know it is near impossible to fully remove the paste wax, no?

  43. Allen Schell on 29 August 2019 at 3:56 am

    I’m new at using shellac and and having trouble with brush marks on my final coats. I’m wondering if I need to thin my shellac ?

    • Izzy BergerTeam Member on 29 August 2019 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Allen,

      Paul says:
      I wouldn’t suggest thinning, I would suggest moving much more quickly in the application and not fussing with the surface as you might with polyurethane. It just takes practise and a decent brush.

      Kind Regards,
      Izzy

  44. Craig on 29 August 2019 at 8:04 am

    Allen,
    Yes, thinning your shellac will certainly help.
    Also, the quality of the brush you’re using is very important.
    I suggest doing a Gopgle search for:
    “shellac brush”, this will return more information than I could reasonably cover here.
    Best,
    Craig

  45. Sergey Tyukin on 24 October 2019 at 7:57 am

    I’ve finished a small coffee table I made using this method. Four coats of shellac and wax polish. But after I put a small flower vase it left a mark on the table top. I had re-cut it with steel wool and re-apply the wax to clean the damage, which is still slightly visible.
    Did I do something wrong? I don’t want to rebuff my table top everyday and be afraid to put stuff on it.. 🙁

    • Izzy BergerTeam Member on 25 October 2019 at 4:38 pm

      Hi Sergey,

      Paul says:
      I would recommend making sure you aren’t putting anything wet directly on to the shellac finish. Shellac is not always a water resistant finish, and although i’ve never had trouble with mine, you could use either a waterborne finish like polyurethane, Danish oil, or something like that.

      Kind Regards,
      Izzy

  46. Federico Alpi on 3 March 2021 at 11:57 am

    very interesting video 👍 I have a question? what’s exactly the task of the shoe brush, in the end of the finishing process? do you need it to remove the wax excess from the grooves or is there anything more?

    • Izzy BergerTeam Member on 14 April 2021 at 9:29 am

      Hi,

      Paul says:
      The polishing brush gives the best overall shine, that’s all.

      Izzy

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