Finishing is often a very stress-inducing part of any woodworking project. You’ve put a lot of time and effort into a project, and the last thing you want to do is mess it up at the very last step. Today, we’ll share how to apply shellac and wax in a simple and foolproof manner.
What is shellac, exactly?
Shellac is one of the oldest finishes around. It’s made from the resin secreted by the lac bug, which is deposited on trees in India and Thailand. The residue is harvested, refined and sold either as flakes or in premixed form. Shellac comes in a variety of colors, from super blonde, which is nearly colorless, to garnet, which will impart a rich red/brown tint to your wood, along with every tint in between. In addition, tints can be added to shellac to achieve a custom look.
Finishing cherry wood with shellac and wax
Here’s what you’ll need to get started. The easiest way to get into finishing with shellac is to use premixed shellac. This is readily available at most home centers.
Different colors of shellac can appear lighter or darker, as can be seen here.
You will also want to get some ethanol, which acts as a solvent. Denatured alcohol is also readily available at most home centers, but be ware that this product is ethanol that usually has had methanol added to it to prevent people from ingesting it. Methanol is highly toxic, even in small quantities. There are other versions of denatured alcohol that use agents besides methanol. Check the label to be sure. You can also use 190 proof Everclear as a solvent for shellac as well. This is more expensive than denatured alcohol, but you don’t have to worry about toxic ingestions.
For applying the shellac, some rags will be needed. Old T-shirts can be cut up for this. The rag in this picture has been used for applying shellac before, but it can be reused for the same purpose. In addition, some brown paper bags will be used.
Finally, paste wax. This will be the last step in the finishing process. Paste wax comes in various tints and sheens, from shiny to more matte in appearance.
Applying the shellac
The first step in finishing cherry wood is to be sure that the surfaces of your project are as smooth as possible, whether you sanded, scraped or planed the surfaces of your project. Holding the project up to a light at a low angle will help you identify scratches or spots that are not quite smoothed out. You can spray or wet the surface with the alcohol, which will reveal any flaws in the wood. The alcohol will evaporate off in a short time after you’ve had a chance to check the wood.
The next step is to apply the shellac. Although shellac can be applied straight from the can, I usually dilute the shellac to start. It is easier to apply multiple thinner coats of shellac than it is one thick coat. I usually start with a mixture of one part shellac from the can with one part alcohol.
Once you’ve done this, you can wad up your rag, dip it into the shellac and wipe on the finish. It may feel like you’re just wiping the surface with a wet rag.
But you should quickly see a change in the appearance of the grain, along with a color change depending on how dark your shellac is. In this picture, shellac has been applied to just the right side of the board. You should be able to see darker color on the right, along with the popping of the grain on the right side compared to the unfinished left side.
The good news is, the alcohol should dry fairly quickly. You could wipe on one coat, and come back in an hour or so for the next one. If you’re more impatient, make the shellac more dilute by adding more alcohol. You’ll have to apply more coats, but each application may dry so fast that by the time you’re done covering your project, you can start with the next coat right away.
If you happen to miss a spot when applying a coat, don’t worry. Shellac has the property of being able to redissolve in alcohol. Because of this, if you go over the missed spot with more shellac, the alcohol will melt the new layer of shellac into the older one, so there will be no trace of the area that you missed.
Keep applying shellac until you get the look that you want. More shellac will result in a thicker, shinier finish. You can also apply fewer finishes to get a “close to the wood” appearance. The final appearance is up to you.
Once you’ve applied the last coat of shellac, take the brown paper bag and rub it over your project. This will remove any dust nibs that might have accumulated during the wiping on of the shellac.
Don’t throw away your old rag. Instead, let it dry out and then store it in a paper bag. The next time you want to apply some shellac, you can reuse this rag, assuming that you are using the same color of shellac, as the alcohol will dissolve any shellac left over from the previous use.
Finishing with paste wax
Now you can start your final step, which is applying the paste wax. Use a different rag for this, and apply a thin layer of wax. Like with the shellac, it’s better to apply multiple thin layers than one thick layer of wax. You won’t need very much wax for this. Buff out the wax with a clean rag when you’re done, and then admire the beautiful finish you’ve put on your project.
As with the shellac, rags used for wax can be reused. I usually put the rag back into the can of paste wax so it will be there the next time I want to apply wax to a project.
Repairability and considerations
As you can see, this is an easy way to apply a beautiful finish to your project. In addition, if the finish gets damaged, shellac is very easy to repair. As mentioned before, shellac can redissolve in alcohol, so applying more shellac will invisibly blend the new shellac into the old shellac finish. Simply wipe on more shellac to that area, and finish with wax again. Shellac is also non-toxic, so it can be used as a food-safe finish.
There are some downsides to shellac and wax, however. Shellac does not hold up well to liquids, so it may not be the best option for a table top that people might eat off of or put drinks down on. But in many cases, shellac and wax provides a very easy way to finish your woodworking project.