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Finding Your Finish Part II: Shellac vs. Lacquer

Perhaps you read our post on oil-based vs. water-based finishes and we piqued your interest. While we not trying to sound like an infomercial… but wait, there’s more! Today, we’ll look at shellac and lacquer. Two popular choices, and each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Understanding these can help you make an informed decision that best suits your needs.

 

Shellac: A Time-Honored Classic

Shellac is made from a natural resin found in the sap of trees and scale insects. It’s loved for its warm, rich glow that enhances the natural beauty of wood. It's use as a wood finish can be dated back to the 13th century, but today, shellac is so much more! Shellac can be used as a brush-on colorant, sanding sealant, tannin-blocker, and odor-blocker. Fun fact: Because shellac is food safe, it’s a popular finish on baby toys; a common component in cosmetics and medications; and frequently used as a coating for candy (Bug covered candy? May have found motivation to start my diet!).

 

Benefits:

  • Aesthetic Appeal: Shellac imparts a warm, amber tone to the wood, which can deepen over time. This quality makes it ideal for antique restorations and projects where a vintage look is desired or intended.

  • Ease of Use: Shellac is relatively easy to apply with a brush, pad, or spray. It dries quickly, often within 30 minutes, allowing for multiple coats in a single day.

  • Repairability: One of the standout features of shellac is its ease of repair. Damaged areas can be easily sanded and new shellac can be blended seamlessly with old layers.

Drawbacks:

  • Durability: While shellac offers decent protection against water and alcohol, it is not as durable as some other finishes. It can be prone to scratches and heat damage, making it less suitable for high-traffic areas or surfaces exposed to moisture.

  • ·       Sensitivity: Shellac is sensitive to chemicals and can be easily dissolved by household cleaners and alcohol.


Lacquer: The Modern Choice

Move over bug juice! Lacquer gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1920s as a broad-use furniture finish due largely to its fast-drying time and durability for the time period. Its historically made from a solution of nitrocellulose with a solvent base, and best known for its high-gloss finish. (Today, lacquers can be found in most any sheen.)

Due to lacquer’s solvent base, it has the unique ability to “rewet” or “melt into” its previous layer—a quality that makes lacquer finishes easier to repair. This trait can also eliminate sanding between layers during the production process. This trait can also eliminate sanding between layers during the production process, which we can all agree is a HUGE bonus! (Seriously, who enjoys sanding?)

 

Benefits:

  • Durability: Lacquer is highly durable and resistant to heat, and many chemicals, making it an excellent choice for surfaces that will see heavy use, such as tabletops and kitchen cabinets.

  • Aesthetic Versatility: Lacquer can provide a range of finishes, from high gloss to satin, allowing for more versatility in the final appearance of the wood.

  • Fast Drying: Like shellac, lacquer dries quickly, enabling multiple coats in a single day. It also sands well between coats, ensuring a smooth, professional finish.


Drawbacks:

  • Complex Application: Applying lacquer can be challenging to spray, often requiring more expensive spray equipment to achieve the best results. This can make it less accessible for DIY enthusiasts without the proper tools.

  • Blushing: Because lacquer dries quickly, it is prone to trapping moisture under the dried finish, which than presents as a white haze. This is known as blushing, and is a significant problem in Florida due to our state’s high humidity. As we like to say here in Florida; it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity!

  • Health and Safety: Solvent-based lacquer emits strong fumes and contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), necessitating proper ventilation and protective equipment during application. In addition, lacquer is highly flammable.

  • If you’re a fan of lacquer finishes, the good news is that modern-day lacquers can often be found that are water-based, featuring a safer environmental impact and more user-friendly application, while still offering lacquer’s unique “melting” quality.


Making Your Choice: Which is Right for Your Project?

So, what are you looking for in your finish? Ease of application? Safer for the environment? Able to withstand everyday use? Made out of bugs…? 

Ultimately, both shellac and lacquer may have their place in your workshop. By considering the specific requirements of your project and the properties of each finish, you can select the one that will provide the best results and longevity for your hardwood masterpiece.


We love to get down, dirty, and nerdy here at Hardwood Lumber and Millworks! Feel free to visit us in person or email us at info@hardwoodlumberandmillwork.com if you need help determining which finish will best fit your needs. Also, be on the lookout for part three of our “finish series” comparing popular finishing oils in our next post!

 

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