Finishing - Try Natural Shellac


Two varieties of Shellac: Dewaxed Platina on left and Natural Golden on right

India is the world's primary supplier of Shellac. The tropical jungles of eastern India (whatever little is left of them) continue to yield tons of laac smeared twigs that are processed into usable Shellac.

Shellac or laac (as it is known locally) has been around in India for centuries and has been used as an effective wood finish for as long. The use of Shellac in finishing travelled to the West following the arrival of European seafaring traders in the 16th and 17th century.

Today, most wood finishers seem to prefer the de-waxed, bleached variety of Shellac. Natural Shellac is golden, orange or garnet in colour and full of a type of wax.

De-waxed Shellac comes in many varieties differentiated chiefly by the extent of bleaching. Shellac from which wax has been removed is usually of a golden or garnet tint. This Shellac is then bleached to different extents, producing variants such as Platina, Blond and so on.

De-waxed Shellac is virtually colourless, dries very hard and adheres to virtually any surface. This variety is most widely used in the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills and capsules.

Many woodworkers claim this is the best type of Shellac for finishing. In India, however, woodworkers traditionally have always used, and continue to use, natural Shellac for finishing.

There are varieties or grades of natural Shellac as well, starting with seedlac, which is an unfiltered first stage of Shellac production where the bodies of the microscopic insects that produce laac are present. This Shellac is distinctly orange in colour and is the most widely available in Indian hardware shops.

The next type is called button laac; this variety has some of the wax and most impurities (dirt and dead insect bodies) removed and is pressed into large button like shapes.

The third variety is purified Shellac which still retains its natural wax. This comes in the form of fine flakes and in a variety of colours, including Lemon, Garnet and Golden.

I tested some natural Golden Shellac and loved it. The flakes dissolve quickly and easily in spirit (rectified alcohol) to form a dark cloudy finish. (see photograph).

The two trays have been given a couple of coats of Shellac: the left is one finished with Natural Golden and the right one with Dewaxed Platina. In the foreground are pieces of the original Pine used in makig the trays.

I tried some of it on a pine tray and was very pleased with the splendid golden colour that it imparted. The Platina de-waxed Shellac, on the other hand, did not tint the wood.

Clearly, the choice of Shellac depends on personal preferences but the notion that Shellac with wax is inappropriate for finishing is not correct. It would of course be a wrong choice if Shellac is being used as a sealer over which some other finish such as polyurethane is to be applied.

Natural Shellac dries as hard as the de-waxed type but is easier to use for French Polishing on account of the wax it contains. The use of de-waxed Shellac in French polishing requires the use of some kind of oil which needs to be removed later on. Natural Shellac does not require the use of any oil and the wax seems to bond well with the Shellac.

Traditional finishers in India, at one time, would add various resins such as rosin (Pine resin) gum Copal and Sandarac to add shine, hardness and so on to the Shellac polish. These techniques are mostly lost. But the use of the much cheaper "natural" Shellac varieties, some of which like Natural Lemon are extremely light, continues and has much to recommend itself.

Indranil Banerjie
24 March 2017

Comments

  1. can you please let me know the local market name of "dewaxed" lakh dana in hindi?

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, I can not say because this kind of Shellac is not used locally

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  2. Hi I'm from chennai and a lover of wood products.... how u been....it's a well designed blog all about wood....
    Can u suggest few tools from which I can start making small products...

    As I known when we use wooD we encourage deforestation... for trees which take about 50 years to grow... and there are other woods used mainly in united states which are soft as they use for making homes...they grow faster within 5 years.... what's your perception on this last point.
    And it would be a help... I'm a designer and love to make wood products... if you can give some lists of woods which doesn't lead to deforestation or which takes 50 years long to grow... the use will be for making
    furniture products, and other design products which have twists n turns...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For tools to start off read this: http://indiandiy.blogspot.in/2012/02/indian-home-workshop-essential-tools.html

      A lot of cheap imported SPF from the West and New Zealand is widely available all over India. You could try them.

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  3. Hi my name is Akshata, and I have recent taken up a few wood (work/restoration) projects. The wonderful internet has been helpful till now but I seem to have a bit a wall when dealing with raw neem wood. I was wondering if you could help me some info on its tendencies. The wood is in slices and logs and has been cured with nolove at all. One of my other problems involves sanding... all videos i watch show the natural grain emerge so beautifully as it is sanded, mine remains foggy and grey...
    Please help.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Akshata, would have loved to help but cannot comment on your wood without actually seeing it. Also, need does not have very prominent figure as far as my limited knowledge of the wood goes. Suggest you show it to your local carpenter as the wood should not be grey in colour.

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    2. Thanks so much for replying. Grey might not be the most accurate description... but I think I hAve figured it out. 1. The grain is naturally not dramatic 2. I was just not sanding it enough.

      Would love to share pictures and notes...
      Akshatamukund@gmail.com

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  4. Nice blog !!! Awesome posts & information, i had Liked Your Blog & way Of Writing The Posts In Your website,Please Share More Information in Your Blog,Keep Going On And All The Best

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for all the information! I'm trying to restore an old rosewood box and I'm thinking of using shellac for finishing the surface. I'm having some difficulty sourcing shellac in Bangalore. Do you have any idea where I could source it from? Any reliable online source for instance?

    Also would you have any advice on finishing old rosewood slabs?

    I'm really glad I found this blog!

    Abhiram Kaushik

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Two varieties of Shellac - seedlac and button lac - are usually quite widely available in all parts of India. There are no online sources for this though. I am not familiar with Bangalore but have been told that Shellac of the forms mentioned are widely available. You will have to ask around a bit preferably in the market where woodworking products or paint products are sold.

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