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JOEL Joel's Blog

Getting Shellaced - part 2


First of all I got some interesting comments from Peter Follansbee on early mentions of shellac which suggest I'm all wrong. I got my dates screwed up. Here's the gist of what he says:

"Have you seen John Stalker & George Parker, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing (London & Oxford, 1688)

I don't have a copy, but have read excerpts; the best treatment is in Adam Bowett, English Furniture 1660-1714 From Charles II to Queen Anne (Antique Collectors Club, 2002).

I think it's the earliest descriptions of the use of various lac-based finishes, seed, shell and sandarac. Evelyn's Sylva (1664?) might mention shellac; but no description of its use...

I don't use these finishes; they haven't been identified in any studies/analysis of the more pedestrian furniture of early New England. This stuff is really high-brow in English work...

Bowett's book is excellent, great treatment of the style & construction of the period, but not the simple oak stuff..."

In other shellac news we have had tremendous problems first with shellac flakes caking up and then in some cases not dissolving. So we took all our shellac out of inventory until we could figure out what is wrong. Many phone calls and some practical testing later here is what we came up with:

When you heat up shellac and add humidity it starts polymerizing. What that means practically is that it won't dissolve.

Our shellac is shipped from overseas (India and Germany) in refrigerated containers. We repackage the shellac into plastic canisters which should have been air tight but turned out not to be. Then we store it in our largely unheated and uncooled warehouse.

During the fall, winter, and spring everything is fine. The screw top canisters while not air tight are fairly tight, and the temperature is ok. Then came last summer. It was really hot and the shellac fused in the bottles.

We tested the fused stuff and it dissolves no problem. But I think the longer it sits there the worse it can get. So we started getting complaints. Some from people who just didn't like the fused shellac and others who could not make it dissolve. At the time we didn't know why but since we do now we are taking the following steps:
Tossing all the shellac we have that is old / fused - unless we can test the canister and see that it's ok.
Starting again from fresh stuff.
Go back to sealed plastic bags until we can find a canister that's really air tight.
Get a refrigerator or something for summer shellac storage.

The garnet shellac we have is very very fresh. We have fresh amber that needs packing and we will get new blond and super blond in early January.

We are also tweaking our packing process to lower costs and to keep the increased storage costs from causing us to have to raise pricing - which we don't foresee now.

By the way the German shellac we stock has such large flakes that breaking up the flakes before adding alcohol speeds the dissolving process.

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Join the conversation
12/21/2009 Dick Culp
Re: Shellaced.
One of the easiest ways of preparing shellac flakes for solution is to use a small electric coffee grinder such as the Krups. Weigh out the flakes and, in small batches, put them in the grinder. After grinding (Do NOT pulverize) turn the grinder upside down and bang on the bottom to get all the particles into the lid. while still inverted, remove the lid and put them in the mixing container. Shake the mixture well and set aside. I suspect this method would work even with the fuzed stuff.
12/23/2009 Stephen Shepherd

If you have some fused shellac you can't sell, use it to make up some stopping or sealing wax.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.