Homebrew shellac

When it comes to finishes, I don’t use very many.  I try to avoid all the whiz-bang modern stuff that barely has a label for all the health warnings on it.  If I need to suit up in order to use a finish, I’m not going to use it.

So my options are basically limited to:

  • Vegetable-based oils, specifically linseed or pure tung oil (NOT hardware store stuff)
  • Wax
  • Milk paint (though on occasion I will use an acrylic latex which I’ll cover later)
  • Shellac

I’ve seen soap finishes before, but I don’t use it.  I also don’t tend to use many stains or dyes unless I’m specifically asked to.  But today we want to talk about shellac.

You can buy shellac at the hardware store.  Comes in a regular paint can, ready to go.  But I don’t use that stuff for several reasons.  For one thing, shellac has a finite shelf life.  It’s a natural material (the secretions of the lac bug), and so it will break down.  The stuff in the hardware store is far from fresh.  I’ve not been very happy with it when I used it before.  It took a long time to dry and never did seem to get fully hard cured.  In addition, the alcohol in it for a solvent is denatured with methanol (Go ATF!).  There’s a MSDS here, but the pertinent part is

“Because of the slow elimination, methanol should be regarded as a cumulative poison.”

Thanks, but no.

So what to do?  Mix your own!  It’s not as quick, and more expensive, but it’s a better result with more flexibility and less danger.  That’s worth it to me, for as much as I’m around this stuff.

So, we start with some shellac flakes (I buy mine here) and some alcohol.  The purer the alcohol is, the better, so I get the best I can.  It keeps the Commies from introducing a foreign substance into our precious bodily fluids.


Your measuring technique should not be “One for the finish, and one for me.  One for the finish, and one for me…”.  I make small batches, so I redid the math on the package one time.  It’s not lazy, it’s efficient.


Measure out the alcohol and shellac flakes and the lime and the cocoanut into your container (I use an old mason jar).  The best scale I’ve found for this is this one.  It’s very precise.


Finally, let it sit overnight.  Make sure there aren’t any big clumps or it will slow it up (that whole surface area idea).  Agitating can make it go faster if you’re in a real hurry.  And that’s all there is to it!

Now, I use two grades of shellac.  I use garnet on most woods that are brown or red.  Walnut, cherry, oak, etc.  It really deepens the colour, but without really changing it.  I think of it like cooking chicken soup.  Yeah, you can make it with just water.  But with a proper stock base, it’s a much fuller flavour.  Sort of like that.  For pine (if I’m not painting it) or maple, I use the blond.  It has a much more evanescent feel that suits the lighter woods.

So give homebrew shellac a try.  I wager you’ll dump the hardware store stuff.