What is Shellac Wood Finish?: Colors, Uses, Advantages & Disadvantages

Applying Shellac finish on wood log cut surface.

If you want a warm-colored finish for your wood projects, you can try using a shellac finish. Shellac differs from other oil finishes like tung oil and linseed oil because it doesn’t come from seeds. 

Instead, it comes from a resin that the female lac bug secretes on trees. You can find this lac bug in Thailand and India, and the makers of Shellac collect this resin and process it. Afterward, they sell it as dry flakes that you can dissolve in alcohol to produce liquid Shellac.

Shellac, like tung oil and linseed oil, has been used since time immemorial. Shellac comes in various colors ranging from transparent to garnet. When applied to wood, it can enhance the natural look of the wood. Finishing wood is necessary to protect the wood from damaging elements, and one of the natural finishes you can use is Shellac which forms a film on the wood surface to protect the wood.

Range of Shellac Colors

As mentioned, shellac colors range from transparent to garnet, including dark brown, yellow, and orange. Yet, the tree from where the lac resin is taken usually determines the resulting shellac color. You can choose the shellac color that best suits the wood you will finish. If you would finish walnut or mahogany, you can use orange or amber Shellac to imbue these woods with additional color richness. 

You can also tint with specific colors your shellac finish. Thus, you can try to match its color to the existing color of the furniture you would like to repair. Besides, all shellac finishes produce a glossy sheen. 

The color of the Shellac gets usually conditioned by the tree sap on which the lac bug inhabits. Yet, the most common shellac color you can buy is orange Shellac which gets extensively utilized along with other stains and wood protectants. 

Advantages Using Shellac on Wood

The use of Shellac comes with many advantages. If you are a beginner in woodworking, it will be best to know these advantages to help you decide whether shellac finish is best for your initial woodworking projects:

Usable with Other Finishes

You can use Shellac alongside other finishes. However, you will have trouble applying polyurethane on wood with a shellac finish because Shellac has a natural wax content. You can use de-waxed Shellac if you want to use it with polyurethanes.


Since Shellac comes from the resin produced by lac bug, it is a completely natural finish. Thus, it is eco-friendly and doesn’t harm the environment. It is also non-toxic and doesn’t carry harmful smells or fumes. 

Quick Drying

Shellac is a quick-drying finish. Unlike other finishes, which take several hours and days to cure, Shellac dries within thirty minutes. 

Provides Hard Finish

Shellac produces a hard finish that appears natural. Once applied to wood, it will appear as if it doesn’t have a coating. 

UV Light Resistant

Shellac is highly resistant to UV light. Besides, it doesn’t discolor or turns yellowish over time. You can use Shellac under topcoats like lacquer, polyurethane, and lacquer. 

Allows for Cold Temperature Application

When applying Shellac, you can use it even if the temperature is cold. Other finishes require a higher temperature when you apply them. However, you can apply Shellac even if the temperature is 5°C or below. Thus, you don’t need to worry about Shellac not correctly drying.

Easy to Apply

The main advantage of using Shellac is its ease of use and repair. You can easily scrape off the old Shellac using alcohol. You can also apply Shellac on old or existing Shellac. Besides, it can blend and dissolve with the old layer. 

Disadvantages of Using Shellac on Wood

Aside from knowing the succinct advantages of the use of Shellac, it will also help to know the following disadvantages concomitant with the use of Shellac:

Not that Durable

Shellac finish is not known for its sterling durability. As such, you will find it susceptible to damage. Alcohol can also easily damage the shellac finish, dissolving the finish eventually. Thus, you can reapply Shellac to cover the cracks and scratches. Moreover, it is not heat-resistant. Therefore, you should avoid putting any hot object or pan on top of it. 

Not Water-resistant

Another downside of the use of Shellac is its not being water-resistant. Thus, you can’t use it in areas exposed to high humidity. Besides, it will develop a whitish tinge if exposed to moisture.

Limited Shelf-life

If you mix it with alcohol, Shellac has a shortened shelf-life of around six months. Moreover, if you mix Shellac that already exhibits polymerization, it may only dry partially.

How is Shellac Manufactured?

As a natural finish, Shellac gets derived from the lac beetle cocoon. The cocoon gets hand-scraped and placed on a dry sheet. It is not easy to produce Shellac. In fact, it will take three hundred thousand lac beetles to produce a kilogram of lac. From this lac comes the finishing product called Shellac. 

Once the sheets of lac have been dried and broken into thin flakes, the flakes get combined with denatured alcohol. This mixture then gets applied to the wood surface. Furthermore, you can buy Shellac in flakes form. You can also buy Shellac, premixed with alcohol. 

When Should You Use Shellac?

Compared to other modern finishes, Shellac seems to be outmoded and obsolete. It had seen its heyday when it was popular for making phonograph and gramophone records. 

However, it got replaced by vinyl LP records. Likewise, in the 19th century, Shellac replaced wax and oil finishes as the favorite finishes for wood. However, nitrocellulose lacquer later replaced it in the 1920s. At present, you can still use Shellac in the following instances:

As a Primer Finish

Shellac, as mentioned above, is somewhat obsolete, but you can still use it for primer finish because it bonds well with other finishes.

French Polish Technique

You can use Shellac in the French polish technique. Thus, you can use Shellac if you need to restore any finish using the French polish method.

Food-grade Finish

If you are the type of craftsman who wants a food-grade finish, you can always go for Shellac as a good option. It is safe even for finishing wooden utensils and other items used for serving food. 

Perfect for Exotic Wood

You can use Shellac for all types of wood. You can also use it for finishing cherry and pine. Besides, you can use it for finishing tropical and exotic woods. 

How Do You Apply Shellac?

If you buy Shellac in flake form, you can mix it with methylated spirits. You can buy these industrial-grade spirits from paint shops or hardware stores. However, buying a household variety of methylated spirits containing water might degrade the finish. White Shellac is bleached and dewaxed for a clearer finish. You can use this Shellac on blonde wood or timber. 

You can use a French polisher’s mouse or rubber to apply Shellac. This tool consists of a cotton piece wadding wrapped around a cotton-piece cloth. Moreover, the wadding serves as the holding container for Shellac. Furthermore, you can control the flow of Shellac by applying less or more pressure to the cotton. This method is an effective way of applying a shellac finish to the wood.

You can also apply the Shellac using a rag, sprayer, or brush. As a caveat, you should only apply it along the wood grain direction. It will be best likewise to apply three to four shellac coats to completely finish the flooring or furniture. 

You can also apply the Shellac using a rag, sprayer, or brush. As a caveat, you should only apply it along the wood grain direction. Applying three to four shellac coats to finish the flooring or furniture will be best. 

You can seal the wood by applying the first shellac coat. This first coat also serves as a protective coat. Then, sand the wood surface after applying each coat. Besides, you should let each coat dry entirely before applying the next coat. 

The second coat provides more body to the finish, allowing you to sand and polish the surface afterward. Then, you can apply the final coating and allow it to dry entirely. You can repeat the final coat until you get the best finish for your wood. 

Will Shellac Provide Wood With a Good Finish?

Shellac provides the wood with a natural finish that enhances the wood grain. It is easy to use and versatile. It offers a smoothness that also works as a moisture barrier and sealer. Nevertheless, it doesn’t produce the plastic-like appearance of lacquer and polyurethane. 

Shellac will not fade or turn yellow as it ages. Besides, it provides the wood surface with resistance to UV light. Thus, the finish remains good and maintains its integrity over time. 

You can easily apply Shellac and expect a mellow and refined finish for your wood. This finish provides mahogany and walnut woods excellent finish. Moreover, the shellac finish is perfect for executing the French polish technique for fine furniture. 

When it comes to durability, you can expect Shellac to be relatively durable and maintain its high glossiness over time. However, Shellac is relatively durable because heat can affect it. So, it will be best if you refrain from putting hot coffee mug or hot pans on it. 

You can brush the Shellac onto the wood. But it will be best to rub the Shellac if you are finishing furniture and cabinets using a clean cloth. 


Those who collect Shellac from trees scrape the tree bark where Kerria lacca, a female bug, resides. This lac bug secretes the resin, forming a tunnel-like tube that slithers the tree branches. These tunnels look like cocoons, but they are not cocoons. 

Shellac, at present, is still used for wood finishing. It provides a natural finish to wood that is non-toxic. Moreover, it is UV-light resistant and if you want to go traditional with your wood finishing, going for a shellac finish is one of your best options.

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