Using Shellac as the Sealer Coat

By Bernie Bottens | Posted: 03/28/2014 9:49AM

 

Bernie Bottens how to finish wood I can tell you with certainty that retirement is one of those words known as an oxymoron. When one thinks of retirement, one conjures up mental images of golfing daily, traveling the world, and sharing drinks with pretty little umbrellas in them every evening at 5:00.

NOT!!!

For me, retirement came mid-year last year. Thereafter, we found a brand new house on a piece of property in the country…a place where we could live our “retired” lifestyle and where I could build a shop where I could fulfill my dreams of woodworking during retirement. So, there I found myself, in the three-car garage of my new house. It was stacked to the rafters with all of our “stuff” from the house we just vacated. I needed to get organized so that we could resume our chase for the “retired life.” I needed to get to work!

Organizing included installing some pulley systems that would allow me to store my two kayaks and mountain bikes up on the ceiling of the garage. Of course, there’s nothing to attach the pulleys to up there where the kayaks must go. I needed to make some plywood spanners to screw to the ceiling in way of the ceiling joists so that the pulleys could be located in their proper place between these structural members.

That decision was the easy part. Of course, I couldn’t just cut up some scrap plywood and slap them up. Not in my new taped, textured, and painted garage! I needed to do things right and sand the plywood properly and apply some finish to them so that they looked as nice as the rest of the garage.

I ran down to the local hardware store and grabbed a half pint can of polyurethane varnish. But silly me, I didn’t read the can before I got home.

There are several different flavors of polyurethanes available on the hardware store shelf. Some are water-borne and some are solvent-borne. Way back thirty years ago, I used to build furniture for our family and I used polyurethanes from the hardware store to finish those pieces. I learned then that polys are great as long as you have the time for them to dry and as long as you don’t mind that they amber with age.

Regarding my new can of poly; when one reads the label; one finds that it has a minimum 24 hour dry time between coats. For a guy like me that is used to spraying lacquers as the norm, 24 hours is an eternity. I kicked myself right then and there because I know that there are fast dry polys that recoat in about 4 hours. Why couldn’t I have picked that one off the shelf?

One thing has led to another over the course of getting our new house settled. I found more things that needed spanner boards hung in the garage. I found myself working on round II of that project last week…more sanding, coating, waiting, scuffing, and finish coating before installation.

Somewhere along that path, as I brushed out coats of polyurethane, I came to the conclusion regarding what I should have done in the first place. Here it is.

I should have gotten a can of the fast drying water-borne polyurethane. It dries really fast. I also should have gotten a can of de-waxed shellac to use as the first coat, the sanding sealer. Shellac also dries super quick so time could be saved there as well.

Why did I decide on that route, you ask?

Well, the answer is all about speed as well as what those two products do to create the same look as two coats of brush-grade solvent-borne polyurethane.

As I have already said, the speed of the drying and curing of these two products is what it’s all about when you want to get things done and move on. And the shellac, as a sealer coat will create the same look to the wood that the poly will. Allow me to explain.

All coatings wet the wood a little differently. Thus, they create a different look. The look that we are most used to is one that is like what the solvent-borne poly creates. It is a rich, amber, oiled look that is very pleasing to the eye.

Shellac, having been around for centuries, is the originator of that look and is, without a doubt, the picture in our mind’s eye of the timeless finish we have all grown to expect.

Water-bornes wet the wood in a noticeably different manner. They lack the warmth we are used to. Theirs is, depending upon the wood species, a very clear yet potentially pasty-looking finish. It tends to NOT be as rich, amber, oiled looking, and as pleasing to the eye. However, be advised that this is not universally true of every water-borne coating to the same degree.

So maybe that’s not what you want. The answer is to use shellac as a first coat. It wets the wood as we are used to seeing it plus it dries very quickly and scuff sands well. And, as a plus, it creates a good barrier coat that will help to protect the wood. The application of coats of water-borne poly on top of that adds a very clear and durable finish that will protect and look great for years. And a plus is that the water-borne will not yellow over time like the solvent-bornes will. Just be advised…the shellac will amber none the less. But a single seal coat won’t be excessive in that regard.

The down side, if there is one is twofold yet very minor. First, you must clean your shellac brush with de-matured alcohol as that is the ONLY solvent that dissolves shellac. Second, shellac that is sold as a liquid in a can has a shelf life. As the product ages in the can, it loses its quick dry/quick sanding abilities. Beware of the date stamp on the can when you buy it!

The traditional means of buying shellac is to purchase it in dry flakes and make your own by dissolving the flakes in alcohol. But that takes time. So, for me, the de-waxed shellac in liquid form in a can is the way to go.

Next week I am going to go into the subject of shellac in more detail. Please stay tuned as I discuss more on that subject including what makes waxed and de-waxed shellac what it is.

Until next time…spray on!

 


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About the Author

Bernie Bottens

Bernie Bottens (WoodworkingNetwork.com/blogs)writes and teaches on the subject of wood and wood finishing in industrial woodworking. He and his wife, Carol, live in Vancouver, WA. Bernie has been teaching wood finishing to shop owners, shop foremen, spray technicians and finishers all over Oregon, southwest Washington, and northern California for the past 9 years. Prior to that, he owned his own cabinet shop. His shop credentials include apprenticing and becoming a journeyman exhibit builder. Before that he taught in the public schools for 20 years. Bernie is the owner of Kapellmeister Enterprises, Inc. and Kap Coatings Consulting. Reach him at kapenterprises@msn.com.

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