Full Chisel Blog

November 5, 2008

Shellac, the unfiltered Truth

Filed under: Finishing,Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 2:54 pm

As you may well know shellac is bug poop, the exudation of a bug called Lacca lucifera that lives and dies on the twigs of fig trees.  It was introduced into Europe in the 1600’s or earlier with some confusion to Oriental Lacquer, hence its name.

Well it is collected and processed and we get it in all forms from ready made to its most basic form seed-lac, well stick-lac is cruder but it is difficult to acquire.  Seed-lac contains bug parts, parts of the fig tree, hair and other stuff and is shellac in its purest form.

While it is popular to filter or ‘de-wax’ shellac in an attempt to improve it, I think this is largely a waste of time and a waste of part of the properties of shellac.  Why de-wax?  It is not like it is beeswax or paraffin or carnauba that will interfere with gluing and finishing, it is a different kind of wax.


A square of cheesecloth, several layers thick is layed out and a small quantity of seed-lac is placed in the center.

 Cheescloth Bag

The four corners are brought up together and trussed up with a piece of jute twine and secured with a couple of overhand knots.  This is all the filtering I need, it keeps out the twigs and bug parts.  And this will be disposed of when finished, it can go into the garden, be composted or burned.

 A few minutes in alcohol

After just a few minutes in alcohol the essence starts to go into decoction, producing a rich color.  Shellac was originally used as a dyestuff for its red amber color.  It was then adapted as a finish and soon someone found out how to French Polish with the stuff.  It was also the first ‘hairspray’ and is used in food as ‘confectioners glaze’, food grade of course.

Soaking overnight

Notice the thick and creamy stuff on the bottom.  This is what it looks like after it has had a chance to sit and precipitate, overnight.  I stir the stuff up prior to using, but I do not ever filter this wonderful stuff out.

There are a variety of ways to apply shellac, brush, pad, fad but here is one that works great and is quite traditional.  It is a mouth atomizer and it allows me to spray the shellac onto my work.

Mouth Atomizer



  1. Hi Stephen,

    Remember — blow, don’t suck!

    In the past, I’ve let my seedlac dissolve in one jar, then used cloth to filter as I pour the juice into another jar. I’ll have to try the ‘tie it in a bag’ idea. Seems pretty obvious, but I didn’t think of it.

    Do you have a good source for seedlac? I use it for touch-up work, and sometimes would like something a little darker than what I have — a little darker.


    Comment by Ken Pollard — November 6, 2008 @ 9:38 am

  2. Ken,

    It is a syphon sprayer and I am certain I couldn’t suck hard enough to get it in my mouth, but I appreciate the warning. I tried a small brass screen container, but it turns black and darkens the shellac. I then went to cheesecloth which works fine, is inexpensive and can be recycled.

    I bought 5 pounds of the stuff about 5 years ago and still have a couple pounds. I got it from a place in Oregon I think, been a while. I will put some in an envelope and send you some to see if it fits your needs.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 6, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  3. Greetings. I know this is an old post but I just got into using shellac and wish to start mixing my own. Could you expand upon waxed vs dewaxed finishes. Some sources site more clarity and better water resistance with the dewaxed version. Thanks.

    Comment by Dylan — April 12, 2013 @ 8:15 am

  4. Dylan,

    I go into detail about this issue in my book Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint – Traditional 19th Century Woodworking Finishes. Basically dewaxing is a waste of time and removes many of the good stuff in raw shellac. The finish is so thin that clarity is never an issue and removing the wax that is in shellac makes the shellac less water resistant.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 12, 2013 @ 8:32 am

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