The Shellac Chronicles Part 2 (What you can do with the stuff)
OK, so you know how I discovered shellac, now I can tell you what it is and where it can be used. It seems that most shellac comes from NE India where lac bugs live. They eat sap from trees and then secrete a resinous substance that is soluble in alcohol. You use denatured alcohol or methylated spirits if you live in Europe though I am sure Vodka or Everclear would work fine. The alcohol is "denatured" so you won't drink it! If you are that interested you can read what Wikepedia has to say about shellac HERE.
I looked in every decorator book that I had and then my 1909 copy of Household Discoveries to see what shellac was used for. Here is what I found.
Besides being used as a varnish for wood, shellac is the main ingredient in sealing wax. Shellac is also used in certain types of paint and as a sealer for wood to prevent discoloration when painted. If you mix it with turmeric it can be used as a gold finish on brass. It can be used as a glue for china and is used to stiffen stencil card. It is edible and used to coat pills and apples. It used to be used to make records before vinyl was invented. You can seal plaster walls with it prior to painting, you can seal the knots in pine boards to prevent them from bleeding.
Shellac ranges in color from clear (which is bleached) through yellow to dark brown and the color is determined by the type of sap coming out of the trees that the bugs feed on. The color determination is seasonal also. The common colors are yellow, orange, garnet and brown. The darker colors are traditionally used on woods like cherry and walnut or for antiques. Shellac can be colored with any type of dye that dissolves in alcohol and the discovery of aniline dyes (coal tar) in the mid 19th century allowed furniture to appear to be made of different wood than it was. It also made colored shellac useful for painting on stained glass windows. (Think church windows here)
Shellac is "cut" with alcohol. A mix of 1 lb. of shellac in 1 gallon of alcohol is a 1# cut and is good for sealing wood. A 2# cut is 2 lbs. of shellac in one gallon of alcohol. This is good for novice shellackers to use on wood floors or trim. The cans of pre-mixed shellac are 3# cut and are easy to use after you know what to expect. You can actually buy cans of 5# cut which can be used on floors but I've never tried it.
Now that I knew all this there was one thing left to do, buy some, but where? I found THESE PEOPLE and ordered some in various colors. I bought a gallon of denatured alcohol at Home Depot and at the same time saw that they sold quarts of Zinsser amber shellac which cost $6.50 at that time (now its $10 in a post Katrina/tsunami/Florida hurricanes world) so I bought a quart and decided to play with it!
In the next post I will show you some of the things I did during my experimental stage. I wasn't prepared to ruin my woodwork unless I knew what I was ruining it with!