Shellac is a great tool for finishers and restorers because it has a myriad number of uses for furniture. This short blog will aim to quickly familiarize you with its applications in a professional restoration shop setting. That being said, this is merely an academic summation; I would strongly recommend you go out, buy your own shellac, and practice on some test pieces of 400 sanded grit boards. Experience is the best teacher.
Shellac is an natural resin produced by and arboreal insect called the Lac Bug. Today Lac Bugs are farmed on trees in both India and Indonesia, and their resin is used for: pill coatings in the pharmacology industry, an additive mixed into candy and edible products, and it is refined into dry flakes for wood finishing. In reference to its chemistry, Shellac liquid and shellac flakes are soluble in an alcohol solvent. They are not compatible with water, lacquer thinner, or a direct mixing with oil or organic petroleum solvents.
French Polishing is the art form of applying shellac resin by hand on furniture. It’s heyday was around the 1820’s in Europe, when pieces were being refinished and French polished to bring out the natural figure and chatoyance inherent in wood grain. This method of finishing was popular until the 1940’s, when nitrocellulose lacquer was developed, and became the industry standard for the next half a century. As a finish Shellac is not very durable; its very repairable, quite beautiful, and most importantly it’s chemically stable. When I say chemically stable I mean it can be left alone with very little care for over 100 years.
Should you get the opportunity to visit the Winterthur Furniture Museum in Delaware, I would highly recommend closely inspecting the Americana period pieces. Specifically check out the desks, high boys, and chests of drawers. Not only are the pieces masterfully made, their finishes are quite old and still going strong.
I recommend the following books to my students as required reading. The authors who wrote them put an incredible amount of hard work and information into them. They also happen to be interesting reads.
The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery, Gary Rogowski
The Art of Japanese Joinery, Kiyosi Seike
Chairmaker’s Notebook, Peter Galbert
The Complete Illustrated Guide to Box Making, Doug Stowe
Fine woodworking Magazine
The Furniture of Sam Maloof, Jeremy Adamson
Nature Form and Spirit, The life and legacy of George Nakashima, Mira Nakashima
Taunton’s Complete Illustrated Guide to Finishing, Jeff Jewitt
Woodworking as a discipline provides countless hours of fascination and discovery. Its examination of joinery and structural concepts connects us to our past, and lets us learn how modern day infrastructure has echoed those concepts over time. As you proceed to grow your skill sets, it’s important to awaken your observation skills and revel in the accomplishments of past artisans and masters. Not to judge their work, but to take it in, accumulate knowledge and let it grow over time.
Many friends and family members have oftentimes complained at how I “linger” or “fall behind,” when taking walks through architecturally sophisticated sections of metropolitan cities. The same can be said when I visit rural towns that exhibit subtle woodworking infrastructure. The building process is fascinating! I’m constantly caught up in the aesthetic and technical details, mathematical influences, and real world problem solving strategy that’s used around us all the time. Next time you come across a building or chair that catches your eye, ask yourself: How did they build that? What kind of joinery does it employ? When was is made? What kind of wood was it made out of? These “details” are usually not accidents; many times adept artisans use materials and building strategies for a reason. It’s your job to investigate the “whys”.
The art of building from scratch is a universal language. One that that speaks volumes, and becomes more exciting the more you learn. For example, take a look and some antique Windsor chairs, a shaker trestle table, or Japanese timber framing. These pieces use joinery, finishes, and negative space that will tell you about the skill level of the craftsman when they were alive. Their work is a recorded history that is just waiting silently to be discovered.
I’m happy to announce the creation of the Lynford Woodshop Blog. This platform serves as a base of information for woodworking students, hobbyists, and woodworking professionals. Topics that I will bring to the table include: furniture building, furniture restoration, finishing techniques, French polishing, prototyping and product development for designers, and basic level woodworking techniques.
As a forewarning to all readers, my disclosure is this: there are many ways to approach a build, problem solve (retro synthesis), and finish furniture. I can only give you my experience, and tell you what has worked for me in the past. This just means I have more experience with a particular skill set and I’ve done a lot of reading on a topic. However, I am merely one person, and I encourage you to read and find teachers nationally and internationally to expand your knowledge base. All of these skills are usually transfereable over time and with effort. Speaking of reading, you need to READ about the topics at hand. I heartily recommend published books, peer reviewed publications, and DVDS over the inter-webs as a source of reliable information. Wherever possible I will mention books from master wood workers and finishers. Look to their accumulated wisdom and enjoy the process! This woodworking adventure is your own, as such it should provide years of intellectual enjoyment and discovery. 🙂