2020 has been filled with a multitude of challenges for all of us! In an effort to push forward and adapt with these difficult times, I decided to blow off steam and expand my skillsets by learning traditional Scandinavian slöyd woodworking and carving techniques. These time honored carving techniques allow woodworkers to step outside of a shop, and literally carve outdoors. This skill set let me pack up a small collection of hand tools (Sloyd knife, Hatchet, and hook knives) and start collecting fallen branches and eventually fallen trees as a source of free wood to hand carve!
As the months progressed and cabin fever began to set in, I spent more time outdoors scouring local forests and trails when and weather time permitted. That being said, Large local storm fronts became fortuitous events because the larger the storm, the better the tree fall. This meant free wood! Learning this art form forced me outside on adventures to go collect tree branches and learn how to make spoons and spatulas out of them. As I did so, I began to learn a ton about the makeup of local flora, and what tree species were thriving locally. Very quickly a few large realizations hit me like a ton of bricks. I had no idea how to process a tree trunk. Really?
Up until this point, I could carve a solid mahogany ball and claw Philadelphia style corner chair, build a Nakashima reproduction coffee table, and recreate a Hans Wegner influenced bent lamination chair. Routinely, clients would find me for the most advanced joinery solutions and mission impossible restorations, yet I couldn’t tell you how to split a log. Wow. This and many other servings of fresh humble pie were served up and sent my way as the year progressed.
Shellac is a great tool for finishers and restorers alike 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, and 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 a natural resin produced by an 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 both soluble in an alcohol solvent. They are not compatible with water, lacquer thinner, or direct mixing with oil or organic petroleum solvents.
Traditionally, restorers sourced bags of refined flakes and melted them down ahead of time before restoring a piece of furniture. Melted flakes gives a restorer control of the shellac viscosity, working properties, and some interesting color choices. For example, flakes can be purchased in a variety of states of refinement with different wax contents. The higher the wax content, the easier is can be applied by hand because the shellac is more malleable and can be burnished more easier via French polishing. This makes sense, because more wax means less friction during application.
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 then became the industry standard for the next half a century. As a finish Shellac is not very durable. However, it is 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.
In a professional setting I like to employ 4-5 different kinds of shellac in my finishing arsenal. For rich color and quality during French polishing I use Blonde flakes from BT@C, which can be purchased online from woodcraft.com. If I want to create a slight ambering effect to mimic a patina, or cover over a color matched area to build a topcoat quickly, I like to use Garnet flakes. Garnet flakes have undergone the least amount of chemical refinement and so they are darker, and have a higher wax content. This allows me to French polish an area and build much quicker then by using Blonde alone.
Two other useful shellac products I always keep in inventory are Shellac clear and Seal coat. These are both produced by Zinssner, are premelted in a can, and can be purchased at a local Home Depot. They are go to staples, the most affordable and also have several uses each. Shellac clear has a high wax content which makes is easier to apply and build quickly. However, as such, it’s higher wax content acts like mixed solids in a lacquer that disperse light. This creates a softer more satin sheen to a French polish. Therefore, if you know a head of time that a client wants a satin sheen finish as an end product, this kind of shellac is a great tool for getting there quickly. Seal coat is a highly refined blonde shellac in a can; ranging from a pint to a full gallon in volume. It has a great color, and works quite well in a spray booth setting to spray color; or used as a topcoat to lock in a color underneath it. Typically I stay away from it when French polishing because it has a very low wax content, so it’s more physical work to apply it and get it down smoothly and uniformly on a piece of furniture. It drys harder and looks great, but I reserve it for the spray booth where it can be more functional. Seal coat’s low wax content is ideal for this application because it can then be used in conjunction with other finishes on top of it.
Hopefully this small write up will encourage you to get out there, take some small risks, and go play with these products to learn about them yourself. Experience as your teacher will tell you which shellac you like to use in your own shop. Also, for a great source of information, I would highly recommend reading Jeff Jewitt’s book: The Complete Illustrated Guide to finishing. It’s like finishing bible for this esoteric artform, and has soo much good information that it might blow your mind. Additionally, 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 their collection of desks, high boys, and chests of drawers. Not only are the pieces masterfully made, their traditional finishes are 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. 🙂