Jefferson Bookcases #9: First shellac

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Blog entry by Dave Polaschek posted 08-14-2020 07:14 PM 348 reads 0 times favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 8: Cleaning up a dovetail Part 9 of Jefferson Bookcases series Part 10: Second shellac »

After prepping the case, it’s time for shellac. I start by laying the case on its front and putting a coat of shellac on the back.

I mix my shellac with 2oz of shellac flakes to 12oz of alcohol (by volume). This is near a 1.5 pound cut. I use pint salsa jars, and that gets the jar full enough that I can completely cover a case, but leaves enough headroom in the jar that I can still shake it to dissolve the shellac.

This isn’t going to be seen, so I just put it in pretty quickly and move on. Next, the case goes on its top (or bottom) and a coat goes on. For the outsides of the dovetails, I cover each end first, then come back and fill in the middle. I make sure to get plenty of shellac into the end grain of the dovetails. I want them to look completely wet.

I’m using a 1” chip brush, and I load it as full as I can without dripping shellac. For a first coat, this will cover about 20 square inches, or half that if it’s end grain. I’m putting the shellac on pretty thick at this point, but it’ll soak in and still dry before I put the side I just did down so I can finish the opposite side.

After doing the outside, I do the inside of the side that’s down.

Then I rotate the case 90 degrees clockwise, and do the next pair of outside and inside.

After repeating that for all four sides, I go around a second time, giving those four sides a second coat.

My goal for coverage is that the first coat should get some shellac on every bit of exposed wood. The second time around should build on that. I’m not particularly worried about edges as I move fast enough that I’m almost always applying shellac to a wet edge. But if there’s a spot that shows a seam, I can fix that on the second coat, or on the second day.

Then I lay the case on its back, and do the front edges and the inside of the back of the case. The inside and outside of the back only get one coat today instead of two. They’re going to see less wear, and I think they’ll be fine.

I’m also not super careful about dust at this stage. If I see a piece of sawdust or a shaving in the shellac, I just pull it out (that’s one of the reasons for the blue gloves) and put a dab of shellac on the spot where it was. I’m not trying to make a mess, but I will be sanding this lightly and applying more shellac tomorrow, so I can fix any small problems.

Then I set the case on a labeled piece of cardboard so I know how far I’ve gotten on it.

I have three cases in progress most of the time. One glued up, in clamps. One with one coat of shellac, and one with two coats of shellac.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

6 comments so far

View James E McIntyre's profile

James E McIntyre

890 posts in 2140 days

#1 posted 08-14-2020 08:42 PM

Looks great! Nice hand cut dovetails.
I’ve never used shallac flakes but I’d like to try it.
What type of alcohol do you use?

-- James E McIntyre

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5841 posts in 1430 days

#2 posted 08-14-2020 09:30 PM


I get my shellac from Shellac Shack. Malcolm has been good about shipping quickly, and this project qualified me for the volume discount (more than 5 pounds of flakes).

I just use the gallon cans of Kleen Strip denatured alcohol from the hardware store. I generally have two salsa jars of the shellac I’m using mixed up. One that’s completely dissolved, and one that was mixed up yesterday, and still has some flakes in the bottom that haven’t dissolved yet. Each case takes a whole salsa jar, so when I empty one, I dump out the last little bit, swish it with a tablespoon or so of alcohol, then mix up a new batch.

I store the flakes in the shop fridge, next to the Mexican Coca Cola, and during normal times, when I’m not using shellac this fast, the mixed jar is also in that fridge. Right now, I’m going through it so fast, I don’t need to worry about it spoiling,

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View Oldtool's profile


3026 posts in 3039 days

#3 posted 08-14-2020 11:19 PM

Nice work Dave, coming along nicely.
Shellac is a very forgiving finish, any obvious runs or streaks or any abnormalities can readily be corrected with the next coating. The alcohol in the shellac mixture dissolves the previous coat somewhat and helps with blending the two coats for seamless appearance.

I’ve mixed shellac for projects, but have since preferred the Zinsser Bulls Eye premixed out of the can. It’s very thin and coats go on smooth, by brush or rag, and being alcohol based, it can be tinted with a few drops of TransTint dye if color is desired. Have to get the de-waxed version, called SealCoat, if any other product is to be used over the shellac.

One thing I’ve tried and like, is to use 4 O steel wool between coats, doesn’t seem to make any dust but still knocks down the nibs.

Guess I’m done rambling, nice work on Mr. Jefferson’s bookcases ......

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5841 posts in 1430 days

#4 posted 08-15-2020 01:10 AM

Thanks, Tom. Yeah, it’s forgiving, and I was planning about writing more about that tomorrow. It’s part of why I feel safe kind of slopping on the first couple coats. Plus, so much gets absorbed into the pine on that first coat that if I didn’t put it on fairly thick, I’d need a lot more coats.

I’ve tried the pre-mixed stuff, but shellac has a shelf life once it’s mixed, and I’ve encountered stuff that was old and wouldn’t set. Never have that problem when I’m mixing it from flakes myself, plus I have four different colors of shellac on hand.

Between coats, I generally use 320 or 400 grit wet-dry paper, and just give it one swipe. Knocks off any dust nibs, handles any grain that got raised, and the subsequent coat goes on pretty smooth. If I want, I can pad on that last coat and lean toward a french polish finish, or I can do like I am with these cases and just stick with the brush.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View LittleBlackDuck's profile


5425 posts in 1669 days

#5 posted 08-15-2020 04:42 AM

... I dump out the last little bit, swish it with a tablespoon or so of alcohol, then mix up a new batch….. I don’t need to worry about it spoiling,
- Dave Polaschek

Probably preaching to the converted, but just in case others may not know…

“dead” shellac diluted 10:1 (depending on your cut… though not super critical) makes a great sanding sealer.

-- If your first cut is too short... Take the second cut from the longer end... LBD

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5841 posts in 1430 days

#6 posted 08-15-2020 12:23 PM

Sounds like a waste of good alcohol to me, Ducks. I use my normal 1.5 pound cut mix as a sealer, but the only “dead” shellac I’ve ever had was commercial stuff. Simpler just to toss it and make up some I know is fresh, at least to my mind.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

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