Shellac - the Miracle Finish (?) A little help here?

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Forum topic by BigMig posted 09-06-2021 07:56 PM 841 views 0 times favorited 13 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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655 posts in 3902 days

09-06-2021 07:56 PM

Topic tags/keywords: shellac denatured alcohol rubbing pad wax watco seal coat zinsser

Hey Y’all. I’m working to put finish on a small maple table top (17×24) and I’m having trouble. Here’s what I’ve done so far:
  • sanded through progressive grits to 320
  • wiped down the top
  • applied one application of Watco Danish Oil, refreshing it for 15 minutes before wiping it down to remove any weeping – and continued wiping/checking it for a couple hours
  • left it overnight
  • made a “pad” – smaller than a baseball with cotton inside and t-shirt wrapped around and rubber banded
    took Zinsser Seal Coat, diluted it (about 2 parts SC to 1 part Denatured alcohol) and began padding it on.
  • streaks went away with additional applications, but new streaks appeared. I always applied with the grain. And I applied each wipe next to the previous one.
  • After many of these sessions, I took steel wool and wax and rubbed it out, but swirl marks looked terrible.

It never looks evenly applied. I’m very frustrated. Maybe I should have stuck with Danish oil and maybe Arm R Seal after that.

Thoughts/suggestions/jokes at my expense? :—)

-- Mike from Lansdowne, PA

13 replies so far

View dbw's profile


635 posts in 2926 days

#1 posted 09-06-2021 08:39 PM

+1 on using Danish Oil and Arm-R-Seal instead. Also: I think sanding to 320 is not necessary. If the wood is too smooth the finish won’t attach itself very well. I doubt this has anything to do with the streaks, though.

-- Woodworking is like a vicious cycle. The more tools you buy the more you find to buy.

View CWWoodworking's profile (online now)


2295 posts in 1468 days

#2 posted 09-06-2021 08:41 PM

Do you have a air compressor? Spraying is much easier.

If you want to hand apply, I would definitely use arm r seal over shellac.

I would never use shellac as a top coat.

View splintergroup's profile (online now)


6048 posts in 2511 days

#3 posted 09-06-2021 08:43 PM

#1 is to let the oil dry for at least 72 hours, longer if cool or humid.

Padding shellac isn’t difficult, but it does take practice. The Zin is a 2-pound cut, so diluting 2:1 leaves you a bit over a 1-pound cut. not too bad (I like mine a bit thinner), but depending on your shop conditions you may have it drying too fast or need to work quicker.

For a table top, you want to apply like an airplane landing. Approach the edge of the table and land an inch or so inside the edge, continue all the way to the other edge. Reverse direction and go over the same area.

Given the 24” dimension, I’d be taking about 2 seconds of contact to make a pass.

Really no wrong way to apply as long as you are keeping a wet edge.

Personally I’m too chicken to really go after a “perfect” shellac surface by padding, i’ll grab a sprayer 8^)

If the shellac is thick enough you can wet sand ( mineral sprits are my go-to) it with 320 or so to get a smooth surface. (sand in a linear fashion).

Should be plenty of videos out there that show the whole process.

View Aj2's profile


4144 posts in 3087 days

#4 posted 09-06-2021 09:56 PM

The finish method your using to build a shellac finish needs to be done much more slowly. Very thin coats as many as 15 or 20. The amount of alcohol to shellac will be super thin. So thin that when you put a drop between thumb and nose picking finger and tap them together it’s dry almost immediately.
The other problem is canned shellac isn’t that great for polishing.
Sometimes I will build a shellac finish really fast just build up all the coats in one day. Then the next day soak a rag in alcohol and wipe off as much as possible forcing it into the grain filling the grain. Then just a few thin coats and some steel wool. If too shiny.
Shellac is a finish to enhance the beauty of the wood but be barely perceptible.
Good Luck

-- Aj

View Lazyman's profile


8289 posts in 2676 days

#5 posted 09-06-2021 09:59 PM

When I pad it on I carefully fold my cloth into a tight rectangle so that I have nice smooth rolled edge to use almost like a brush. It is very important to make single pass end to end and do not go over it again until the next coat. It should glide on with no pull. If you feel like it is pulling, it is drying too quickly. Make sure you do not have any fans that might cause the alcohol to evaporate too quickly. It can be tough to put on evenly when the temperature is high because it dries too fast.

When I do wax and buff, I don’t like steel wool. I find that the Gray (000) 3M synthetic steel wool leaves a nicer more uniform finish. I simply apply the wax with the 3M pad. If you find the 000 is tool coarse, the white 0000 will give a finer finish. I may apply the wax initially with a swirl pattern but I always finish with the grain.

EDIT: here is how it looks when everything goes right :-) I stripped, bleached and refinished this MCM table and chairs for my daughter. It was a mess when I started. I think it was used in someones garage to as storage.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

View Rich's profile


7576 posts in 1878 days

#6 posted 09-06-2021 10:05 PM

You’re basically doing a French polish. One component you’re missing is oil. You always want to use a dab of oil each time you refresh the shellac.

A good technique is to wet your pad lightly with shellac, touch your finger to the mineral oil and put a dab on your pad, then slap the pad into your other palm a few times to disperse it.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

View BigMig's profile


655 posts in 3902 days

#7 posted 09-07-2021 02:34 PM

Thanks everybody for your assistance. A couple of things to clarify:
  • I let the Danish oil cure for about 5 days in an environment of 75 degrees and 55 percent humidity…so I feel like the DO was well cured *Thanks Splinter – I didn’t think a cut less than about 1.5 was feasible…thanks for clearing that up. Also, I did use the airplane landing method…but maybe my cut wasn’t dilute enough. Unfortunately, I don’t have any spraying experience, though I think I’ll practice that before the next opportunity.
  • AJ – WOW, that’s a new technique to me…very cool, and it makes sense. Many thanks.
  • Nathan – I wasn’t aware of the 3M alternatives to sandpaper and steel wool. Also, It does sometimes feel like it’s pulling, so maybe lighter cut and more frequent refresh of my pad.
  • Rich – you’re right about mineral oil…I’ll try it.

You people ROCK. Thanks

-- Mike from Lansdowne, PA

View jonah's profile


2260 posts in 4588 days

#8 posted 09-07-2021 03:25 PM

I’d echo the point above about sanding to 320. There’s no need for anything higher than 180 or 220 IMO. It’s not why you’re having problems with the finish I don’t think, but it might be contributing.

View BigMig's profile


655 posts in 3902 days

#9 posted 09-08-2021 04:48 PM

Thanks Jonah; in future test pieces, I’ll try halting the sanding at 220. Less sanding sounds good to me!

-- Mike from Lansdowne, PA

View OSU55's profile


2904 posts in 3279 days

#10 posted 09-09-2021 12:18 PM

French polishing shellac to a perfect finish is a challenge. You do need oil, blo or mineral will work. 1:1 cut of sc to dna is what you want. Can mix the shellac, dna, and oil together in a squirt bottle. It is a slow process, the 15-20 coats (or more is correct). An faster method is to use a brush to build film thickness, then use a pad with dna/oil to smooth out. You can sand to any grit you want with shellac, it will adhere.

I use shellac only on something that wont see much use – poor choice for a table top, too easily damaged. Ok if it will not have stuff sat on it and removed, ie a lamp in the corner that is moved for dusting only.

View iminmyshop's profile


395 posts in 3283 days

#11 posted 09-10-2021 02:48 AM

Second CWWoodworking on not using shellac as a topcoat. I love shellac as a sealer and undercoat. But you really do get better protection when using a finish with better protective properties


View Lazyman's profile


8289 posts in 2676 days

#12 posted 09-10-2021 03:02 AM

I used shellac for that nearly 60 year old vintage MCM table above because that is what it had before. I have another of the exact same table that has its original finish on it that still looks almost like new so shellac can be pretty durable if taken care of.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

View BigMig's profile


655 posts in 3902 days

#13 posted 09-11-2021 05:17 PM

That’s my understanding, Lazyman. And this table is a hall table that won’t get hard, eating/drinking use.

-- Mike from Lansdowne, PA

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