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Home How To Finishing A Shellac Recipe for French Polish

A Shellac Recipe for French Polish

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These days I am doing a great deal of experimentation with French polish. I have used it quite a bit on the lathe, where it can be applied while the work is spinning and burnished with wood chips. That is a quick, easy version. I am also experimenting, successfully, with the traditional approach and enjoying every minute.

I thought I would quickly share my formula for mixing the orange shellac I use to polish. There is much made of the appropriate techniques or ratios for doing this but, in my opinion, there are far too many people today who like to make mountains out of molehills. I assure you, the poor shmoe working in a woodshop in Eighteenth Century France was a rocket scientist working in a controlled environment. This is easier than you might think.

I came up with this formula after studying a variety of sources, including the works of Ernie Conover, Michael Dresdner, Frank Klausz, Bob Flexner, and a great book on finishing by George Frank. The latter had more hints in it than you would imagine judging from the diminutive size of the book. This formula works for me so maybe it’s worth a try for you.

Keep in mind that I may be using different containers than you so you may need to adjust the recipe somewhat. However, everything I used is readily available. I used:

  • Two 500 ml squeeze bottles from Woodcraft – one to hold and apply the end product and one to hold some alcohol as a wash bottle
  • One 1 pint mason jar with lid for initial mixing
  • One funnel
  • One coffee filter – I like my shellac clean
  • Denatured alcohol
  • One stick with a flat end
  • Orange shellac flakes – mine came from Lee Valley, my favorite store

Once you have all those things, you can proceed to make French polish. The procedure takes a little over a day to do so plan ahead. The reason for this is that the flakes need to sit in the alcohol to melt or you will have trouble getting them all into solution.

Also, I wouldn’t keep this stuff any longer than about six months. Shellac deteriorates with age, and also in direct sunlight. Thus, you may want to find dark squeeze bottles, or just store the stuff away from light as I do.

Anyway, unless I launch into an encyclopedic description of the history and production of shellac, I might as well get to the instructions for mixing it. I mean, who cares if it is bug spit anyway. Here goes:

  1. In the bottom of a clean 1 pint mason jar place about an inch and a half of orange shellac flakes. If I recall the graduation marks on the side of my jar correctly, this is between a third and a half a cup.
  2. Then, take the stick and use it to pulverize the flakes a bit. This isn’t strictly necessary so don’t go overboard but crushing will make the flakes dissolve faster. Orange shellac isn’t that hard to dissolve, but if you use super blonde shellac (I use it for hand plane restoration), it is much more difficult to put into solution.
  3. Then pour in enough denatured alcohol to just cover the crushed flakes. The result will be an eight pound cut, approximately. That means eight pounds of shellac flakes to the gallon of alcohol.
  4. Place the lid firmly on the jar and shake the life out of it every few minutes for a half hour. I usually get to this point then go and check my email. While I am reading my messages I shake the jar periodically and that way I don’t have to stare a the clock for a half hour.
  5. Set the jar aside, in a dark place preferably, until the next day. Be sure not to disturb it. By then all the shellac will be dissolved and any wax will have settled to the bottom.
  6. Place a funnel in the top of the 500 ml squeeze bottle and line it with a coffee filter.
  7. Gently pour the shellac from the mason jar into the filter paper. Try to be as gentle as possible as it is preferable to leave the wax in the jar to be discarded later. The wax is the really cloudy junk at the bottom and it will clog up the filter paper. The shellac has to be filtered because there will be dead bug body parts and other crap in it (as well as wax) and you don’t this detritus in the finished product.
  8. Shake the paper occasionally so that the shellac doesn’t seal and harden in the coffee filter. Then you’ll never get it through. If the coffee filter does become shellacked, just fold another and pour from the old filter into the new. Just don’t spill any junk over.
  9. When done, rinse the filter paper and the inside of the funnel with some alcohol from your wash bottle. Add alcohol sparingly. If you don’t you will change the ratio of shellac to alcohol and throw off the remainder of the steps.
  10. By this time I usually have a quarter of a 500 ml squeeze bottle full of eight pound cut shellac. Now I fill the squeeze bottle with denatured alcohol. This will double the volume twice changing the mix from an eight pound to a four, then two pound cut of shellac. If you want closer to a two and a half pound cut leave about ¾ of an inch of air space in the top. This is the proportion I work with.

So, that’s it. I find this mix works equally well finishing small objects on the lathe or as a traditional French polish. I hope it doesn’t sound too difficult or overly verbose. It is really a fast way to mix this stuff up and it is great to keep around. I even finish jigs and other shop accoutrements with the stuff. Once you try shellac, you’ll probably be hooked as I am. Maybe not on French polishing but it has so many uses it should be a staple in every shop. Happy woodworking!

© 2011 Howard Ruttan -


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