A Good Shellacking

OMG you guys, shellac is SO FUN.

Yeah, I get excited about finishes. Whatevs.

Remember these antique theater seats? Well, cleaning them took longer than I expected. Mostly because I kept having to do other things like bake pineapple upside down cake and take Chester for walks. But also because old chewing gum is gross and apparently commercial/industrial stuff gets beyond grungy. So I wanted to be sure they were extra special clean. Finally, it’s been cold here in Virginia and whenever you’re using any kind of finishing product, you definitely want good ventilation, which in my case means open windows. There’s your Captain Careful alert for this project.

That said, shellac is actually surprisingly non-toxic as finishes go. Once it’s cured, it’s even safe around food, which is why a lot of people use it on their wood kitchen counter tops. Also, it’s easy to repair because multiple coats just melt together. This also makes it really easy to apply because if you drip and don’t notice, you can just brush over it and it will dissolve itself.

So here’s how this went down. After cleaning with my usual half and half mix of mineral oil and odorless mineral spirits, I wiped everything down with straight odorless mineral spirits (yes, even the metal legs). That got off any residual mineral oil that hadn’t been absorbed by the wood and any dust or dirt that had settled on the seats. You don’t want to seal any of that junk into the final finish. Then I got out my shellacking supplies.

What you see here is a 2″ short handled angle brush (for getting into tight spots), a can of shellac, a can of denatured alcohol (which is the solvent for shellac and which I used for cleaning the brush), a little key to take the top off the can and a microfiber dust rag. Yep, pretty simple.

Next, I wiped down all the chairs with that microfiber cloth because final finishes have two mortal enemies: dust and moisture. Humidity isn’t really an issue right now, but with Chester around, dust is a perpetual problem. For the record, humidity can keep your finish from curing properly, resulting a tacky mess. Dust will make your finish cloudy. No one likes cloudy, tacky finishes.

Make sure you shake your can well. Shellac is a solution and the solids will settle out over time. Shellac flakes are mixed with denatured alcohol to get what is called a “4 pound cut”. You can actually mix it yourself if you have a need for a different cut, but for my purposes, this was fine.

There’s not a lot to applying the shellac, but like any finishing or painting project, thin coats are always best. You want good coverage, but you don’t want drips. Also, when working with wood, you always want to apply finish in the same direction as the grain. Brushstrokes weren’t much of an issue here because the stain on these chairs is really dark, but it can be more obvious with other stains and other finishes so it’s good to get in the habit of applying finish with the grain.

It might be hard to see the difference in this photo, but the chair on the left has not been finished and the chair on the right has. See how it’s shiny and some of the old damaged finish has been filled in?

I actually thought I would need two coats in order to get the best coverage, but instead I bought a really good quality natural bristle brush and took my time with the application. So when I went to do the second coat, I decided it didn’t really need it.

However, that still left the metal legs unprotected. I didn’t want to strip and repaint them because I actually like the look of the chipped old paint. It gives the seats character. Certainly you could take a chemical stripper and strip the paint using relatively rough steel wool (0 or 00) and repaint using an oil-based paint in your choice of color, but I didn’t want these to look like new. So instead I just applied some paste wax, a clear, soft protectant that will need to be applied probably once a year or so in order to keep the legs and other metal pieces in good shape.

Applying paste wax is easy, but smelly. You definitely want good air circulation with this stuff.

To apply, just take a lint-free painter’s cloth, pick up some wax and apply it to the piece. Once you’ve got a nice layer over a surface, let it sit for 20 minutes or so, then just buff it with another clean painter’s cloth.

And it was done! Well, almost. But first, let’s look at a little side-by-side of the Before and After!

So the pictures above don’t line up well, but you can see clearly just what a difference this all made and all without the trouble of refinishing. All told, this project took about six hours once I had all the supplies and got down to work. I’m really happy with the way they turned out.

Oh, there were a couple finishing touches. First of all, one of the seat backs was missing a bolt so I replaced that. Second, one of the seat bolts was loose so I tightened that up. Finally, even after cleaning and waxing, the seats were still a little harder to move up and down than I had expected so I used some WD-40 on the bolts, which was all it took to free them up to the point I was happy with them. All that took about another five minutes, but these small things made a big difference to the functionality of the seats.

Have you guys finished any projects recently? Have you ever used shellac or other wood finishes?

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