Shellac Color Choice - Clear vs. Amber

schicksalFebruary 9, 2012

I'm restoring some chestnut trim in the bathroom in our ~1920 house while remodeling the entire room, and need to decide what color shellac would be best. There is no exposed wood anywhere else in the house to match to as it's all currently buried under about 9 layers of paint. Wood is currently stripped down and sanded bare. The original tint was a bit of a darker shade that I've seen while searching for pictures here, but for this room I'm deciding between clear vs. amber.

If I understand correctly, amber will be the kind of orange-ish color that's commonly seen in older houses, but what color would clear come out as (more yellow)? And what shade is best for chestnut? I'm basically limited to the two varieties I've found for sale at a nearby store for now for now and can experiment with adding pigment sometime later after I have more experience with the stuff.

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Shellac is amazing stuff. It's totally green, low-toxic and is so easy to repair. Its more sensitive to wet than other finishes, do dont turn the hose on it, ha ha. interior woodwork finished in shellac is beautiful.

One of the things about applying shellac is freshness. if its old, it will never cure properly and youll have a big mess on your hands. Thats when people blame shellac for the mess when its really their own fault.

Rather than buy your shellac from a store where it probably sat on the shelf for 4 years (older than 3-4 months is not good), check out SHELLAC.NET. NO, I dont work there, I buy there, HA. Its great stuff and youll see TONS more colors than white (clear) and orange. There are a bunch of pale colors that may add just the right tint you want. AND they sell de-waxed shellac, which is less troublesome than the store brand (which still has wax in it).

Chestnut, however, tends to look best with some red-orange tones added.

Now, you will need to mix the shellac flakes with alcohol, thats easy as pie. but start doing that a few days before you want to apply it. it needs time to dissolve. AND you can store the dry flakes more easily than a half used can of it.

Best of luck with whatever color you choose.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2012 at 6:04PM
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I have not used, but I agree, ordering flakes gives you much more control over the quality of what you're working with, and shellac that won't cure (due to age) is awful. Well, I guess it cures eventually, but you get the picture.

To recreate the dark aged finish you had before stripping and sanding might take some experimentation with stains in addition to the shellac. The clear shellac might well be too light.

If you can remove a piece without damaging it, sand the back to create a similar condition to the front, and use the back as a test surface, you will get better results.

I spent several hours over two weekends, lots of research, and many cans of this or that to recreate the finish of the woodwork in my house. Since you don't have to match, it shouldn't be so hard for you. But to get the depth of color you're envisioning, might take a few tries. I have a feeling you'll end up doing clear over a stain, or amber over a stain. In a bathroom, I'd use dewaxed shellac, then when you have as many coats as you want, top them off with a couple coats of clear wiping varnish such as one from General Finishes; it will prevent the "sticky shellac after you take a shower" syndrome. (Warning: wiping varnish is incompatible with regular (non-dewaxed) shellac).

Also, you might try posting this on the woodworking forum; you might get more responses there.

Below I linked a thread of someone trying to do the same thing you are.


Here is a link that might be useful: restoring chestnut trim

    Bookmark   February 10, 2012 at 8:15AM
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"Well, I guess it cures eventually..."

If it is old enough it never cures.

It has slowly had its basic chemistry altered to the point it cannot sure hard.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2012 at 9:54AM
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I have a house built in 1919 that has wood throughout. The wood has stain and shellac to get a very dark finish. I was able to get close to the look when I built a new pantry and stained a new door. I used two coats of Miniwax dark walnut stain followed by two coats of amber shellac. I went with pine for both pantry and door due to economical reasons and was very happy with the result. While the rest of the house has either fir or oak trim, the shellac helped to give an orange shade that brought the wood closer to the rest of the house.

Should I do it again, I'll probably go with flakes and try to get more red in the shellac to more closely match the original wood. I'm in the middle of posting more pictures to flickr and will post here with shots of the pantry later today.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2012 at 3:16PM
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Here's the photos of the pantry doors that I was talking about.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pantry

    Bookmark   February 10, 2012 at 5:44PM
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Hi Roger, I always like your posts to this forum.

Now I have pantry envy.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2012 at 9:49AM
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Thanks for the advice! I'm ordering some red and orange flakes now. I came across the other thread while searching for others who have similar trim.

The wood is in a nice neat stack, waiting for everything to come in and for me to take care of a few old nail holes before it gets finished. It had to be removed since I needed to take out the lathe strips behind them (I'm completely remodeling and enlarging the bathroom). I counted about 9 layers of paint on the walls and at least a half dozen thick, uneven coats on the trim. The window was especially bad since it was cracking and peeling.

I'd like to find a way to reinstall the window trim in a way so that it can be removed without too much effort since that's the only way to get at the window weights. Has anyone used screws, then covered them with putty and finished over them? I'm thinking it may be a less intrusive way to get in there when the day comes and I need to change out a cord.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2012 at 7:17PM
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Schicksal, I think rather than screws, that you might opt for sash chain rather than cord--it will last practically forever!
I started stripping my bath woodwork ages ago, found it had never been anything other than paint--at least five layers--and gave up after six hours got me through the small space the door closed into on the jamb. I added a layer of a mahogany color paint to it, but would much rather have it stained to match the rest of the house--but I'm fifteen years older now, and running out of energy. :)

    Bookmark   February 13, 2012 at 5:16AM
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I may have to go with sash chain afterwords... I'm a bit nervous to more or less seal the space up though also because, within the next 5 years I plan on getting the place leveled and maybe raised a foot or two. I have to at some point because improvements will be "substantial" the it's just my luck that living space on the first floor is about 4 inches inside the flood plain.

If I level the place I'd like to be able to remove as many window sashes as possible to prevent breakage, then go back and adjust window frames as needed and put it all back together. Everything could be opened back up if it's put together with nails, but I have to be a lot more careful during the removal process.

I just ordered some flakes from I'll have to take the can of Zinser / clear back to Lowes along with the denatured alcohol that's not apparently not alcohol enough. I'd have never known to do any of that without getting pointed in the right direction. I'll try and have pictures up in a week or so with some results.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2012 at 8:49AM
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Here is a shellac color sample I made. Ultra-blond shellac is on the left, garnet (the darkest natural shade) is on the right. Two coats of each.
Wood varieties T to B:
1) century old heart pine (that never had any finish, so it's naturally as dark as can be).
2) New birdseye maple.
3) new white oak.
4) new mahogany.

The lighter the wood, the more pronounced the difference.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2012 at 10:39AM
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