what kind of clear finish in 1950

wichitarickFebruary 23, 2005


I live in a home that was hand built in 48-50 and all the wood work is pine and and I guess shellaced .

my question if I try to try to match new stuff what sort of finish should I try .

i,m not a complete novice but have always been curious what someone used in 1950 to clear coat all my doors and all the trim in 13 rooms .

always remodeling Rick in wichita

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Yes most likely shellac. Kind of dull and opaque? maybe cracked by now.

To test for shellac...buy a small can of denatured alcohol, put some on a rag, or small paintbrush, wipe in inconspicuous area. If the finish softens greatly or dissolves its shellac.

I think sometimes they used butchers wax over the shellac or it was applied much later.

Not sure how you would make new shellac look old.

Another possibility is Varnish.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2005 at 10:47PM
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Isn't Butcher's Wax just a brand name like Johnson's Wax?

    Bookmark   February 24, 2005 at 4:53AM
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"Not sure how you would make new shellac look old."

Choose the correct type of shellac and it should match up very well. Outside of beading and cracking shellac does not chnage very much. The surface can often be melted and smoothed by brushing with a good brush and denatured alcohol. Behlans (and a few others) make shellac in various grades (different colors). The lower grades are darker and more common on woodwork than the more refined 'water white' and super blond grades.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2005 at 10:47AM
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There was knotty pine in the family home in the 1950s and Dad coated it with a product called Fabulon which was a type of polyurethane. He also used it on the linoleum floor which both protected it and gave it a nice shine. The product was around even then.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2005 at 8:14AM
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Shellac is offered as "white" and "orange". Orange is VERY dark, white will darken somewhat with time. Thin coats of white dry clear.

    Bookmark   February 27, 2005 at 8:58AM
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hi, I appreciate the answers,I really don,t think I will run into places where I need an exact match, but have been very curious as to what someone used then .
mainly because of how much is available now, in clear finishes. I am just so thankfull that none of it was painted over with lead base paint.
one of the selling points of this home was that it had 1 or two coats of paint anywhere and the wood was clear finish. which has caused problems with decay outside but replacing a few boards is easier than stripping 5 or 6 layers of paint . Rick

    Bookmark   February 27, 2005 at 11:22AM
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Our farmhouse was built in 1918 and they used fir with the orange/amber shellac. Not sure if it was waxed, don't think so as they said they would at times re-shellac. They, unfortunately, took out some of the original woodwork in the LR/DR and tried to update the rooms, including the archway between LR/DR. They did this around the mid-50's and used VG fir. I can't tell for sure if there is a stain under the shellac on the new wood, as it is a little darker and more even, but it might just be the straight amber shellac. Haven't tested to try to find out. Wish it had never been touched, but they did try to do a good job of having it fit in with the rest of the original woodwork.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2005 at 2:45PM
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Okay, just want to clarify a few things, folks here obviously have no clue what they're talking about, just want to try and sound smart (particularly brickeyee and Bus_Driver).

(1) Shellac is available in a lot more than "orange" and "white" (clear). It comes in over 20 different shades, all tones of brown and red and orange and yellow and combinations thereof. In terms of pre-mixed usually-expired-by-the-time-you-buy-it shellac sold at big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowes - they usually only sell two, "Amber" (waxy orange shellac), and "Clear" (slightly yellow, but not enough to be noticed over wood).

(2) Color has nothing to do with quality. Darker shellacs are not lower quality than lighter shellacs. Shellac is a natural resin oozed by insects onto the bark of trees in India and Thailand (but mainly India). The color is determined by when it was collected from the trees, what the diet of the bugs was, etc. If anything, the opposite of what you said is the truth - "clear" shellac (i.e "platina", "blonde", "super ultra mega blonde", etc.) gets that way by being chemically bleached...which, in the lightest grades, leads to the finished product being less durable.

(3) There is one - and ONLY one - historically accurate shellac: waxy orange shellac. If you're a guitar- or furniture-maker who's into shellac for modern pieces, great, have a blast with the other colors. But if your task is historic restoration, only waxy orange shellac is appropriate. This is what was sold at hardware and paint stores for decades before varnish and lacquer displaced it. The Zinsser/Bulls-Eye "amber" shellac sold in cans at Home Depot and Lowes is exactly this stuff - 100% waxy orange shellac. ANY place which sells shellac flakes (i.e. Woodcraft, Shellac.net, Homestead Finishing Products, etc.) will sell basic standard run-of-the-mill waxy orange shellac - that's what you want. Not any other color, not dewaxed, just good old-fashioned waxy orange shellac. Back in the old days, if you wanted your woodwork a dark color (i.e. mahogany or ebony, the two most common), you "mahagoanized" or "ebonized" it by using waxy orange shellac tinted with DYE. Unlike today, where you put on a coat of STAIN, then a coat of polyurethane - back then, it was a few coats of tinted shellac over the bare wood, that's all folks. I recommend using TransTint dye (available online, and at almost all woodworking stores) - add some of the appropriate color TransTint dye to some waxy orange shellac, put on 3 or 4 coats mixed at a cut between 2 and 4 pounds, and age it using the process I'm about to describe, and PRESTO - perfectly matches the original woodwork BECAUSE that's how it was done - you're not imitating or faking, you doing it the actual correct accurate way.

(4) There is a technique for making shellac look old (or, more specifically, making NEW shellac look older, to make new shellac match old shellac, i.e. renovations in a home match the original woodwork). Rubbing it with a rag soaked in some denatured alcohol will NOT accomplish this. While I am an expert on shellac, most people know zilch about it, but here are some pearls of wisdom for you from my vast knowledge base:

Old shellac - go look at the surface of the solid wood doors in a historic building - does something called alligatoring. Basically: when shellac is new, the surface is smooth and flat and shiny. But over time, it alligators, leading to it being dull and bumpy and sort of pitted. This is a beautiful look, and if you're trying to match it in an old building for the sake of aesthetics or historical accuracy, the only effective way to do it is the way it happened naturally: heat. Shellac alligators in response to heat. Buildings finished with shellac were built before the days of air-conditioning, and the summer heat year after year causes the shellac to alligator over time. New shellac, if it will alligator on it's own at all, will take several decades, and you don't have time for that. The solution - and this is what I do in my business as a shellac restoration and matching expert - is to use a heat gun. Go to Lowes or Home Depot, look in the paint section next to the paint sprayers, and find yourself a 1000-watt heat gun (looks like a hairdryer, puts out a WHOLE lot more heat). Before you go trying this on your actual woodwork, learn how to do it right first by PRACTICING (there is a technique to this) - go buy a piece of cheap wood (i.e. a small section of white pine 1x6 board), cover it with shellac (3 or 4 coats at a 3-lb. cut works nicely - thicker shellac does much better with this high-speed alligatoring process, especially if you're new at it) - let the shellac DRY (wait 24 hours between coats, then a week after the final coat). Then practice your alligatoring technique with the heat gun on the full 1000 watt setting. You want to get it hot enough to start bubbling like you're caramelizing the top of a creme brulee. But DON'T burn it; that causes the shellac to discolor and thus looks terrible. It's a fine line. Don't be afraid to hold the heat gun close and in one position for a while - it takes some considerable heat to get the shellac bubbling. Just don't burn it. You'll figure out how with practice. When you get it just right, the new shellac will match the old shellac perfectly.

More questions? Email me at shellacexpert@gmail.com

    Bookmark   May 26, 2009 at 6:33PM
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