Using Shellac or Varnish on an Old Pine Floor

liriodendronApril 1, 2010

Old pine floors (175+ years), although originally a "softwood", now fairly hard. Flat sawn, very wide, face nailed, T&G, mostly unfinished.

After clean up I plan to use either shellac or varnish (the old fashioned stuff, not modern urethane varnishes). Not interested in penetrating oils, poly, waterlox, etc., because I need a highly reversible finish, even at cost of extra maintenance. Probably will use paste wax on top for additional protection.

Anybody have experience with either one of these finishes?


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I'm not sure if you're on the right track but do some research on shellac before using it or hire a pro who knows how to do it right.

Here is a link that might be useful: shellac floor finish

    Bookmark   April 1, 2010 at 11:26AM
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Shellac is easily damaged by water.

The slightest bit left for any time (like on your shoes) will cause the shellac to blush white and soften.

You are then left trying to remove the blush by driving the water out without further damage to the finish.

It might work in the desert until it rains once, but not much of anyplace else.

The drawback to varnish (especially older varnishes) is drying time.
It can take hours to get the surface 'dust free.'
That is the point that at least any dust falling on the new finish will not stick, with additional time required to allow the varnish to harden through 24-48 hours for walking in socks is common, and up to a week for hard soled shoes.

Nothing can be placed over the new varnish to protect it during this curing time.

Some newer products have reduced the times, but you have to deal with their appearance.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2010 at 4:39PM
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My old wide pine floors have shellac on the margins (they had area rugs on them a loooong time ago). I am stripping it, sanding, staining, and applying polyurethane.

We had one room that we went 6 months between removing the carpet and refinish--the shellac was really difficult to live with. That may have been because it was 100 years old, but I suspect it was more the nature of shellac. Our woodwork is still shellac, and that is fine.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2010 at 7:11PM
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I've had great luck using Zinsser "sealcoat" shellac as a floor finish. Most importantly, it is a de-waxed shellac. Shellac that has not had the wax refined out of it is not suitable for floors, as it is much softer and very prone to water spotting as Brick mentioned. Dewaxed shellac dries very hard, coat after coat. Sealcoat is very pale and clear. If you wished to have a darker finish, I recommend a coat or two of dewaxed Garnet shellac to start, then finish up with the sealcoat (to save a ton of money as well, garnet flakes are about $22/lb.). Garnet gives a fantastic color to antique lumber.
I'd go with four coats of shellac for bedrooms, and probably six in higher-traffic areas.
Sealcoat is a 2 lb. cut, meaning there are two pounds of shellac flakes dissolved in a gallon of alcohol. Regular canned shellac like "clear" or "amber" is put up in cans as a 3 pound cut, and is hard to apply smoothly because it's so much thicker. The 3 lb shellac is slower to dry. And of course it has the wax problem.
I use a 4" wide staining brush for shellacking.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2010 at 7:39PM
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Casey, What do you think about using the Zinsser "sealcoat" for finishing window trim? We regularly open the double hungs that I'm thinking of...

    Bookmark   May 22, 2010 at 5:37AM
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the Sealcoat is a very high quality shellac, as such it's perfectly suitable for woodwork, although I have two issues: 1) It's very pale and I happen to like a little color, so I always do two coats of the garnet shellac first (on my old-house woodwork) then use the clear sealcoat to build the gloss.
2) It's thin, so you have to use a good technique on vertical surfaces, like trim and doors to avoid runs, drips, and "curtains".
If you're applying it in a warm/hot day, you need to work incredibly fast to keep the necessary "wet edge" or you will be rubbing out the last coat.
Which brings me to my last point: If you rub out the last coat with 0000 steel wool and furniture wax, you will have a beautifully smooth finish that's very luxurious in feel and appearance.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2010 at 10:59AM
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'Super Blonde Shellac' is also dewaxed, but I would never suggest any shellac product for a floor that might get ANY water.

There are also darker shellacs available dewaxed.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2010 at 2:51PM
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I used the good old fashioned oil-based varnish on the woodwork in my living room, but I have no experience with it on floors. I chose varnish over shellac because I wanted zero shine and all shellac has at least some shine. I included a link to the Pratt & Lambert dull varnish I used in case you're interested. I started with one coat of de-waxed shellac to seal the wood, followed by 3 coats of the varnish.

I can't attest to how varnish holds up to foot traffic, but I found it easy to work with. I gave 24 hours of dry time between coats and sanded lightly between my coats. The end result is just what I was looking for. At some point I may wax it, but haven't yet.

Hope this helps.

Here is a link that might be useful: pratt & lambert dull varnish

    Bookmark   May 22, 2010 at 4:16PM
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Thanks, casey. I've already got amber shellac on the windows, but I need a better final coat. I'm going this route.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2010 at 2:17PM
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