advice on old shellacked woodwork

melissastarJune 7, 2011

Hi all: I've been hanging about the Kitchens forum as I worked on a kitchen remodel in my 1907 Baltimore row house. Now it's mostly done and I'm turning my attention to other issues, notably...woodwork.

Much of the original woodwork at my house is intact and unpainted, though some of it is quite beaten up. Previous owners (I've been here about a year and a half) apparently did some work on it, but it's not entirely clear to me what exactly they did. My son and I have been gradually tackling some of the shellacked stuff that had alligatored and we have more or less successfully rejuvenated several doors and door frames by using denatured alcohol to dissolve and reconstitute the alligatored shellac.

Question now is what to do about the staircase, which is a veritable patchwork of woodwork in various stages of restoration (not to mention species...some is oak, some pine). Many of the spindles have been nearly stripped of finish, apparently using alcohol on the shellac. They've left nearly bare areas, with dark rings of aged shellac in every bead and cove. The newel posts and rails however, seem to have undergone the same treatment as the doors I've done and seem fine.

I am really loathe (for budgetary reasons among others) to dismantle everything and send it out to be stripped. I am willing to live with some variablility and considerable imperfection in the finish, as I am of the philosophy that I live in an old house, not a museum. But I would like to try to even out what I've got a bit. Anyone got any suggestions?

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brickeyee

Shellac (as you have found) is one of the easiest finishes to repair.

You may be able to simply apply a new layer of shellac that matches the darker color of the old and it will look just fine.

Shellac comes in a number of grades and each has a lighter color than the lowest grades.

You are likely to have to purchase the grade of shellac flakes you need and then dissolve them in denatured alcohol.

Pre-mixed shellac is not usually available in the range of grades of the dry flakes.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2011 at 4:54PM
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melissastar

Brickeye, thanks! That's great news. It sounds as if I might even be able to do a little creative mixing and matching as needed. With this news, I can now return to scrubbing the woodwork with alcohol soaked steel wool with renewed vigor!

The ease of renewing the shellac finish makes me wonder why it seems to have fallen out of fashion.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 3:08PM
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old_house_j_i_m

Shellack kicks butt !! Its relatively inexpensive, forgiving if you screw up and makes wood look really, really amazing. none better.

Here's a little something if you run into spots where the alcohol is just not cutting through (like in a crevice or if you want to "strip" some areas yourself):

While Alcohol works great to dissolve and redistribute the shellack, Ammonia will wipe it clean away. just remember that its not going to be dissolved for you to rejuvenate - there will be no shellack left. also you'll need to rinse off the ammonia.

I use ammonia on things where the color is wrong, or there are a lot of carvings, or I just want to get through the old finish fast so I can reapply one that is better suited to the piece (mostly furniture restoration here). I started experimenting with ammonia after using it to clean my shellack brushes.

Used sparingly ammonia can be a friend when you can't get Alcohol to work, but it does require a lot (A LOT) of ventilation - and of course, keep it away from bleach.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 5:47PM
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melissastar

old house jim: That's great news. My son, who is doing most of the hard labor, will be glad to hear that there's something other than elbow grease that will get that black stuff off. Thanks!

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 8:11PM
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sombreuil_mongrel

Two bits of data:
Ammonia can permanently change the color of some woods, particularly oak.
Also, if you do use ammonia, don't use household type with detergent added, use clear ammonia.
And, it will eventually evaporate leaving no residue so rinsing wouldn't be that important.
Casey

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 9:32PM
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old_house_j_i_m

Thats a great point - Ammonia was used to fume" or chemically stain, oak (most often). I forgot about that problem since I use it mostly on walnut furniture and have no problems with that.

I guess like anything, test and be cautious.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 8:49AM
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brickeyee

"The ease of renewing the shellac finish makes me wonder why it seems to have fallen out of fashion."

It is not very resistant to water, skin oils, scratching, etc.

Nitrocellulose lacquer took its place. The new product dries just as quickly, and was tougher and more resistance to every day use (though alcohol is still was an issue, but not water normally).
Varnish takes to long to dry and slows factory production, though some of the newer catalyzed varnishes are getting pretty fast.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2011 at 11:00AM
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old_house_j_i_m

all well and good to have fast drying and functionally strong finishes, but nothing, NOTHING, looks as wonderful as shellack ...

    Bookmark   June 13, 2011 at 9:30PM
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brickeyee

"NOTHING, looks as wonderful as shellack ..."

Until it gets soft from absorbing skin oils or alligators from age.

It does look good, but not for as long as some other finishes.

French polish does look like nothing else (and takes hours to build up) but WILL require maintenance at some pint to stay looking good.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 1:23PM
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badgergrrl

See, I was going to say, nothing looks as good as shellac, except maybe alligatored shellac. To each their own...

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 2:03PM
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old_house_j_i_m

Children, pets, skin, muscle, and shellack: these things all require maintenance ... Plastic, vinyl and fiberglass dont (and look like, well, they just dont look very nice). I live by this rule: if you want something that pleases your eye and makes you swoon, it will take work to keep it looking wonderful. I guess we all have desires, for some its time, for others its beauty. Make your choice and stick with it.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 6:50PM
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melissastar

brickeye: What's french polish?

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 7:54PM
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sombreuil_mongrel

French polishing:
1) fill pores of wood with a mixture of oil and ground pumice stone.
2) Apply 2 or 3 ground coats of shellac with a fine brush, evenly.
3) When the shellac is just dry enough, begin the polishing by making circular or figure-eight motions of a carefully prepared rubbing pad. The pad must have a cotton wad core suffused with alcohol, and one uses an oil as a lubricant.
Careful!, you can easily mar the finish during this process, or make it rippled and lumpy.
4) spirit off, with another pad with alcohol only. Careful! you can easily ruin the job at this point.
Casey

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 10:37PM
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brickeyee

Step 3 above needs repeated applications to get a fine finish.

Using a brush to apply the first few cuts is a shortcut to try and speed things up by creating a faster build.

The "rubbing pad" is more correctly called a 'tampon' and ideally is a piece of flax cloth stuffed with cotton batting.
Both shellac and oil are added to the tampon to allow it to glide over the surface without sticking.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2011 at 11:08AM
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melissastar

Sounds gorgeous...and hard!

    Bookmark   June 15, 2011 at 4:47PM
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sombreuil_mongrel

ha ha! made you say "tampon" !!!

    Bookmark   June 15, 2011 at 6:55PM
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brickeyee

"ha ha! made you say "tampon" !!!"

You should have heard the 80 year old guy who taught me how to French Polish years ago.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2011 at 11:42AM
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