Restoring a shellac finish

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Restoring a shellac finish

Post by ericziz »

I am a descendant of a German cabinet maker in our small, Pennsylvania town. The factory that my g-g-grandfather built still stands after being vacant for many years and is in the process of becoming an inn. I am involved with the project and am donating some of the pieces that my ancestor made 150+ years before. The two bedroom sets both need refinishing (something which I have done before) but I have always worked with a linseed oil based finish, never with shellac.

With the intent of holding true to the origin of these pieces, the owner of the inn is hoping that I can restore them using the shellac that is already on them for fear of losing the patina of the wood. I can't seem to find much that speaks to whether this is possible. Can one simply use denatured alcohol, reconstitute the shellac that is on the furniture, and re-distribute it with a cloth?

The second question is with regards to the small areas on each piece that have some sort of stylized finish. The finish is still shellac, but it looks like it was mixed with something darker, allowed to dry a bit, and then brushed over to give it something of a faux-burl effect. Is there a name for for this technique? Does anyone know how to do it?

Thanks in advance for any advice.
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Bob Boardman
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Re: Restoring a shellac finish

Post by Bob Boardman »

The basic concept is to make a ball out of an 8” x 8” piece of cotton from an old, worn t-shirt that has just come out of the dryer (dryer reduces any lint). Place this ball inside a bigger 12" x 12" piece of cotton. Wrap the bigger piece of cloth around the smaller one, wrapping the extra around your index finger – this is called your “rubber”. Add some denatured alcohol (not rubbing alcohol) to the rubber and pat it against the palm of your hand (this is called "charging the pad or rubber". You want the pad to be damp, not wet.

Then use a pendulum type motion to have the rubber touch the surface & come right off...almost like a plane coming in for a landing and then taking off again. DO NOT LET THE PAD STOP ON THE SURFACE. The trick is to dampen the cloth just enough so it leaves the appearance of a comet’s tail of evaporating alcohol trailing as you wipe. (You can practice by wiping across a more resistant surface such as plastic laminate.) If the pad starts to stick, then charge it again.

If you get the cloth too wet, the alcohol can soften the shellac too much and smear the finish or remove existing shellac; if it’s too dry it will stick.

This is a long process – not one that will be done in minutes. It will take many attempts to get it right. Your goals are to
1) Soften existing shellac enough so that it:
A) “smoothes out” and/or
B) Fills in some areas that don’t have shellac
2) Add small amounts of new shellac to make up for shellac that’s deteriorated over time.

Every 15 minutes or so you should stop and assess progress. If you’ve made numerous attempts at moving existing shellac into voids and it’s not working, you can try the following:
- Buy a product called Sealcoat at a paint or hardware store. It’s diluted clear shellac.
- Make a 50-50 mix of Sealcoat and denatured alcohol. Put this into a squeeze bottle and add a small amount to your rubber. Pat against your palm and then immediately go over an area that needs a small additional amount of shellac.

Once you have all areas filled or smoother, make a final pass on the surface using long strokes. This will bring out the look of a rubbed out finish. Let us know how you make out
Bob "Boardman" Borders
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