Shellac is a great finish and sticks to everything, but from a retail standpoint, shellac flakes are a fussy product to stock. Because how fast it dissolves is a function of its age, how it was stored, the quality of the alcohol used to dissolve it in, the size of the flakes, and agitation.
We have no control over the last three parameters but we have spent years upping our game on the first two. So when you get a bag of shellac from us it's in a fairly heavy bag that is a good oxygen barrier, and it's got an oxygen absorber in it. This seems to help. In addition we try not to keep it around and fly in small quantities as we need them from India or from our Tiger Flake supplier.
We test every batch of shellac that goes out of here. We make sure it dissolves easily and every bag is batch dated so we can keep track of what's going on. So after getting a query from a customer about the differences between the various types of Tiger Flakes we stock, I figured I'd do a quick test to show you all the results.
Some terminology: With shellac, "cut" is the term used to describe how thin or thick the shellac-to-alcohol mix is. A 2-lb. cut, or two pounds of shellac dissolved in a gallon of alcohol, is pretty standard but a quick calculation suggests that my samples are about 1.5-lb cut. That's a little thin for a lot of build-up, but reasonable.
All the samples in the test were Tiger Flakes, just because that's what we had from our most recent packing. We stock four types of Tiger Flakes (in order of color density): Super-Blond, Blond, Amber, and Garnet. I applied a fairly heavy coat of each type of shellac to a freshly planed board of maple and took a look at the results.
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Remember a few things: There is only one or two heavy coats on this wood, maple absorbs very little finish, and a proper French polish would have far, far more buildup and show off the colors better. Even a regular shellac finish would have more buildup than these samples.
What is interesting to me is how even a thin coat of super-blond adds a little color to the maple, but the main difference between the colors is a little bit of extra color definition in the pores of the wood. This is what makes grain pop in a finish.
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- If you are just planning a wash coat of shellac as a primer, using blond is less expensive than super-blond and should be almost indistinguishable.
- If you are planning a French polish over distinctly colored marquetry, super blond might keep your materials less yellow, but if you are doing wood tones, blond might be just as good.
- If you want character in your finish without going crazy, especially if you aren't French polishing, garnet will pop the grain nicely and isn't nearly as dark a finish as the flakes might suggest.
- Amber is a good choice if you want the piece to look shellacked as if the finish had age in it.
Note: While our bags are fairly decent oxygen barriers and they have the absorber, and they reseal, store the bags in a sealed glass container, kept in the fridge. Super-blond has the shortest shelf life in flakes, garnet the longest.
This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.