Contrary to common perception, shellac is also a quality wood finish as lacquer but they are not the same even though both originate from Asia. Their names are derived from the same word, a Sanskrit term (Laksha) but that’s just as far as the similarities go. While shellac is made from bug excretions, lacquer is produced from tree resin. Some may argue that the bug excretions also come from tree resin but there is indeed a significant difference between the two.
For centuries now, craftsmen and carpenters from Europe and North America have imported shellac for use as quality wood finish. The essential finish is usually a by-product of various types of bug excretions mainly from an Indo-Chinese bug known as Laccifer Laca.
Initially, processing would begin with the excretion’s raw form known as stick lac which came directly from the tree twigs. However, the only product that would emanate from processing of the raw material for use back then was a brightly colored dye. This changed when the workers discovered that a by-product of the process, seed lac, could be used to make a quality wood finish product that is shellac.
It is paramount to note that button lac, seed lac and shellac are not quality grades but rather forms of finishing products. Other terms that you are likely to come across while shopping for wood finish range from ruby, to lemon and even blonde. In essence, these terms simply define waxed and un-waxed forms of the wood finish to be used in varying applications.
Shellac is however only available as an import mainly because there is no bug in North America that produces the required excretions to process shellacs. Clear finishes in use back then included beeswax and linseed oil among others. At a recent Woodworking In America, one contestant demonstrated the quality of these finishes by using three different cabinet legs. The difference was clear for all to see; shellac maintained its edge over the rest thus explaining its massive popularity.
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Ted Leger –
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