Can You Apply Shellac Over Lacquer?

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If you’re encountering difficulties in obtaining a durable and glossy finish on your wooden pieces, you might be considering the option of applying shellac over lacquer. You’re in the right place!

This article aims to explore the properties of shellac and determine whether it can deliver a lasting and attractive finish to your woodwork. I’ll scrutinize shellac’s composition and discuss how it interacts with lacquer to help you make an informed decision for your project.

About Shellac: The Miracle Finish

Shellac, a resin from lac bugs, has been used as a wood finish and sealant for centuries. When mixed with alcohol, shellac dissolves smoothly and builds up faster.

Its history dates back 3,000 years, with various types and ingredient ratios impacting its properties, such as durability and pliability.

Pros of Shellac

Dries Quickly

A second coat of lacquer dries quickly in 30 minutes, crucial for attaining a polished, expert-like appearance.

shellac on wood

Easy to Repair

In case of errors, just sand the affected portion and redo it without needing to remove the finish from the entire furniture piece to correct a minor issue.

Very Thin

Contrasting lacquer, shellac eliminates the need for abrading between layers, resulting in time and energy savings because of its very thin surface.

Shellac Cons

Not as Durable as Lacquer

Shellac is susceptible to liquid damage as well as heat or alcohol exposure.

Not as Widely Available as Lacquer

Acquiring shellac might necessitate purchasing it online or through a niche retailer.

About Lacquer

Lacquer, a durable finish, dries when the solvent evaporates. It can be applied over stained or painted surfaces and buffed to a high gloss finish.

lacquer stain

Originating in Japan around 700 BCE, it became popular in Europe in the 16th century for furniture and instruments. It is different from varnish but has a nice finish.

Lacquer Pros

Quick-Drying

Lacquer, a transparent finish, dries rapidly and allows for application in slender layers.

Moisture-Resistant

Moreover, lacquer is robust and resists moisture, making it an excellent choice for safeguarding raw wood against moisture-related deterioration.

Durable

Lacquer is also good for finishing surfaces subject to heavy wear, such as table tops or countertops.

Lacquer Cons

Difficult to Apply

Using lacquer demands caution, as achieving an even layer can be challenging. Inattentiveness may result in a streaky or irregular finish.

mixing lacquer paint

Harsh Off-gassing (First Application)

Upon initial application, lacquer emits harmful fumes, posing a risk to you and your loved ones. Ensuring proper ventilation in the work area is crucial for safety during lacquer application.

Turns Yellow Over Time

Lacquer may develop a yellow hue over time, particularly when exposed to sunlight, potentially impacting your furniture’s aesthetic appeal.

Hard-to-remove Scratches & Dents

After lacquer application, addressing scratches or dents can prove challenging. Incautious handling may result in damage to the finish.

Can I Use Shellac on Lacquered Surfaces? What Will Likely Happen?

While shellac can be applied over lacquer, it’s important to note that lacquer is generally more rigid and more durable.

Applying a softer finish like shellac over a harder one might not be ideal, and using lacquer over shellac is often recommended. However, personal preferences may vary.

applying lacquer

Common Problems When Applying Shellac On Top of Lacquer

Peeling Off & Bubbling

Peeling or bubbling occurs due to the separation between lacquer and shellac layers, as the lacquer seals wood pores, hindering shellac adhesion. Lightly sanding the lacquer before applying shellac can prevent these issues.

Wrinkling & Streaking

Applying a slow-drying coat of shellac on top of the lacquer can cause wrinkling and streaking. To avoid this, use a thin coat of shellac for faster drying and reduced drying time gap between layers.

Requires Maintenance

Shellac, less durable than lacquer and varnish, needs regular upkeep and is sensitive to chemicals, moisture, and scratches. Be careful when you put shellac on top of the lacquer to prevent damaging the lacquer beneath and in the top coat of shellac.

Applying Shellac on Top of Lacquer: Steps and Guide

Tools & Materials

Step #1: Thinning Shellac

Thin shellac with denatured alcohol before applying to lacquered wood for faster drying and fewer imperfections. Use a 1:4 ratio, test on scrap wood, and adjust if needed. Store in a closed container until use.

denatured alcohol

Step #2: Prepping the Surface

Place lacquer-finished items in a well-ventilated area and clean with clean rags. Good airflow aids shellac drying and avoids chemical damage.

Step #3: Sanding the Lacquer Finish

Lightly abrade lacquer finish with fine sandpaper for better adhesion. Buff gently, sand in one direction, and clean the surface afterward to improve compatibility.

Step #4: Applying Shellac

Apply shellac evenly with a clean rag or brush along the wood grain. A thin coat adheres well, dries quickly, and offers protection while covering imperfections.

Step #5: Dry it Completely

Let shellac dry completely for 30-50 minutes. Enhance ventilation for faster drying. Wait an hour before using, and apply wax if desired.

Tips for Applying Lacquer Over Shellac

Sanding Shellac

Before sanding, address staples of damaged wood and remove protruding nail heads. Fill cracks with wood putty and seal wood pores with a wood filler. Sand shellac carefully before applying lacquer, then continue with refinishing as required.

sanding wood over shellac

Pouring Shellac on the Surface

Apply shellac with a synthetic bristle brush, using a separate container to prevent clogging. Use smooth strokes for thin coats, resulting in richer color and faster curing, enabling project completion.

Applying 1-3 Shellac Layers

Sand between each layer when applying thin coats of shellac to your woodworking project. Avoid compromising the design by adding too many layers; ideally, apply several coats (1-3), targeting two layers instead of one coat or only the topcoat.

Sanding Between Layers

Once a shellac layer is applied, wait for it to dry completely before moving to the next step. The benefit of sanding is that it eliminates imperfections, such as ridges and lumps left by the paintbrush, even if the shellac application wasn’t perfect.

Applying Lacquer Over Shellac

Apply lacquer over shellac as you would go on untreated, bare wood. Although its color tone isn’t deep, gentle smoothing unveils a richer hue, making it easier to identify application areas.

Opt for a thin layer, allowing for additional coats if needed. You can polish anything you have applied lacquer over shellac with a pumice stone or steel wool.

applying shellac over stain wood

Do You Seal Over Lacquer?

It is possible to apply a sealant over lacquer, even if the shellac underneath it has been waxed. To do this, lightly sand the surface and apply a thin layer of sealer for additional protection. However, this step is frequently redundant due to the inherent sealing qualities of lacquer. 

If you are not satisfied with the results, you have the option to remove the sealer and reapply it. Ensuring that the coat is applied evenly will guarantee proper adherence.

Drying Time of Lacquer Before Applying Shellac

Allow the lacquer to dry for two hours to four days before putting shellac, as drying time depends on humidity [1] and layer thickness. Never apply shellac before the lacquer finish is fully dry.

After four days, check the surface and apply a thin shellac coat in a well-ventilated area, as shellac dries slower than lacquer, and quick drying helps prevent wrinkles on the lacquer finish.

Drying Time of Shellac Before Lacquer Application

Allow the shellac to cure for a duration ranging from 30 minutes to 4 hours. Prior to initiating the process, ensure that the object is completely free of dust by wiping it down with a clean, soft, and lint-free cloth. 

Exercise caution and avoid using materials filled with dirt or debris, as they have the potential to cause scratches on delicate items, particularly furniture. This precautionary step guarantees a seamless finish on the surface, as well as resistance against scratches.

Best Finishes to Apply Over Lacquer

Choose the ideal shellac product for your project to minimize potential issues when applying it over lacquer. Zinsser Bulls Eye Shellac Finish is highly recommended. (Here’s a quick guide on how to apply Bulls Eye Shellac.)

Zinsser Bulls Eye Shellac

White shellac is good for light woods with a light-colored lacquer finish. Orange shellac is for amber-colored woods with an amber-colored lacquer finish. You can also use dewaxed shellac as a primary finish.

Conclusion

Applying shellac over lacquer can significantly improve both the aesthetics and protection of your wood projects, provided that the procedure is executed meticulously. 

With the proper surface preparation and the right product selection, you can attain a finish that is both stunning and long-lasting.

Be sure to adhere to the professional advice offered in this guide to guarantee a smooth application process and to revel in the splendid outcomes that follow.

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Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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