Can You Stain Over Shellac?

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When we began our woodworking hobby, we assumed there was a generally accepted order in which our project was to be finished.  If the wood was to be stained, we stained, and then we added a topcoat, whether polyurethane, varnish, shellac, lacquer, etc.

We assumed these were the “rules” of woodworking.  

Key Points:

  • There are no hard and fast rules about the order of things when it comes to finishing your project.
  • Wood stains can be applied over a shellac coating as long as you follow simple steps.
  • All types of wood stains can be used, too – water-based stains, oil-based stains, and gel stains.

We gained more experience and engaged in sharing project ideas with other woodworkers or visited online bulletin boards or woodworking websites, we learned that the “rules” of finishing wood were dynamic and limited only by imagination and the old trial-and-error method.

Here we are now tossing out the assumed order in which projects were to be finished.  Staining over a topcoat?  And we thought the staining came first.  But, in fact, a topcoat can become an undercoat, if you will, and stains can be applied over them.  Maybe not all, but some.

One such topcoat is shellac.  

What is Shellac?

Shellac

The female lac bug, Kerria Iacca, is the source of a natural resin that becomes shellac.  The beetle secretes the resin on trees in the forests of India and Thailand, where shellac has been used as a wood finish for centuries.  It is a hard, brittle solid that is soluble in alcohol and is used in a variety of applications, including:

  • Varnishes and lacquers
  • Sealants
  • Adhesives
  • Polishes
  • Food coloring
  • Musical instruments
  • Lacquerware
  • Shoes
  • Electrical components
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Cosmetics

Shellac is a non-toxic, biodegradable, and renewable resource. It is also relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. These factors have made shellac a popular choice for a variety of applications.

While all wood finishes penetrate wood to one extent or another,  shellac, just like lacquer, varnish, and water-based finishes, are “film-building” finishes. The base coat will penetrate into the wood and lift the grain slightly. Subsequent coats form a film on the surface of the wood.

Here are some of the benefits of using shellac:

  • It is a natural product that is non-toxic and biodegradable.  If you’ve eaten chocolate-coated raisins or nuts, taken a medicine tablet, ground your own coffee beans, or chewed gum, and are reading these words, then you know it is non-toxic.  It has FDA approval for use in coating foods, medicines, and cosmetics.
  • It is relatively inexpensive.
  • It is easy to work with.
  • It has a hard, durable finish.
  • It is water-resistant up to a point.  Prolonged exposure to water will weaken shellac, and bubbles will form that will eventually deteriorate the finish.
  • It is heat-resistant up to a point.  A hot coffee mug will leave a ring stain on the finish, but if you are smart enough to use a trivet or some other protection, shellac will be fine.

Here are some of the drawbacks of using shellac:

  • It is not as scratch-resistant as some other finishes.
  • It can yellow over time.
  • It is flammable.
  • It can be difficult to remove.

Overall, shellac is a versatile and durable finish that is well-suited for a variety of applications. It is a good choice for those who are looking for a natural, non-toxic, and affordable option.

We’ve written about shellac in past articles, and you will find the pros and cons of shellac piece here.  In that article, we go into greater depth about shellac, so if you are curious, check it out.  

Is Shellac Waterproof?

Shellac is not waterproof, but it is water-resistant. It can withstand a few hours of exposure to water without damage, but it will eventually start to swell and degrade. If you need a finish that is completely waterproof, you should use a different product, such as polyurethane or varnish.

Here are some tips for protecting shellac from water damage:

  • Apply a coat of shellac sealer before applying the finish. This will help to create a barrier between the shellac and the water.
  • Apply multiple coats of shellac. This will help to build up the finish and make it more water-resistant.
  • Avoid using water-based cleaners on shellac surfaces. Use a mild soap and water solution instead.
  • If the shellac does get wet, dry it off as soon as possible. Do not let it sit wet for an extended period of time.

Can You Make Your Own Shellac?

De-Waxed Super Blonde Shellac Flakes 1 lb. (16 oz.)
  • Premium de-waxed shellac flakes for use as a wood finish or sealer
  • For use in fine wood finishing, antique repair, and as a sealer.
  • Use between other finishes to ensure adhesion.

Shellac flakes are available for purchase, and they come in dewaxed shellac form as well as all-natural, usually at about a 3% ratio. They also come in various colors, as we mentioned earlier, colors determined by the tree the lac came from. You will find them for sale both online and at the usual DIY big stores.

Mix your own shellac in a “cut”: the ratio of shellac flakes (measured by the pound) to alcohol (measured by the gallon). One pound of flakes mixed with 1 gallon of alcohol will produce a 1-pound cut. A 2-pound cut will give you a thicker shellac and a quicker build (coat upon coat).

But if you don’t need a gallon of shellac, though, go lower – 1 oz of flakes to 8 ounces of alcohol will produce a 1-pound cut, and 2 oz of flakes to 8 ounces of alcohol will give you a 2-pound cut.

Oil-Based Shellac and Water-Based Shellac

Although most shellac products are alcohol-based shellacs, there are both oil-based shellac and water-based shellac products.  

For instance, there is Zinser Bulls Eye Clear Oil-Based Shellac if you prefer to work with an oil-based product and an oil-based stain.  Zinser Bulls Eye Shellac, another product, is an alcohol-based shellac.

Rust-Oleum Zinsser 304H 1-Quart Bulls Eye Clear Shellac
  • This product adds a great value
  • 1 quart
  • Seals, preserves wood, art, Statuary & metal
Rust-Oleum Zinsser 704H Bulls Eye Shellac, Quart, Amber
  • This product adds a great value
  • All-Natural, non-toxic, easy to use
  • Classic finish for wood trim, paneling and furniture

You could also choose Target Coatings Ultra-Seal WB, a water-based, dewaxed shellac.  

Wood Stains

Wood stain is a type of paint used to color wood and consists of colorants dissolved and/or suspended in a ‘vehicle’ or solvent. Vehicle is the preferred term, as the contents of a stain may not be truly dissolved in the vehicle but rather suspended, and thus the vehicle may not be a true solvent.

Composition. Stain is composed of the same three primary ingredients as paint (pigment, solvent (or vehicle), and binder) but is predominantly vehicle, then pigment and/or dye, and lastly, a small amount of binder.

Much like the dyeing or staining of fabric, wood stain is designed to add color to the substrate (wood and other materials) while leaving some of the substrate still visible. Transparent varnishes or surface films are applied afterward. In principle, stains do not provide a durable surface coating or film.

There are three main types of wood stain:

  • Water-based stains: Water-based stains are the most popular type of stain because they are easy to apply and clean up. They are also non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
  • Oil-based stains: Oil-based stains are more durable than water-based stains and offer a wider range of colors. However, they are more difficult to apply and clean up.
  • Gel stains: Gel stains are a type of oil-based stain that is thicker than regular oil-based stains. This makes them easier to apply and control, and they also offer better coverage.

When choosing a wood stain, it is important to consider the type of wood you are staining, the desired color, and the level of durability you need.

For example, if you are staining a softwood like pine, you will need to use a stain that is designed for softwoods. If you are staining a hardwood like oak, you can use any type of stain.

Wood Stain On Top Of Shellac?

We know that shellac is a natural resin that is soluble in alcohol, so it is compatible with water-based and alcohol-based stains. However, it is important to note that the stain may not penetrate the shellac as deeply as it would if it were applied directly to the wood.

This is because shellac forms a thin film on the surface of the wood, which can block the stain from penetrating.

To apply stain over shellac, you will need to thin the stain with water or alcohol according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You can then apply the stain with a brush or a cloth. Be sure to apply the stain evenly and to let it dry completely before applying a topcoat.

Here are some tips for applying stain over shellac:

  • Use a thin coat of stain. A thicker coat of stain may be difficult to apply evenly and may cause the shellac to bubble.
  • Let the stain dry completely before applying a topcoat. This will help to prevent the stain from bleeding through the topcoat.
  • Test the stain on an inconspicuous area of the project before applying it to the entire surface. This will help you to ensure that the color is what you want and that the stain will not react negatively with the shellac.

By following these tips, you can apply stain over shellac and achieve the desired results.

Here are some additional tips for applying stain over shellac:

  • If you are using a water-based stain, be sure to use a shellac-compatible water-based stain.
  • If you are using an alcohol-based stain, be sure to use a shellac-compatible alcohol-based stain.
  • If you are using a gel stain, be sure to thin it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • If you are using a wiping stain, be sure to wipe off the excess stain immediately after applying it.
  • Be sure to let the stain dry completely before applying a topcoat.

Preparation For Applying Wood Stain Over a Shellac Finish

As with all wood finishing, preparation is the key to a good result.  

Before applying wood stain over your shellac finish, you want to create a smooth wood surface.  A fine-grit sandpaper will do the trick and make that wood surface ready for the stain.  The sanding will also remove any dirt or dust that may have accumulated on the shellac as it dried.

Using a fine-grit sandpaper lightly so as not to sand through the shellac will ensure any raised wood grain is smoothed out, also.  The shellac undercoat will enhance the wood grain with a warm hue that will be further colored by the wood stain you have chosen.

After sanding, be sure to wipe the surface with a slightly damp cloth to remove any dust created by the sanding.  Allow the shellac surface to dry fully before applying the wood stain.

How About Gel Stains On Top Of Shellac?

Varathane 349560 Premium Gel Stain, Half Pint, Dark Walnut

Gel stains can be used on top of shellac, also. However, it is important to note that gel stains are thicker than regular stains, so you may need to thin them slightly before applying them. You can do this by adding a small amount of water or alcohol to the stain according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Once the stain has been thinned, you can apply it to the shellac with a brush or a cloth. Be sure to apply the stain evenly and let it dry completely before applying a topcoat.

Here are some tips for applying gel stain over shellac:

  • Use a thin coat of stain. A thicker coat of stain may be difficult to apply evenly and may cause the shellac to bubble.
  • Let the stain dry completely before applying a topcoat. This will help to prevent the stain from bleeding through the topcoat.
  • Test the stain on an inconspicuous area of the project before applying it to the entire surface. This will help you to ensure that the color is what you want and that the stain will not react negatively with the shellac.

By following these tips, you can apply gel stain over shellac and achieve the desired results.

Here are some additional tips for applying gel stain over shellac:

  • If you are using a water-based gel stain, be sure to use a shellac-compatible water-based gel stain.
  • If you are using an alcohol-based gel stain, be sure to use a shellac-compatible alcohol-based gel stain.
  • If you are using a gel stain that is not specifically designed for use with shellac, be sure to test it on an inconspicuous area of the project before applying it to the entire surface.
  • Be sure to let the stain dry completely before applying a topcoat.

Should You Recoat Shellac Over The Wood Stain Over Shellac?

Did you follow that? Recoating shellac over the wood stain you applied over shellac is not a bad idea and certainly be done.  It will lock in the stain and provide an additional level of protection for the stain and for the wood.  

Should you?  It’s up to you, but it can be done, and as we said, it’s not a bad idea.  

You don’t necessarily need to recoat shellac, either.  You could choose, instead, to use a different topcoat, something like polyurethane or lacquer.  However, shellac doesn’t have a “plastic” appearance like other film-building topcoats, a quality you may prefer.

A Little Video Demo On Shellac

This video shows the use of shellac on a variety of woods, including oak, maple, walnut, and cherry.  If you have not used shellac or used it infrequently, this video will show you exactly what shellac can do for your wood.

Notice the thinness of each coat (3) and the sanding that is part of the prep. Notice, also, how beautiful a shellac coating on the various types of wood looks and how well each type of wood accepts a shellac coating. 

Sure, you can stain over shellac, and the results can be impressive.  We learned, then, that there are no “rules” when it comes to finishing your project or the order in which the finishing process follows.  Stain over a topcoat?  Yep.

Last update on 2024-02-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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