As a furniture finish, shellac and wax — beeswax — has much to commend it. I’ll offer some of its virtues. First off, it retains both the color and the texture of the wood better than any other finish. It’s simple and quick to apply. As well, it can be done a bit at a time as parts are ready without any real interruption to the making process. This is important to my “MO,” since all inside faces and edges that can’t be planed after a glue-up are cleaned up and polished before the glue-up. Afterwards, inside glue squeeze-out is left to harden as it will come off the waxed face cleanly with no staining of the parts. True, there are finishes which hold up better to food and drink spillage. But I find that handmade furniture is often spared that sort of mistreatment.
The purpose of the shellac is to act as a barrier or a base to hold up the wax and prevent it soaking into the wood. All that is needed to form this barrier is a one-coat layer of shellac; however, all shellacs are not equal. They can vary in color and in solids content and they can be applied in different ways, any of which will affect the result. To learn a lot more about shellac, you can read about it in Michael Dresdner’s book. The essentials to know about using it are these:
You can buy it in two ways: in a can ready to use or as dried flakes which you mix with denatured alcohol. The can will have on it a date of manufacture — look for it. Beside that will be the maker’s choice of color and cut. Read the directions on the can; it will tell you the shelf life from the date of manufacture and the “cut.” A one pound cut is a pound of flakes to a gallon of solvent. A five pound cut is five pounds of flakes to the gallon. For our purposes, a two to three pound cut is good. Makers use terms like “clear,” “transparent” and “orange” to indicate color — use the most transparent (the one with the least color). If you use flakes, buy the ones which have the least color.
Shellac can be brushed or “ragged” on. Ragged on means dipping a rag in the stuff and wiping it on the workpiece. I usually do that. On large surfaces, I brush it on, then, with a loosely balled-up clean cotton rag, wipe it into the wood and wipe if off. You don’t need a second coat. If the work surface was prepared by sanding, the shellac will “raise the grain.” Sanding grinds the surface and the liquid swells the torn tissue raising “nibs.” You “de-nib” it or smooth it again very easily by sanding with thoroughly used fine sandpaper. Hold the paper between fingers, not round a block. Either way, it will get clogged with shellac. Paper round a block will pick up patches and ride on them. If the surface was prepared straight from a plane, there will be very little “de-nibbing” to do. Simply sand the surface smooth. Laying on a second coat doesn’t help at all, and it gets messy because you will immediately dissolve the first coat.
You can buy beeswax as block or pellet and formulate your own paste, or you can buy it ready to go in a can. If the can has a list of ingredients on the label you will find it has additives of various kinds — common ones are paraffin wax and carnauba wax.
The product I use is granulated pure bleached beeswax. To make the paste the granules are dissolved in pure turpentine. Into a small widemouth jar, pour about two inches of turps over half an inch of granules — already you can tell this is not exacting chemistry! Stir occasionally and after a day you will have a paste. For me, the best results are achieved when it’s like really soft butter. The consistency in the jar is adjusted by adding one or the other ingredient.
The wax is applied using a cotton rag. A sparing amount rubbed in circles achieves crossgrain and cross area application. Finish by working with the grain. Each successive application will deepen the tone and texture of the surface, but it is best done using a working minimum of wax. After an hour or so, if you buff the surface with a clean, soft cloth you will see the extent of your effort as a luster with some reflection.
Beeswax made in this way can also be mixed with finishing oils. However, there are so many different formulations of proprietary oils — and variations in beeswax — that attempting to offer a recipe is futile. You simply have to give it a try.
A mix I made using General Finishes’ Salad Bowl Finish was one that I found very successful. It gave a hard lustrous result and held up very well. Unfortunately, after a few days, even in an airtight can, it skinned over, then after a few more days went into a solid, unusable mass — but it retained the myth, the mystery and the magic of finishing.