Lacquer and shellac both produce glossy, high shine finishes. Both offer a high level of protection for the wood in your home, but there are major differences between them. Popular finishes of the past have now been replaced by polyurethane, which is covered here as well.
What Is Lacquer?
Lacquer is a clear or colored varnish that dries by solvent evaporation and often has a curing process as well. This produces a hard, durable finish that can be glossy or matte, allowing you to choose the level of shine you want. Both types of finish can be polished further to the user's desire.
The finisher can control the color and sheen, and lacquer stands up very well over time. It is easy to apply, polish, and repair, so if there are scuff marks they can easily be erased. If necessary, lacquer can be stripped and removed, allowing freedom of choice down the road if you want to apply another finish to the wood. It also bonds well with successive layers of finish.
Where it differs from shellac is in its ease of use. Shellac does not stand up well to the test of time, as it can turn cloudy with age. It also dissolves very easily with alcohol spills.
What Is Shellac?
Shellac is a flaky resin secreted by the female lac bug to form a cocoon. This bug is often found on trees in the forests of India and Thailand, and its waxy resin is used to protect the cocoons for its larvae. To be used in shellac, the resin is scraped off of trees, processed into flakes or powder, and mixed with an alcohol solvent. This makes shellac very easy to apply, as it dries quickly thanks to the alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol spills also make shellac susceptible to dissolving.
Though lacquer is more popular today because of its durability, shellac was more popular with pre-1960 furniture. One of the major differences between shellac and lacquer is shellac's ability to shine and hold color. In fact, shellac is still used as a glaze for candies such as Skittles because of this ability. Lacquer generally holds the color of the wood it is placed on, while shellac comes in a variety of different colors. Another common use for shellac today is on musical instruments.
Shellac also naturally dries to a high-gloss sheen, unlike lacquer which must be polished. It is this high-gloss sheen that is often seen on the outside of drums. A more matte finish can be achieved with shellac by mixing lac flakes with denatured alcohol. Since shellac naturally contains a small amount of wax, it is necessary to de-wax the shellac if coating it with a varnish.
What Is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is a synthetic finish that is the most commonly used now. There is little reason to use lacquer or shellac because of this invention. Though it can be damaged by alcohol spills, spar or marine varnish is not hurt by alcohol spills and is commonly used to coat bars in restaurants or neighborhood taverns.
Now you are well informed on whether to choose a lacquer, shellac, or polyurethane finish.
Edward Kimble, a professional painter and author of Interior House Painting Blog, contributed to this article.