The Shellac Project--Fernandez Music, P.O. Box 5153, Irvine, CA 92616

Photo of buttonlacs, flake shellacs and seedlac

Some background

In the spring of 2006 my long time supplier of shellacs discontinued selling such products. I could not find a satisfactory alternative source so, having been an importer of wood and guitars for several decades, I decided to find a good source and to import my own stock. In the summer of 2006 I imported 16 grades of shellac products directly from India.

While I was searching for a new supplier I also spoke with a number of luthiers involved in french polishing. Here are some things I learned from my intial research.

1) Few suppliers in the Europe and North America offered a wide range of shellacs, seedlacs and buttonlacs. Luthiers and professional finishers needed access to more than simply clear/light grades of shellac in order to match colors on old instruments or to achieve custom tones for their new instruments. One maker has long sought shellacs which have a limited amount of "yellow" color as opposed to the "golden" and "apricot" tones (more on this at another time)--he has a hard time finding such shellacs.

2) Often the grades of shellacs were not clearly represented. Also, some distributors made up their own names of grades which added to the confusion. Usually, the colors of the shellacs were not presented in a useful way despite the fact that for many years the Indian sellers employed numerical color systems. One common system distingished colors on a 30 point scale--1 being the lighest and 30 being the darkest. Another system used a 60 point scale.

3) The wax content of different grades was not made explicit. Wax content is an important issue for finishers.

4) A number of experienced french polishers had recently encountered shellacs flakes which were partially insoluble in alcohol.

5) There was a diverse opinions on the role of oils in french polishing.

6) Good research on shellac was hard to find. The 2 main works on shellac were both out of print. I was lucky to find copies of these through old book dealers--one in the mid-west and the other in Australia. These books are:

Shellac: Its Origin and Application by Edward Hicks published in 1961 by Chemical Publishing Co in New York.

Shellac by Angelo Brothers Limited, Cossipore, Calcutta, India. Originally published in 1956 and republished in 1965

The first of these 2 books was writtten by Edward Hicks who was the sales manager of William Zinsser & Co which has been a major importer of shellac into the US for many years. The second book is by the Angelo Brothers who were major exporters of shellac from India since the mid-1800's and who invented machine processing of shellac.

With the above matters in mind I attended the 2006 convention of the Guild of American Luthiers in Tacoma and discussed these problems with several people.

As a result of all of this I decided that I would share my own recent research on shellac with others, help others to learn about shellac for their finishing needs, and ask others to share their knoweldge and experience in these matters. Since I believe that hands-on experimentation is some of the best training, I decided that it would be useful to many people to have a wide variety of shellac grades so they could experiment with them. These are the reasons I have put together the Shellac Sampler kits. I hope that you will e-mail me with your comments and insights after using these lac products.

September 29, 2006

There are now a number of fine luthiers and French polishers who have acquired the Shellac Sampler. With the purpose of refining our knowledge I ask for interested individuals to share their insights into any other following topics:

1) Methods of filtering shellac: coffee filters, paper towels, cheese cloth, settling and decanting. One violin maker told me that coffee filters and paper towels take too much of the "solids" out of dissolved shellac. He feels that cheese cloth is the way to go. Is simply decanting the dissolved shellac and leaving the dredges at the bottom a satisfactory method?

2) Bleaching methods. Have any of you used activated charcoal, or commercial bleach to lighten a shellac based varnish. What tones are you looking for? What is the procedure and results?

3) Soluability issues. I have heard at least 6 makers discuss the issue of old shellacs which do not dissolve completely. Does anyone have insight into this matter? Why does this happen? Oxidation, ultraviolet rays, heat, humidity? How do you prevent this problem?

4) Gums and Resins. What do you add to the basic shellac? Sanderac, mastic, dragon's blood, copal, saffron, pixie dust? What are your results? How do you know that you are getting the results you seek?

5) Oils. There are some who use no oils while French Polishing Many use non-drying oils such as mineral oil or olive oil. Others use walnut oil. What are your experiences with any of these? Does walnut oil dry in layers?

6) Acetone. There is some talk about adding acetone to a shellac varnish to quicken drying. Does this additive cause any problems?

Please send me your comments about these and related issues. I will reference you by name and present your opinions. I may edit for clarity but I will ask permission to do so.

I will be separating out information under distinct heading for easy retrival.

You can email me at:

To go to the Shellac Sampler press here

For details about my DVD French Polishing for Guitarmakers 2.0, press here.

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