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From Flakes to Finish, Mixing Shellac

Shellac is one of my favorite finishes and sanding sealer. It’s goes on well, dries quickly and  is compatible with many other finish types. Many folks new to woodworking seem to be afraid of it for whatever reasons — bad experiences using stale shellac from a can, association with antique or high end furniture, fear of a water ring or simply not knowing much about it the finish, where to get it or how to use it. I’m hoping to clear the air a bit and encourage more folks to try out this versatile finish.

The most common way most folks have accessed shellac is via a can of Zinsser ‘Bulls-Eye’ shellac which is available from most big box and hardware stores. There is nothing wrong with this product when it is fresh, but it does have a shelf life, so make sure to read the date on the package and get the most recent jar you can find — after 1-2 years on the shelf the canned shellac seems to deteriorate, and even faster once you open the can. You can dilute the canned finish by adding more denatured alcohol to it, thus making it into a lower cut and thus a thinner/lighter finish.

I prefer to mix my own shellac from flakes which is a straightforward process and ensures I always have fresh shellac on hand and of the ‘cut’ I want. (More on shellac ‘cuts’ in a bit..)  When kept in a cool dry place shellac flakes will last for years. Once mixed shellac generally will stay fresh for 6-12 months in a tightly sealed container.

Supplies needed to prepare shellac
Supplies needed to prepare shellac

Where do you get shellac flakes?

Thankfully we are living in a modern hand tool renaissance wherein it seems more and more cottage industries keep popping up with high quality tools and supplies. In recent years I’ve purchased de-waxed shellac flakes from Hock Tools, ToolsForWorkingWood.com, Liberon, Rockler, Woodcraft and Shellac.net .  Sometimes there are seasonal shortages as shellac is a natural product that mostly comes from India and similar parts of the world and in recent years the price of good quality flakes has risen as the result of decreased output due to environmental factors. I most often use blonde or super blonde shellac on lighter woods and as a sanding sealer as it imparts very little color to the wood. I used darker shellacs like amber and garnet on cherry and walnut and similar woods where I want to warm up the color of the wood.

How do I mix up shellac?

With some fresh shellac flakes in hand I will measure out by weight the amount of shellac I want to make. For this example I want to make a pint of 2lb cut of garnet shellac. In order to do this I first needed to weigh out 4oz of shellac. (Remember to zero out your scale taking into account the weight of your empty measuring cup)

Weighing out for the cut you want
Weighing out for the cut you want

Next up I measure out 16oz of denatured alcohol by volume and put it in a re-sealable jar. I like to use glass jars with a rubber seal around them, often made by Fido and similar companies. I usually can get them in good sizes for very reasonable prices at places like ‘The Christmas Tree Shop’ and other discount retailers. The clear glass allows me to see how far along the flakes are in terms of dissolving and how much I have left at a given time.

Flakes dissolving in the alcohol
Flakes dissolving in the alcohol

Before adding the flakes to the alcohol I like to grind them up as much as possible being sure to remove any large lumps. By breaking up the flakes I am increasing the surface area of the flakes thereby helping the shellac to dissolve faster and not leave as many or any clumps in the jar.  In the photo below on the left you can see the flakes as they came from the supplier. On the right are the same flakes after I broke them up. Breaking of the flakes is a quick and easy process. I put the flakes in a strong container where the neck narrows a bit and I crush them using the bottom of my hammer handle. (Wood handle and clean) As I crush a bit of what I measured out I put it into the alcohol to start dissolving.

Shellac as it arrives (Left), Shellac after being broken up (Right)
Shellac as it arrives (Left), Shellac after being broken up (Right)

For the bigger lumps I use the head of the hammer to break them up, again trying to do this in or on a container that will not allow the pieces to fly all over the shop.

Breaking up the chunks
Breaking up the chunks

Once I have all the ground up shellac in the alcohol I swirl it around in the jar and then let it sit someplace in the shop near where I am working. Every so often I give it a quick shake until all the flakes are dissolved. Usually takes about a day and the finer you grind the flakes the better it dissolves.

Keep shaking until dissolved
Keep shaking until dissolved

Once you have your batch of shellac ready to go I usually decant the volume I want to use into a smaller container and filter it during that operation. The smaller paper filters can be found at better finishing supply houses (used a lot with auto finishing) or medical suppliers. I first heard about them at medical suppliers when I had a kidney stone and learned more that I ever wanted to about filtration.

Samples
Samples

When applying shellac by hand I normally make a rectangular rag from old (clean) white undershirts folding the rag to be the size and thickness I want and dip it into the shellac and apply via motions that are similar to using a paint brush. You want to avoid leaving streaks and making sure to take strokes that go from end to end on the piece. You’ll also want to sand between coats with 200+ grit sandpaper, 000 or 0000 steel wool or my new favorite — synthetic steel wool like Mirka Mirlon.

What ‘cut’ is right for me?

A ‘cut‘ or ‘pound cut‘ is the term used to describe the number of pounds of shellac dissolved into a gallon of alcohol. If you want a specific pound cut but don’t need a gallon you simply maintain the same ratio of flakes to alcohol. The table below will show you the most common cuts:

Alcohol (Vol.) 1 pound cut 2 pound cut 3 pound cut
1 Gallon (128 fluid oz) 1Lb. (16oz.) flakes 2Lb. (16oz.) flakes 3Lb. (16oz.) flakes
1/2 Gallon (64 fluid oz) 1/2Lb. (8oz.) flakes 1Lb. (16oz.) flakes 1.5Lb. (24oz.) flakes
1 Quart (32 fluid oz) 1/4Lb. (4oz.) flakes 1/2Lb. (8oz.) flakes 3/4Lb. (12oz.) flakes
1 Pint (16 fluid oz) 1/8Lb. (2oz.) flakes 1/4Lb. (4oz.) flakes 1/2Lb. (8oz.) flakes
1 Cup (8 fluid oz) 1/16Lb. (1oz.) flakes 1/8Lb. (2oz.) flakes 1/4Lb. (4oz.) flakes

I normally start off with a 2lb cut and thin it if I need a lighter cut.

Shellac.net has a nice description of some basic uses for common ‘cut’s of shellac:

In general a “2 Pound Cut” is a good place to start. Several thinner coats are often easier to apply and finish than few heaver coats. work methods, tools, weather, and environment will dictate your ‘pound cut’ preference. A 3 pound cut is generally reserved for priming or sealing of stains, and sap, or knots prior to painting, especially on softer woods. Always use a Dewaxed Shellac as a primer under paint or as a seal-coat under clear finishes.

And ‘Natural Handyman’ has a nice description of the most common uses of shellac here and the relevant snippet for common cut usage would be:

1-lb. – Pre-stain sealing, French Polish finishing
2-lb. – Pre-finish sealing; general wood finishing
3-lb. – Floor finishing; sealing knots & sap streaks
4-lb. – Sealing tough knots & sap streaks, stains

I hope the above has de-mystified some aspects of mixing and working with shellac and I hope that you will incorporate it into some of your own projects.

Time for me to get back out into the shop.

Take care,
-Bill

Building a Budget Spray Booth

I don’t like to sand. It is my least favorite part of woodworking. I use sharp hand tools and scrapers to cut down on how much sanding I need to do, but like death and taxes, for the woodworker sanding is a necessary part of the woodworking lifecycle. This summer I saved up some of what I made from teaching and bought a nice HVLP system. (FujiSpray Mini-Mite 4 with Gravity Fed Gun — more on that in a future post). With a nice HVLP I figured I could cut down on the amount of time I spend sanding a finish as each finish coat will generally go on faster and flatter with the spray gun. I figured I could just setup some cardboard or spray outside, but the New England winter set in and I had a LOT of finishing I need to take care of this season and too much stuff in the shop that I don’t want to get any overspray on so I decided I needed to build a proper spray booth in the basement that would not break the bank and could easily be taken down when I need the space back.

Formufit PVC Spray Booth Kit
Formufit PVC Spray Booth Kit

When looking online for some inspiration the main things I found were — tiny kits for model makers, spray corrals or zip fit walls or full blown industrial car painting booths — none of which really met my needs. I eventually found a company called ‘Formufit’ that sells a kit of specialty PVC connectors that would allow you to build a 7’x7’x7 PVC cube with a hinged door. It looked like a good design to start off with. I also wanted to add filtered air to help deal with overspray.

For Christmas this year I bought all the supplies I needed to build a nice home spray booth — thank you to my wife Alyssa for letting me buy them — and I’ll walk you through the process here.

Supplies
Supplies

The PVC fittings kit cost me $65.00 with shipping and you can find the Formufit Spray Booth Kit here. Below is a rough list of materials I put into this project. I had the tape, 2x4s, pine and screws on hand but added them since not everyone may have that on hand.

Spray Booth Materials List
Spray Booth Materials List

The total I arrived at was $264.62 which is a reasonable price considering how big this booth is and what it can do. I put together a nice time lapse video you can video by clicking here or via the image below.

Spray Booth Time Lapse Video
Spray Booth Time Lapse Video (Click photo to view video)

I’m quite happy with how the booth turned out and bet it will see a lot of use this winter.

If you attempt build your own here are some additional details which may help you along the way:

  1. Covering the floor — for $4 I bought a two pack of disposable painter drop cloths. The upper is paper that can absorb drips and below it is plastic to stop bigger spills. It was good for the price, but if you are not careful can easily be ripped so I found myself taping up some holes I made. Next time out I might get something heavier duty.
  2. Lighting — add some extra lighting above the booth so you can see what you are spraying. In my basement I added three 48″ 2 bulb flourescent fixtures with daylight color temp bulbs I had on hand and they did a great job illuminating the booth.
  3. Finding box fans in New England in the dead of winter is not easy. The only place I could find any was ironically at Walmart via the webpage pick up in store option. I bought 3 ‘Galaxy’ 20″ box fans which use 0.8amps and amazingly are made in the USA. They cost me $16.88 each. Even with the filters in place they are pretty quiet and move a good amount of air.
  4. I built a frame out of 2x4s to house the box fans and allow me to stand them vertically. The 2xs are attached with 3″ ceramic deck screws. The box fans are attached to the frame via #14 x 3/4″ pan head screws. I used holes already in the bottom of the fans to attach one side.
    Fan Housing
    Fan Housing

    On the other sides I used a starter punch to make a dent and then drilled through the sheet metal into the frame. That method worked great. When making the frame make sure you leave enough space for your hand to get to the control knob on the fan. The bottom is left long to function as feet and keep the bottom fan above the bottom PVC of the booth. I also zip tied the wires together and used a 3 way splitter to connect them. This way I can control the fans via a single extension cord. I also screwed on some wood scrap legs/supports to keep the fan enclosure standing upright on its own.

    Fan Housing
    Fan Housing
  5. Plastic Sheeting — get the thickest stuff you budget will allow. I bought 10’x25′ rolls of 4mil plastic which you can find in the roofing section of a large building supply store. I put one roll over the top and left and right side of the booth. From the second roll I cut out 9′ sections to make a front and back. I used the remainder of the roll to cover the fan frame and allowing overlap. Once stapled to the fan frame I cut out circles to direct the air flow and seal the booth. I used medium sized spring clamps to hold the plastic onto the spray booth frame.
  6. 1-1/4″ PVC was a little harder to find at the store, but once you had it in hand it cuts easily on a chop saw with a carbide blade. Cutting the pieces to length was easy via the plans that came with the kit. I could measure and cut one piece then use that as a template with a sharpie to transfer it to the others and cut off the sharpie line each time. Use a rubber mallet or arm strength to seat all the pipe pieces in the fitting. The only joints that were glued were the small pieces holding the hinges together. Everything else can be broken down or altered to fit your space.
  7. Filters — buy the cheapest filters you can find that looks like they’d actually do some filtering. Some were so cheap and thin you could see them. I bought two 3 packs of 3M filtrete filters that cost $7.99 for each pack and have some wire to help stiffen the filter as well. On the fan housing I tacked on some wood blocks that allow me to tape the filters in place. When the fans are on they hold themselves on so the tape really just keeps them from falling when the fans are off.
    Fans ready for testing. (Filter holding blocks in place)
    Fans ready for testing. (Filter holding blocks in place)

    For the intake air frame I just pocket screwed together some scrap pine I had in the shop being careful to tightly fit the opening to the size of the filters. I then tape the filters in place from the outside. This frame was hung from that PVC frame via a small bit of chain and some ‘S’ hooks.

    Frame for intake air filters
    Frame for intake air filters
  8. For the door make sure to use some double sided tape (or looped tape in my case) to keep the plastic on the door frame and make sure there is overlap so you can have some level of seal when the fans are on.
  9. Integrating the filter and fan frames. I put the wall sheeting in place, then places the fan frame where I wanted it. I then cut in like how you’d cut house wrap for a window and then stapled the plastic onto the wood frame thus making a good overlapping seal. The intake filter frame was hung up first, then overlaid with plastic and cut in, in a similar manner. With the door closed there is a pretty good amount of suction — you’ll see the plastic on the walls and ceiling suck in a bit, but that is good news and shows the power of the fans. (The clamps on the frame will keep the plastic from coming down on your head or your work.)

This was a fun project to build and I look forward to finally getting some more practice in with the spray gun.

Take care,
-Bill

IMPORTANT NOTE:
See safety disclaimer for the website here. The fans used here are not rated for flammable materials. I am only using this booth to spray water based finishes and a ways from the filters. If you plan to spray flammable materials you should do so outside or with a setup that includes a spark proof fan. Information provided on this blog is without warranty, so please use common sense when trying anything like this at home. If anything feels dangerous, do not do it. Also make sure to wear proper eye, ear and lung protection when working with finishes.

I am a Joiner…

I’ve been keeping my local haberdasher busy as I often find myself wearing a wide variety of hats in the course of my work. I regularly have to function as a preservation carpenter, cabinet maker, turner, tailor, timber framer, historian, carver, draftsmen, author, instructor, blogger, handyman and traditional hat aficionado.

That’s a bit of a mouthful to rattle off when you meet someone new.  To simplify I usually tell people I work as a traditional joiner. Often there is a bit of a pause and some clarifying questions. Many folks realize that most of the epithets above generally revolve around a core of skilled woodworking, but they cannot articulate what makes it a true specialty.

Symbol of a Joiner -- Axe for Rough Work and Chisel for Fine Work and Joinery
Symbols of a Joiner — Carpenter’s Axe for Rough Work and Chisel for Fine Work and Joinery
What does it mean to be a joiner?
Let’s consult our trusty friend the dictionary:
join·er
noun
1. a person who constructs the wooden components of a building, such as stairs, doors, and door and window frames. *

That’s a start, but doesn’t capture the whole of what makes someone a joiner…

In a traditional sense a carpenter often works on the frame and envelope of the building. The joiner is a specialized type of carpenter who literally ‘joins wood’ often focusing on the production of windows, doors, staircases, wainscoting, built-in case goods and other items that make up a home and require a higher degree of skill compared with regular or ‘rough carpentry.’ A joiner’s work often starts in the shop and ends out in the field as it gets installed in the client’s home or business location.  In more rural locales a joiner often functioned as a part time cabinet-maker regularly delving into finer work that required a high level of skill. Many traditional ‘country’ style pieces of furniture were often made by joiners using the same tools and techniques as any other cabinetmaker. In urban areas where there was enough demand to support specialized trades and full time cabinetmakers we can still find records demonstrating how joiners were able to compete and straddle the line between fine finish carpenter and cabinetmaker.

Full size story board for a door pediment
Full size story board for a door pediment

How does this relate to modern day woodworkers? Are joiners simply modern finish carpenters?

A ‘modern day’ Carpenter generally starts with materials procured from big box stores and lumber yards that are manufactured and uses them to build homes largely by assembling those pieces, using modern fasteners and possibly customizing a few of the details. All of this lends itself well to the use of modern tools and methods.

In contrast, many of today’s ‘Preservation Carpenters’ occupy the space between a carpenter and dedicated cabinetmaker, thus effectively taking on the role of a Joiner —  equally at home in front the bench or on the construction site. A joiner often starts with raw materials (wood etc) and has to fabricate the items he or she needs to produce — doors, windows, built-ins, large case pieces etc. using traditional joinery, tools and techniques. Sure some modern and powered conveniences can simplify a few tasks, but often the most expedient way to generate the intricate joinery and intended results is to use the same tools and techniques our forefathers used. Routers and sand-paper cannot reproduce the same results you get from a sharp plane iron and a skilled hand. All the fancy tech-laden measuring devices on the market cannot beat the simple efficiency and accuracy of a story stick and a marking knife. Biscuits and dominoes are no replacement for through mortises and draw-boring.

Hand made window sash
Hand made window sash

Other hallmarks of a good joiner is an attention to detail and knowledge of classical orders (especially with respect to moldings), layout and proportion. If you get the proportions wrong on a piece of furniture you can potentially hide it in a corner, if you mess up a cornice or fenestration on a building you cannot hide it. A joiner’s work is joinery on the large scale, out in public view and it demands that you stay on top of your game from layout through execution.

What’s next?

My goal is to help preserve the ancient trade of being a Joiner for future generations. I am attempting to accomplish this via my travels and in my teaching. I hope to continue helping others learn how to be good joiners, cabinetmakers, carpenters and hobbyists.  No matter what you call yourself or what you specialize in, woodworking requires creativity and hand skills which are taught through practice and maintained through continued use and passion for the craft.

If you are interested in learning more about traditional joiners, please stay tuned to this blog. In the meantime if you have any questions, you can contact me here.

-Bill

*  The definition above was taken from here. The rest is based on my own life experiences. Your mileage may vary.