Amber Shellac: The classic finish for knotty pine — made from bug poop!

amber shellac

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As far as I know, Amber Shellac has been and always will be the classic retro finish for knotty pine. Our grandpas and dads were putting this orange-honey-gold finish on their unfinished knotty pine back in the 1950 and 1960s — and the product is still available today as Bulls Eye Shellac, by Zinsser, which is a Rust-Oleum Company. Shellac is a very interesting product — one of its key ingredients is insect secretions — I think that means, bug poop. (And you know how poop history always interest me.) Read on.

According to Rust-Oleum:

Bulls Eye® Shellac is an alcohol-based solution of lac, a natural resin imported mainly from India, that is available in Clear and Amber tones. Clear shellac dries transparent with a faint, golden cast that is much lighter than oil-base varnishes, while amber shellac has a warm, orange cast that gives a rich, antique-look to woodwork. Bulls Eye Shellac has many advantages over other clear finishes: it’s easy to use, dries quickly, is non-toxic when dry and cleans up easily with ammonia and water.

Digging into the “lac” on the Wikipedia, we learn:

Lac is the scarlet resinous secretion of a number of species of insects, namely some of the species of the genera MetatachardiaLacciferTachordiellaAustrotacharidiaAfrotachardina, and Tachardina of the superfamily Coccoidea, of which the most commonly cultivated species is Kerria lacca.

The above-mentioned families are some of the 28 families of scale insects and mealybugs comprising a large group of about 8,000 described species of plant sucking insects, a few of which produce similar natural products (e.g., cochineal and crimson). Thousands of these tiny insects colonize branches of suitable host trees and secrete the resinous pigment. The coated branches of the host trees are cut and harvested as sticklac.

The harvested sticklac is crushed and sieved to remove impurities. The sieved material is then repeatedly washed to remove insect parts and other soluble material. The resulting product is known as seedlac. The prefix seed refers to its pellet shape. It is used in violin and other varnish and is soluble in alcohol. This type of lac was used in the finishing of 18th-century fowling guns in the United States. Seedlac which still contains 3-5% impurities is processed into shellac by heat treatment or solvent extraction.

The leading producer of Lac is … India. Lac production is also found in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, parts of China, and Mexico.

…The use of lac dye goes back to ancient times. It has been used in India as a skin cosmetic and dye for wool and silk. In China it is a traditional dye for leather goods. The use of lac for dye has been supplanted by synthetic dyes. It is used in medicine as a hepatoprotective and antiobesity drug.

Back to knotty pine….I asked Rust-Oleum several questions about their shellac and also for their recommendations on cleaning knotty pine that already has a finish on it. They responded:

Q. Two finishes … and let’s talk “retro authentic”. Rust-Oleum Answer: We offer Shellac in a clear and Shellac in a traditional amber. The amber option is the one that will provide a warm amber-orange-ish color. It’s a personal preference whether or not you prefer the clear finish over the warm, amber finish. The classic Shellac does have that amber (a little orange-ish) tone, which is probably what you are referring to when you call it the “classic” or “patina” look. I would suggest using the amber option for a more retro look, but it’s a personal preference.

Q. Use a wood conditioner first? Rust-O A: If you are using Shellac on unfinished wood, wood conditioner is not needed. Wood conditioner is really only used on wood stains, not clear finishes including shellac.

Q. Is it oil or water-based? Rust-O A: Shellac is cut in alcohol with a little bit of water, but it is not considered water-base. When using a shellac, we suggest wearing gloves as its coating is extremely durable, hence you would not want to get it on your bare skin. 

Q. Cleaning knotty pine that already has a finish: Rust-O A: In regards to cleaning, a slightly damp cloth should do the trick. Never saturate the surface with water, instead a cloth is best to avoid puddling. Also clear topcoats should not be cleaned with the following:

  • Any chemical cleaners with alcohol as an ingredient – it will may cause the shellac to gum up
  • Vinegar – contrary to popular opinion, the acid in vinegar will slowly etch the surface over time and ruin the sheen of the wood finish
  • Waxes and oil-based detergents: leave a sticky residue

Note: Clear shellac also can be used for a topcoat for wood trim, furniture and cabinetry. It’s not just for knotty pine.

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Comments

  1. ChrisH says

    Use a good quality varnish brush to apply shellac. Varnish brushes are the ones with the white bristles.

  2. Nancy PeBenito says

    Do you know if you can apply over an existing finish like varnish? I had someone replace baseboards to match the original knotty pine, but I think they said over time it would turn to the amber color. I don’t think so and I’d like to use some of this over top. Would that work or do I have to sand and redo?

    • ChrisH says

      Sand the baseboards with 220 grit sandpaper, just enough so that they are no longer shiny. The Shellac should stick to it then.

    • says

      Nancy,

      I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unfortunately, anytime there is some type of film-building protective top coat on wood, such as polyurethane, lacquer, varnish etc…. you have to sand it down before applying a new film-building product. If you don’t, you can run into issues with adhesion. Good luck!!

  3. J.R. says

    One of my favorite wood finishes… Not for the novice though, it is notoriously difficult to use. 1st coat is easy, but misleading… the more coats the more difficult as it bites hard into the previous coats and can turn into a lumpy mess. Practice on a few large scrap surfaces before trying a real project. For flat surfaces, I use a firm sponge with a lint-free face cloth to apply. For anything with a curve I dip or spray.

    • Jacy says

      I completely agree. I jumped whole-heartedly into re-shellack-ing a bunch of my knotty pine built-in cabinets. The very difficutl thing about this stuff is that you need to work QUICKLY so you can add an even coat. Since this stuff is tinted, every time you add a stroke of your brush it gets darker! My husband decided to give it a try and decided to leave it to me. I’m really not looking forward to workig on the kitchen cabinets! AGH!

    • J.R. says

      As difficult as shellac can be, back then it was still more user friendly than the slow-drying varnishes and lacquers were. Today there are much better options though. I love shellac, and would use it in a heartbeat for paneling in a den, living, or family room. I use it regularly in restoring furniture of many kinds. I would not use it in a kitchen or bath today though. Shellac is fragile, it scratches easily and is not particularly water resistant. Grease, petroleum products and alcohol (which many cleaners contain) will damage it. Add those drawbacks to its inherent fussiness to even apply, and I’ll go with tinted quick-dry spar varnish for kitchen or bath applications today.

  4. Just another Pam says

    I second J.R.’s excellent advice and would like to add…..ventilation, lots and lots of it. Until I learned how imperative tons of ventilation is I got quite a buzz off shellac when using it for a few hours.

  5. zumpie says

    It’s a different sort of secretion, only from the females–more like from “the other part down there”, if you will.

    That said, I looooove shellac!

  6. Chutti says

    Yep. Bug stuff. Saw an amaaaazing exhibit about lac bugs at a natural history museum in Calcutta, and never forgot it.

    Y’all have heard me proseltyze about shellac before.
    Yes, it can get ooky with too much exposure to alcohol and/or grease.
    But it’s just so darned easy to work with.
    I don’t mind being a bit picky about the brushwork, cause it dries so fast.
    I always spruced up my kitchen cabinets with a quick coat about every 3 years. Only took 1/2 a day-it really does dry quick.

    And nothing will ever allow you to maintain/correct that patina like you can with amber shellac.
    Love that stuff!

  7. JAVA says

    Hmmmm, at first I thought I found the right stuff to restore my grandparents 1959 kitchen cabinets, but then read the warning about using it in the kitchen, I guess I still have some research to do for the best option to use in the kitchen combined with the correct shade appropriate to the era.

    • Chutti says

      Don’t get too scared of kitchen comments………that’s exactly where I’ve used it to great effect.

      I guess I tend to get the alcohol in my gullet versus on the counter? I hope?

      Seriously. The reason I love it so, is it is super forgiving, and I am picky about patina and finish. My niece burned a big old electric skillet ring on my KP counter finished with Amber Shellac. I sanded very briefly to get off the burny stuff, applied two coats each a day apart, and within a week, the patina matched the rest of the kitchen that had been there since 1960. Can’t think of another product that can do that!

      Maybe try some on a little piece of wood you leave in your kitchen and see what you think? It’s always been so forgiving for me.

  8. Woonstruck says

    I’m a little surprised that no one mentioned an important issue: shellac has a distinct shelf-life. It begins — unopened — to change properties over time, with the general rule that one should use product that has a manufacture date within one year. The date on the can is no longer straightforward, ahem, but the code is easy to find online. I’m also going to quibble with the RustOleum rep: people have been recoating shellac for most of the past century. Overall, as with any finishing product, the internet is there: use it. Research, research, research.

    • Just another Pam says

      What Woonstruck says is true. Check multiple pages and if you can find a copy of an old book called “The Furniture Doctor” it’s not only a fantastic read where you’ll learn a lot about how finishing was done in times past but you’ll learn about how high end fakes were created if you are buying antiques. The day I stopped doing this sort of thing my son took this bible to finishing et al home to cherish.

      You can easily learn to mix your own, it’s really not that difficult, and by mixing it in small batches you are doing the environment a favour as well as your “pocketbook” …..old timey product…old timey expression ;o….

      Should you ever be sealing knots to paint it’s particularly nice to be able to mix your own for a small job. It also seals pieces you don’t like the smell of for whatever reason.

    • says

      Woonstruck,

      That’s a valid point. Every DIYer has a different level of experience and expertise. We recommend that if you are applying a finish or varnish over an existing finish to sand the surface first to allow for maximum adhesion to achieve the best results. However, like I said everyone has their own level of expertise and experience.

  9. Trouble says

    Now…if I could only figure out how to route out the pine to make my own knotty pine….
    I have a bunch of original stuff, but it’s maybe 7′ tall at most. God! I would LOVE (and so would my wife and son) to make a knotty pine den!!!
    We go to open houses in the old ‘hoods all the time to see what’s still original. Found a knotty pine study (with limestone F/P) and original fixtures and period goodies. None of us wanted to leave.
    Except my daughter. She’s 6. And didn’t care.

  10. Trouble says

    It’s funny how “poop” stuff interests, you but you always want the toilet lid closed when we send Bathroom pics. Mine is just about done now. When it is, I’m gonna send you some pics and I’ll make sure to have a Baby Ruth in the can with the LID UP! Lol
    Yes, real Baby Ruth. I’m not a sicko

  11. Amy in Portland says

    I came looking for knotty pine finishing and maybe amber shellac is what I need! We have a 1951 mid-century modest with a upper half-story walled with unfinished knotty pine. It was used as a bedroom for teen girls in the 50′s and 60′s and has lots of pin and small nail holes but otherwise is in good shape. Sand and shellac? Any other advice for never-finished knotty pine of this age? Thanks!

  12. AskDavid says

    Thanks for the tip. I missed out on a house with a vintage 80′ basement barroom in knotty pine and I am intent on recreating one in my new bungalow. I have found pine planking in varied widths at a log home supply but I really, really wanted that Ol’Timey honey gold finish. YOU came to my rescue. Thank you, thank you, thank you

  13. Alice says

    Any suggestions for how to remove the previous finish from the grooves of the paneling? Our paneling finish is a bit streaky/uneven and I’m interested in sanding and trying the shellac, but what to do about the grooves (which are approximately 1-2 inches wide, so they will show up).?

  14. Samantha says

    Hello!
    I have dark knotty pine in my dark narrow side room that has driven me crazy since I moved into my otherwise everything ok mid century home. I have it set up as a dining room but thinking to ditch it and turn it into a tv den room. My question is, if the panelling is dry, I live in a very dry climate New Mexico, what is the best method to get it to gleam? It has a varnish on it already and from what I read here, putting oils on it is a no no. I was considering taking it out, but, after looking at photos, am rethinking it completely. I hate the carpet in there, it’s boring beige.. I think that is why I was not liking the paneling, I don’t know.. any suggestion are appreciated. Oh, it is a high traffic area too. Garage entrance, side door entrance and backyard entrance… if that gives you any idea! Oh, also my gas fireplace backs it to the wall and the original architect/owner’s daughter (yes, she came over and introduced herself! we are friends, and she sends me stuff on the house, it’s great!) told me that the side of the fireplace that has paneling on it was once open space between the side room and the living room, and they had a hanging tv in it!! It sounded so cool. So, I bought the home from the 2nd owners. She can’t remember the paneling at all. She sent me photos of the home and is trying to find one of that area, I told her I’d love to see a hanging tv that turned! It turned to both rooms…! I always thought that room was an add-on, but she said no it was original. House was built in 1963. Thanks! Samantha

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