Shellac is a natural resin secreted by insects. The resin is collected, strained, spread into sheets and broken into flakes. You dissolve the flakes in denatured alcohol. More commonly, though, you buy canned shellac that's already dissolved in alcohol.
Natural shellac has an orange tint and adds warmth to a wood finish. However, you can buy bleached shellac that has the orange tint removed. Most shellac contains a wax that is also a natural product of the insects that create the resin. Some shellac is "de-waxed," that is, the wax has been removed. Use only dewaxed shellac as a seal coat under a polyurethane finish.
Before the advent of lacquer, shellac was the primary finish found on furniture. It was also used widely on woodwork in homes before the introduction of polyurethane. While certainly a time-tested finish, shellac is not as protective and durable as varnish, lacquer and water-based finishes.
Shellac dries fast and can be applied by brush, pad, or spray. It's not as durable as many other finishes.
Varnishes, such as polyurethane, can be built up to create a very durable, protective finish.
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