How to Remove Shellac from Wood Quickly

Strip shellac today
How to Remove Shellac from wood

Wondering how to remove shellac from wood? Then, you are in the right place.

Shellac was one of the most preferred wood sealants and varnish among woodworkers before the 1920s. Reason being that it is a tough wood primer and sealant.

If your furniture has been around for such a long time, you are definitely looking at a shellac wood stain on your antique.

While it protects the wooden furniture, removing shellac needs skills and the right products. We have elaborated the methods and steps for you to use and scrape shellac from wood for refinishing purposes.

How to Remove Shellac Coating on Woodwork

You can remove shellac from wood such as floors or furniture using denatured alcohol. First, apply the denatured alcohol liberally on the shellac, let it sit for 2-3 minutes. Thereafter, remove the dissolved shellac using a clean cotton rag or a plastic paint scraper. You can also sand or use a chemical stripper to remove shellac.

Test Whether the Wood Finish is Shellac or Lacquer

There’re a few indicators you can begin with. The first one is Age. If you know exactly how old that wooden piece is, you can tell whether it is shellac or lacquer.

If you have no idea about its age, we have a sure way out. Drop a little bit of denatured alcohol on an inconspicuous part of the wood.

Let it sit for about a minute or two. If the finish dissolves and becomes sticky, that’s definitely shellac.

Apply a dab of lacquer thinner to the wood surface. If after a minute the wood finish dissolves and wipes off, you are indeed looking at a lacquer finish.

If the finish only liquefies but doesn’t dissolve, it’s probably a mixture of shellac and lacquer. In which case, use equal parts of both denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner.

Now that you are sure you have shellac on your wood it’s time to strip it off.

Method 1- Removing Shellac From Wood Using Denatured Alcohol

Denatured alcohol is your gate pass to the quick and successful removal of shellac from wood. If you are working on restoring an antique without damaging it in any way, this is your best bet. 

Before you get down to business, ensure you have rubber gloves with you since denatured alcohol is caustic. Next, ensure you have a protective mask to avoid inhaling the strong fumes emitted by this alcohol.

Finally, ensure you are working in a well-ventilated space—outside. If you must work in an enclosed space, make sure to open the windows and switch on the fans.

The idea is to ensure the free flow of air for your own sake. Also, keep in mind that denatured alcohol is highly flammable.

Tools and materials

Removing the Shellac from Furniture

Step 1: Protect yourself by wearing gloves, a mask, and goggles.

Step 2: Saturate a clean rag in denatured alcohol.

Step 3: Rub the saturated rag on the shellac using light circular motions. Let it sit for a few minutes. Then, reapply the alcohol on the shellac if it evaporates too soon before getting the job done.

 Step 4: Rub the dissolved and sticky shellac off the wood using the same rag soaked in the alcohol.

You can rub in whichever direction works for you. Change the rag as soon as it gets too stained with shellac.

 Step 5: Use a plastic paint scraper to remove shellac from hard-to-reach areas of the wood. In this case, you should drag the paint scraper on the surface of the wood instead of pushing it. That way, you have minimal chances of scratching the wood.

Step 6: Repeat the process for all the areas of the wood surface. Work on small sections at a time.

 Step 7: Dispose of the entire shellac residue, the stained rag, and the paint scraper.

 Store the denatured alcohol away from open flames, kids, or pets.

Method 2- Removing Shellac from Wood by Sanding

Sanding is an effective method for removing the shellac finish, among other paint and varnishes from wood.

Even though it is a tedious job, it is the best option, especially if you plan to refinish the piece of wood. Sanding requires preparation and lots of patience. We recommend you work outdoors if you can.

If you must work indoors, then you need to dust-proof everything you wouldn’t want to catch dust. You also need to wear protective clothing.

Use the correct sandpaper grit, so you don’t damage the piece of wood in attempts to remove shellac. You need to be extra cautious if you are handling antique wood.

Tools and materials

The steps

Step 1: Wear your mask, gloves, and long-sleeved clothing to protect yourself. Ensure your workstation is well-ventilated. Also, ensure you have every tool and material you will need to execute the task at hand.

Step 2: Begin sanding using 150-grit sandpaper—Wrap the sandpaper around the sanding pad. Then sand the piece of wood. This coarse grit will break and loosen every layer of shellac on the wood. Again, remember to sand following the grain of the wood.

If you opt for a random orbital sander, your work will be a lot easier. Set up your random orbital sander and begin sanding using 150-grit. This option works best for flat surfaces such as tabletops. 

This random orbital sander has a vacuum attached to it: so as you sand, it collects the dust and spares you a dusty room. This means you use a little less effort, and you get to save a lot of time.

Step 3: Wipe the loosened dust using a tack cloth. If you are using a power sander, go straight to step four.

 Step 4: Sand the shellac on the wood further using 220-grit sandpaper. This is for either the power sander or handheld sandpaper. This fine grit sandpaper helps eliminate any left-over shellac on the wood and smooth the wood.

Step 5: Wipe the loose dust again using a clean tack cloth.

This will let you examine the wood to see how much of the shellac you have removed from the wood. The wood should look even and feel smooth to the touch.

 Step 6: Give the wood a final clean wipe using a damp cloth.

This step applies to sanding done using both a power sander and handheld sandpaper. Then clean up your workstation and store well the re-usable tools and materials.

Were you able to remove every trace of shellac from your piece of wood? If your answer is yes, congratulations! However, if your answer is no, don’t be disheartened.

You can either repeat the sanding process or use denatured alcohol in the steps we have discussed above.

Don’t forget to finish the wood to guarantee its longevity.

Method 3- Removing Shellac Using a Chemical Stripper

Chemical strippers can guarantee a clean job without any damage to the wood beneath.

The safety of the wood underneath shellac lies in your hands. You only need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and be cautious while using the putty knife or steel wool.

Once you get the hang of it, you can use this method to strip stains and varnishes from your wood. The chemical strippers can come in liquid form or gel-like form.

The gel-like stripper suits both vertical and horizontal surfaces. Liquid chemical strippers are best used on horizontal surfaces. 

The only disadvantage of using a chemical stripper to get rid of shellac and any other paints, stains, or varnishes from wood is its health and environmental dangers.

Since it’s a chemical, you are required to use it while wearing chemical-proof gloves, respirators, goggles, and long-sleeved clothes, and boots. Also, work in a well-ventilated space and seal off any other surfaces that shouldn’t come into contact with the stripper.

The question you should answer before going down this path is, is it worth it? Have you exhausted all other options? If your answers are “yes,” then, by all means, carry on following these steps below. 

Tools and materials

  • Chemical stripper
  • Paintbrush
  • Putty knife
  • Grade #0000  fine steel wool
  • Clean rag
  • Respirator
  • Chemical-resistant gloves
  • Goggles
  • An overall/coverall and boots

The steps

Step 1: Ensure the workstation is well-ventilated -preferably outdoors. Wear your gloves, goggles and respirator to protect your body.

Step 2: Apply a thick coat chemical stripper on the shellac using a paintbrush. Go for two coats to be sure you have applied enough.

 Step 3: Let it work its magic for about half an hour or for as long as the manufacturer states.

 Step 4: Use a putty knife to test a small area if the shellac loosened and is ready to come off.

 Step 5: Gently scrape in the direction of the wood grain to lift off the loosened shellac from the wood. Remove as much as you can. Also, be careful not to gouge the wood.

 Step 6: Use a ball of fine-grade steel wool to remove shellac from hard-to-reach curves and corners of the wood. You only need to apply light pressure here.

Step 7: Wipe the surface with a damp cloth to remove any lingering shellac and chemical stripper residue. Use a white cloth to tell when no more residues are transferring to the cloth. Also, you can dispose of it later.

 Step 8: Clean your workstation and dispose of the debris appropriately. Store what’s left of the chemical stripper according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Method 4- Using cooper’s Paint and varnish stripper and cooper’s Paint and varnish flusher

These two items will work like magic to remove shellac from your wood. These products guarantee excellent results in less than 10 minutes or slightly more, depending on how large a surface you work on.

The steps to using them are pretty easy to follow. You can get these products from their website.

You will need

  • Cooper’s Paint and varnish stripper
  • Paint and varnish flusher
  • Plastic paint scrappy or putty knife
  • A clean cloth
  • Scrubber pad
  • Gloves and mask

The Removal Steps

Step 1: First, you want to seal off the rest of the surfaces from coming into contact with these products. Next, wear your gloves and mask.

Step 2: Spray cooper’s paint and varnish stripper on the shellac. Spray to soak every inch of the wood. Leave it on for about a minute or two for it to dissolve the shellac.

Step 3: Next, drag a paint scraper on the dissolved shellac to let it loose and drop it off. Repeat this process until you have removed most of it from the wood surface.

Step 4: Use a scrubber pad to get to hard-to-reach areas of the wood. Follow the direction of the wood grain while you do this. Again remove as much as you can. Reapply the stripper if you see the need to.

Step 5: Then it is time to apply cooper’s paint and varnish flusher. Spray liberally to cover all parts of the almost bare wood.

Step 6: Use a white cloth to wipe the wooden surface thoroughly to ensure no debris remains lying on the wood. Wipe until the cloth comes off clean. Which then translates to a clean wood: free of shellac and cooper’s stripper and flusher products.

Step 7: Final step is to clean your workstation and store the remaining products safely.

FAQs

What will dissolve shellac?

Dry shellac flakes can dissolve in methanol, butyl and isopropyl alcohol, and denatured ethanol-which you can buy from a paint store or hardware stores. Each has different evaporation speeds, beginning with the quickest; methanol, followed by ethanol, then butyl, and finally, isopropyl alcohol.

Can I sand off shellac?

Yes, you can sand off shellac as you would do with other finishes. You can sand using a power sander or palm sandpaper with a sanding pad. Begin sanding off the shellac using 150-grit. Wipe off the dust in between sanding. Finish with 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe off the dust particles. Finally, wipe the wood with a damp rag.

How do I remove shellac easily from carved furniture?

You can easily remove shellac from carved furniture using denatured alcohol. First, use a clean rag to apply a generous amount of denatured alcohol to the shellac. After two minutes, dip fine steel wool into denatured alcohol, then use it to scrub off shellac from your carved furniture. Finally, give your furniture a final wipe using a clean, damp rag.

How do you remove old shellac from furniture?

Denatured alcohol can remove shellac from old furniture and maintain the integrity of your old furniture. First, apply a generous amount of denatured alcohol to your furniture using a rag. Let it sit for about a minute. Then rub off the shellac from your old furniture using a firm rag. Finally, wipe the surface with a damp rag.

Will rubbing alcohol remove shellac?

Rubbing alcohol is not the best for thinning shellac. This is because rubbing alcohol is only 70% alcohol and 30% water. Shellac will turn white when it comes into contact with this amount of water. However, if you have propanol or isopropyl alcohol with 95 to 100 % alcohol, it can work for you without any trouble.

Will paint thinner remove shellac?

Paint thinner (mineral spirits) is a petroleum product that doesn’t remove shellac at all. Denatured alcohol is your best bet at removing shellac. It is by far the easiest to use and most reliable option. Lacquer thinner will only go as far as softening the shellac.

Does acetone remove shellac from wood?

Acetone doesn’t remove shellac from wood. However, acetone can be mixed with shellac and every other lacquer to speed the drying time when applied to wood. This is possible because acetone is compatible and mixes well with shellac and lacquer, among other finishes and stains.

Can you use a Fine Steel Wool to Rub off Shellac?

You can’t use steel alone to rub away any primer or shellac. Instead, dip the steel wool in a liquid thinner and rub the wood carefully.

Conclusion

Having learned how to remove shellac from wood, you start refinishing your antiques. It is not such a complicated process if you pick the right method.

Older wood pieces are most likely finished with either shellac or lacquer. You can’t tell the difference by looking at it: because they both are clear finishes.

Find out which one you’re working with, and remove it using the best method that works for you.

I hope you found this post insightful. Would you mind leaving a comment below and telling us which of the methods worked for you?

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