How to Remove Shellac From Wood

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Shellac had its heyday as a finishing material prior to the 1920s. This hard, shiny, clear finish makes wood gleam. If you want to change the finish on a piece of wood, or the shellac has degraded and needs to be replaced, follow the steps in this article to achieve your goal. 

We’ll start by teaching you the two best methods for removing shellac from wood: denatured alcohol and sandpaper. While it is not recommended to use chemical strippers except as a last resort, we’ve also included instructions to use paint stripper safely should you choose this method. 

Removing Shellac From Wood

Shellac has been applied as a wood finish for over a century. You may need to use a variety of methods to completely remove shellac from wood. Using a solvent is the easiest and least abrasive, but sanding may be required for stubborn or hard-to-reach areas. 

WellerMart Dewaxed Shellac
  1. Set up an appropriate workspace. Adequate ventilation ensures that fumes don’t accumulate. Source an airtight container that can be used to dispose of fume-laden rags. Wear rubber gloves to protect your skin. Use a respirator mask to guard your lungs and respiratory system. If you choose to sand, the best dust mask for woodworking will prevent you from inhaling dust. 
  2. Confirm you are working with shellac. To figure out whether your workpiece was finished with shellac or lacquer, pour some denatured alcohol onto a rag and work it into a small area of the wood. Denatured alcohol is pure alcohol, with additives that make it unfit for human consumption. These additives prevent the product from being taxed like recreational beverages, and allow denatured alcohol to be sold in hardware stores and home improvement centers. The alcohol acts as a solvent when combined with shellac, and will turn it from a solid into a sticky liquid. If your workpiece is finished with lacquer instead, the denatured alcohol will have no effect.
  3. Avoid scrubbing by dissolving the shellac. Using a rag soaked with a denatured alcohol, rub the surface of the wood in a circular motion, similar to how you would stain the wood. This method is fairly messy and requires a number of rags, depending on how large the area is that you’re removing shellac from. It is less labor-intensive than other methods and will get you a shellac-free workpiece quickly. As the alcohol penetrates the shellac, it will soften enough to become sticky. Use another rag to wipe away the goopy shellac. 
  4. Scrape if necessary. Finishes tend to build up in corners and creases. Make sure you’ve adequately coated the area in solvent and allowed it time to work. If the shellac still won’t come off after several minutes, use a dull scraper or plastic putty knife to scrape it off.
  5. Sand the wood. Sandpaper, applied to the wood by hand or with a power tool, will remove stubborn shellac as well as prepare the wood for refinishing. If you don’t have denatured alcohol on hand, you can even remove shellac with sandpaper alone, as long as you have the time and patience. However, sanding may change the appearance of the wood, so it’s best to give denatured alcohol a try first. Start with a low-grit sandpaper to remove most of the shellac finish. When most or all of the shellac is gone, begin sanding with finer-grit materials, aiming for at least 220 grit on the final pass. Remove dust from the workpiece with a tack cloth. Wipe the surface of the wood with a damp cloth, and let it dry before refinishing. 
  6. Repeat the denatured alcohol bath or sanding method as many times as necessary to remove the shellac. If you’ve exhausted both these methods, you may turn to a chemical stripper as a last resort. Chemical paint strippers have a dramatic effect on shellac, causing it to bubble and blister upon application. These strong chemicals will effectively remove shellac finish, but are dangerous and should be used with caution. 

Using a Chemical Stripper to Remove Shellac from Wood

Wooden table without shellac finish

Chemical strippers will remove shellac finish without damaging the wood underneath. Be warned, improper paint stripper use is hazardous to your health. If the methods above have failed, follow these instructions to make a dangerous process as safe as possible. 

  1. Know the signs and symptoms of overexposure. Feeling nauseated, dizzy, or lightheaded is a signal that you may have inhaled paint stripper fumes. Your throat may feel dry, painful, or raw. Difficulty breathing or even seizures may occur with severe exposure to chemical fumes. 
  2. Protect yourself from exposure. Chemical strippers can severely irritate the skin and mucous membranes. Use butyl rubber or neoprene gloves, protective coveralls, a respirator mask, and full face shield.  Should skin contact occur, follow the standard advice for chemical burns: flush the area with water immediately and without stopping for 20 to 30 minutes. If a chemical stripper gets in your eyes, have someone else call a health professional while you focus on flushing the chemical out. 
  3. Set up your environment to minimize exposure. Ideally, you would use chemical paint strippers outside, where there is plenty of ventilation. If you must work inside, it is critical to ensure adequate air circulation. Open all the windows and set up several fans to disperse the noxious fumes. Use dust cloths to protect anything you don’t want exposed to harsh chemicals.
  4. Introduce the chemical stripper to the wood using a rag. Work it into the shellac-covered wood in small areas, taking frequent breaks to allow the fumes to dissipate. Extra-fine steel wool can be used to gently loosen shellac from wood. Antique wood in particular is easy to damage, so don’t use coarse steel wool. Dispose of rags in an airtight container. 

Conclusion

Using denatured alcohol and a number of rags, you can safely and easily remove shellac from wood. Wipe denatured alcohol onto the shellacked surface with one rag, and allow it time to work. When the shellac becomes sticky and liquid, wipe it off with another rag. Use dull scrapers to remove stubborn spots.

Alternatively or additionally, use sandpaper to remove unwanted shellac. Start with 150 grit and finish with 220 grit paper. When nothing else works, turn to chemical paint stripper and extra-fine steel wool. Always wear proper protective gear and limit your exposure to noxious chemicals.

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Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.