Making Shellac

Top row, three pieces of artwork with shellac and watercolor or ink!

Food grade shellac has been used in past for various foods such as the M&M’s above to keep them from melting (“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”), though I no longer think they use shellac.

I often use shellac in my artwork.  I use leftover shellac from our business.  The shellac we use on the furniture has to be fresh, shown above; it cannot sit for several months.

However, shellac for using on paper in artwork can be older, and so, I have leftover bottles that I keep for just this use.

I prep my papers with a coat of it and it changes the color and texture of whatever paper I am using.   Above, several papers using a coat of shellac under the images: the far left and right are sheer vellum, and the center is a thinner smooth Hahnemühle Nostaglie paper.  Bottom, shellac being applied to Hahnemühle Watercolour paper.

This post will discuss making shellac for use on paper.  What will follow Tuesday is a post on a lovely Buddha where I used shellac under the watercolor in VSW: Koh Chang Buddha, 2.

I suggest you read the entire post just before you make your first batch!


Right, the materials in final form ready to begin shellacking the page.  Our shellac is made from two ingredients, unless we decide to add a dye, which we rarely use:

  • shellac flakes and
  • Lab Grade Isopropyl Alcohol.

We purchase our fresh shellac flakes from Vijay Vilji at Shellac Finishes (see label above for or from Kremer.  Shellac flakes come in several natural shades: beige, platina, blonde, super-blonde, orange, red, and garnet.   They are dissolved in Lab Grade Isopropyl Alcohol, and the amount of shellac to alcohol is how you determine a 1-pound or 2-pound cut, for instance.   The cut is indicative of the viscosity, and the ultimate thickness of the varnish on the surface (more on this below).   A 1lb cut is fine for what we are doing, and you can apply several coats if you want a thicker layer of shellac on your paper.  (Recipe bottom.)

Lab grade isopropyl alcohol is necessary for our use on furniture, as it has less than 4% water. We send away for ours and must buy it in large amounts.  Shipping is expensive as it is a hazardous material.  It is nice in that it cures very quickly on paper.

However, you do not have to spend the money on lab grade, and can easily use 90% isopropol alcohol (found at hardware stores) which contains 10% water.  What this means to you is that evaporation time is extended.   If you are putting oil or watercolor paint on top of shellac which still might have moisture in it, it could become a curing issue, so either way, make sure your shellac is dry or cured.


First, understand that Isopropyl Alcohol is flammable and mildly toxic, though not terribly dangerous in terms of breathing it.  Using it in a ventilated area is good enough – I generally keep a window open in the studio or a fan blowing out the studio door if it is wet and cold and rainy.  Keep it away from heat sources or open flames (like you would other flammable items), and store it up and away from children like you would any other item not suitable for kids.  Get the MSDS on it and read it and you will understand the issues with it.  Not to scare you — it is one of the least dangerous items I use in our business, and many cans of paint are more toxic!

Second, label Isopropyl Alcohol clearly and place the date it was mixed on the lid and side of the jar.  (Write it in a sharpie then cover the label with clear mailing tape.).  You want to know how old your shellac is, and want others to know what is in the jar.


For a 1-pound, or 1lb cut of shellac, use 1/2cup of shellac flakes to roughly 4 cups lab grade alcohol.  That is the cut that I used in the image below and on the left and right images at the top of the post (both are blonde shellac).

For a thicker cut, a 2-pound or 2lb cut, such as is seen right and above center, use 1/2 cup shellac to 2 cups lab grade alcohol.  (This happens to be garnet shellac.)

An analogy about the viscosity:  A 2lb-cut will approximate the thickness of grade a maple syrup; A 1lb-cut will approximate the thickness of grape juice, more bodied than water but not thick.

In any case, you can make a smaller amount if you like by cutting the recipe into smaller appropriate proportions, or get together with artist friends and make  batch and split it.  A little goes a long way unless you are prepping large sheets of paper.

I like to use new never-before used canning jars because the lids are tight and secure, and you can watch the shellac dissolve.

Place the shellac in the jar and cover with the alcohol, then shake the jar over to move the flakes to suspend them in the alcohol.  Keep the jar where you will see it and shake the jar from time to time — turning it upside down and shaking it to loosen the shellac flakes.   The flakes will begin to dissolve.  It can take several days depending upon the viscosity and the age of the shellac flakes, so don’t be discouraged.

Invariably overnight that which does not dissolve will become a gelatinous mass on the bottom of the jar.  At that point you may have to take a fork or long knife (so you have a handle that does not go into the shellac) and break up the gelatinous flakes, and continue to shake and so forth until all are dissolved.  We suggest you dedicate a fork or knife to the shellac making process, and wipe the utensil before storing an airtight container that will keep it free from collecting dust (it will stick to plastic bags so best find a jar.

Do not leave a metal object IN the shellac, as it will have a negative impact on the shellac.  Mix then remove.

Also, do not store your shellac in a metal container.  The coated metal lids on the top of jam jars are not a concern because the shellac is not touching the lid when it is stored, only briefly during shaking.  Glass jam jars really are the best!

Also, when the shellac is dissolved there may be a few flakes that do not dissolve.  You are going to want to decant the shellac into a smaller jam jars to work with (if you spill a HUGE jar you can imagine the mess), so just do not pick up the flakes at the bottom.

If you have made a shellac that is too thick, simply pour it into a jar allowing for space to add more alcohol, and add a bit at a time until you have the right cut.

Make sure your shellac is cured before you paint — it should not be sticky or damp to the touch in any way!

A note about PAPER:
Test your shellac on a paper before committing it to a piece of artwork.  Some papers may have coatings that might interact with or deflect the shellac.  I’ve not had this happen but I still would advise testing before using.

I also test it if I am placing it over any other medium, like acrylic or oil or watercolor.  Right, my tests at the back of my journal!

I have had some success with it over watercolor, but you have to be very fast so as not to move the watercolor.

Tuesday, see my post on creating the Koh Chang Buddha, shown below.

To hear about classes, follow me on Instagram and Facebook.

About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
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1 Response to Making Shellac

  1. Pingback: VSW: Koh Chang Buddha, 2 | D.Katie Powell Art

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