Category Archives: Finish Techniques

Decode Your Shellac

I use shellac on nearly every project that passes through my shop doors. I think it is the best product for furniture because it is easy to use, can be brushed on or sprayed, and  dries quickly compared to urethane. I use shellac on top of aniline dye and even on top of a coat of boiled linseed oil if I aim to highlight figured grain. It is my “go to” finish before and after glaze. As you can tell, shellac is, in my opinion, the perfect topcoat. I’m good with shop-made shellac from flakes and I use store-bought shellac from Zinsser.

Until recently, my only problem with shellac – all shellac – is that I do not care for the high sheen that comes when shellac is built-up as a finish, but I have found a great work-around. I apply a coat of dull-rubbed effect lacquer, or I rub-out the surface using #0000 steel wool or an equivalent. Over the last year or so, I have developed a second problem with Zinsser shellac purchased from hardware stores or the large home-center stores.

As you undoubtedly know, shellac has a shelf-life. From the moment it is mixed into solution, it begins to degrade – degradation effects drying times. Eventually, as the degradation continues, you end up with a gummy mess with which to deal. Experience taught me this lesson, so I watch my dates closely.

A while back, Zinsser switched from using a date stamp on can lids to a lot number. With the date stamp, and the fact that the company-issued literature states its shellac was good for three years after the stamped date, you had a good idea as to when the shellac would reach it’s end. Even today I can go into a local home-center store and find shellac in gallon cans with a date stamp of 2008 – in 2012, that can is not one I’ll purchase.

With a lot number, there was no way to tell when the shellac was mixed. Or so I thought. I contacted the company, explained my dilemma and was pleasantly surprised when I received a reply that same afternoon. I now know how to read the lot number to tell when the shellac was mixed. Here is the information.

The first number after the letter is the year the shellac was made. If you look at the number in the photo, you see a zero. That shows the year at 2010. The number one would represent 2011 and a two is for 2012. Easy enough. That’s probably all the information you need, but the company goes further.

The first number after the year indicator stands for the month of mixture. In this case there is a seven, so this can of shellac was mixed in July. If the month would have been November you would see an “N”, December is a “D” and all other months are numbers.

The two numbers printed after the month identifier are the exact day of the month on which the shellac was mixed. In our example that day would be 20. This can of shellac was manufactured on the 20th of July, 2010.

With this information at hand, there is no reason to purchase shellac that is past or very close to the date of expiration put forth by the company. This also gives you the assurance that the shellac you buy is good to go. Below is another can lid for you to work out.

Build Something Great!


Filed under Finish Techniques, Shop Tips

Weather Wallops Woodworking

Not much woodworking was accomplished this week in my shop. My area of the country, like many areas around the country, was covered in triple-digit temperatures. My option was to work in the shop for a few hours during the mornings, then close up and move back to my air-conditioned home office. Of course, I could stay in the shop, but only if I stood in front of my fan dressed only in my boxers. (Not photos included – you’re welcome!)

Due to humidity levels edging higher, I put off the final coats of the walnut secretary. That should happen this coming week if weather forecaster continue their fantastic accuracy rate. (Note the sarcasm.)  I did manage to slap a couple coats of paint on a small four-drawer chest and to finish construction on a block-front chest that was started a year ago. I even went as far as to apply aniline dye to the chest and spray on a couple layers of shellac. Damn the humidity.

What was interesting about the block-front was the two distinctly different mahogany woods used on the piece. My case was a nice pink shade – all the lumber came from a single source. For my drawer fronts however, I had to use 12/4 stock and its color was much deeper. Not only that, as the piece sat around my shop for the year, my drawer fronts changed far greater than the case did. Below are photos of the different mahogany used. While you may not notice a huge difference in the photos, in person you could see vast variations.

Case lumber.

Drawer front stock.

To overcome these variations, I decided to dye my case as I normally do – soak the piece until I get dye dripping off the surface, let it stand for five minutes then wipe away the excess. As I began finish on the drawers, I decided to brush on a single coat and immediately wipe off any excess.

After the first drawer was dyed, I pulled out my hair dryer to fast-track the drying process – a good tip if you’re in a hurry – before sliding the drawer into the case to see if my hunch was correct. To my surprise, the drawer front was lighter than the case, so I applied a second wipe-it-on-wipe-it-off dye coat. This time, as I slid the drawer into the case, the color looked close enough (see the chest in the opening photo).

Not only should you try and use lumber from a single source, but rules – in this case how aniline dye should be applied – are made to be broken. Maybe that should read adjusted.

Build Something Great!


Filed under Finish Techniques, Shop Tips

Self Promotion & Follow-up Information

This week I am using my blog to promote an upcoming class at The Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking (CVSW), and to provide additional information on past posts.

Beginning July 23, 2012, I am teaching a week long class at CVSW titled “Get it Done! Efficient Joinery Techniques with Glen Huey.” The project is a hanging wall cabinet that, by itself, is a great woodworking project. The case is a dovetailed box with an applied, beaded face frame. There is also a raised panel door and small drawer in the mix. That covers most woodworking techniques. If you conquer those techniques you could build almost anything.

But we are not just covering those techniques. During the class you’ll produce hand-cut dovetails and learn how to speed up the process without sacrificing appearance, discover secrets to better and more efficient face frame joinery including half-lap and mortise-and-tenon joints, uncover the tricks to perfect sliding dovetails and learn shortcuts to produce raised panel doors. In other words, we will “fast-track” your abilities in the shop and eliminate the need for allowing experience to be your teacher.

There are a few openings in the class, so contact Bob Van Dyke at the school and sign up.

Follow-up Information

In a May blog post, it was suggested that I setup a page on the site dedicated to woodworking questions. You may have noticed a new page as you landed on my homepage. I began the page with the blog entry from May 13. 2012 and have added a couple new questions and answers. It is worth stopping by this page every once in a while to check out what is new. And by the way, please continue to send me questions. As you do, the page fills and information is shared. Also, if you take issue with my answers, please leave a comment. I am always interested in different and new ideas, too.

Finally, I want to direct you to my May 21, 2012 post where powdered shellac is discussed. I have added new information at the end of that post that talks more about powdered shellac. Click here to jump to that post.

Build Something Great!


Filed under Finish Techniques, Questions, Shop Tips

Finish Adjustments

I often get asked how much lumber should be purchased for a project. My answer is to have enough on hand that you do not have to settle for what is a mismatched piece in your project. Even with that in mind, there are times when mismatches happen. My secretary doors are a perfect example. In the photo you can clearly see the differences between the door panel’s rich, dark walnut and the significantly lighter walnut used in the frame. At the time, I selected those materials to allow the grain of the book-matched panels to stand out. Big mistake.

For a better look at the toner I used, click the photo.

As I applied oil to the walnut, the differences proved to be too much. If I had determined the differences prior to oil application, I could have evened out the frame using aniline dye. With oil applied, the process is different. I decided to use a lacquer-based aerosol toner to correct my colors. I used a dye-based toner instead of a pigment-base toner to minimize the effect on transparency.

Before using any toner, I added a coat of shellac to my doors – shellac is the perfect finish to apply over an oiled surface (allow oil to dry 24 to 48 hours). I then added toner on top of the shellac. I masked-off the panel area to adjust only the frame, then lightly sprayed a few layers of toner onto my frame until my pieces better matched.

This toner has a higher sheen that the early coating of shellac, but that sheen is leveled when sealed under another coat of shellac.

When I was satisfied with the match, I sprayed another layer of shellac to seal in the adjustments. From there, I proceeded with normal finish processes.

Here is a look at a completed door front set beside an non-treated door back. You can see how my frame is a closer match to the panel, and just how much the change was in total. I would have preferred to select my materials for a closer match from the beginning, but it’s good to know there is a way to fix bad decisions.

Build Something Great!



Filed under Finish Techniques, Shop Tips

Protect Your Inlay

My Shaker counter, featured in the June 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, has small diamond inlay pieces set as escutcheons. As I finished the project, I paid particular attention to those inlays – I wanted them to stay white. It was about that same time that the folks at The Finishing Store asked me to write an article for their newsletter. Naturally, how to protect inlay came to mind. Below is the article I contributed to The Finishing Store newsletter. You can read the piece here, but you should also check out their web site and monthly newsletters for more information. This month Bob Flexner has a piece about boiled linseed oil – a highly debated topic in reproducing period furniture (click here).

Protect Your Inlay

One of my earliest furniture projects was a Sheraton Field bed that I built when I was 14 years old. Later, another version of that same bed was built. This time, however, I inlaid small Birdseye panels into the square sections of the mahogany posts – an idea that caught my eye while surfing museum books.

From nearly the beginning of my furniture building career, my favorite finish has used aniline dye to color my project with top coats of shellac and/or lacquer. As I contemplated how to finish the bed, I was concerned that all the work put into those Birdseye panels would be for naught if my inlay became muted as dye was added. I believed that the distinctive figure and light color of the Birdseye inlay against the reddish hue of the mahogany would be enough of a contrast to keep the inlay a real eye catcher in the finished bed. I moved forward.

As I sprayed dye onto my first post, the panels changed in color far greater than I expected. While the mahogany achieved a deep red hue, my Birdseye, beginning as a pale yellowish color, gained almost that same red hue. In the end, the panels were barely visible. I learned a valuable lesson that day, one that I adhere to strictly these days. Protect your inlay.

How can you achieve great color on a project without muting or otherwise coloring the inlay in the design? That’s a question I get get asked many times. There are a few techniques I’ll share to help keep your inlay fresh, but only one that works every time. If you have an inlay-laden project sitting in your finish room waiting to be completed, or you have little patience as I explore options that work but not necessarily all the time, you may want to jump ahead. Be warned however, there is beneficial information in the less effective techniques discussed.

As I contemplated my first heavily inlaid project after my ill-fated bed finish, I, like all good woodworkers did, turned to books and magazines for ideas and to discover the correct method to color everything but my inlay. (Today, we would turn to the Internet for the same information.) I did get get a couple nice pointers, but are these the way to work?

One technique that I read about, but have not attempted on an actual project, is to install inlay after your finish is complete. For the life of me, I cannot see any benefit to this process. I suppose, if you were more than cautious, you could bring your inlay to just even with a completed finish, but if you go one millimeter more, you’re in trouble. I would lay odds that I would scrape, sand or otherwise hit the completed finish as I tried to level inlay. That would have me starting over. For me, this one paragraph sums up all that needs to be said about this technique. No thank you.

Chemical coloration is another option. Chemicals can color some woods without coloring others, but for the most part we do not work with chemicals today as woodworkers did centuries or even decades ago. In fact, if you’re building a reproduction, there is little written evidence that the chemicals discussed below were used on period pieces built before 1800. Most period colorants were made using natural products. Also, many of the chemicals mentioned are not easily accessible or simply too caustic to use.

Potassium Dichromate is most often mentioned to deepen the color of  mahogany and cherry. In turn, it leaves inlay less affected although holly, which has a firm association with period inlay, yellows slightly. Lye is another chemical used to adjust color, as is nitric acid which is the primarily choice to color gun stocks, especially tiger maple stocks. (Use of any of these chemicals should always be done outside to offset potentially toxic fumes, and while fully protected with gloves and goggles. After your initial coating you still need to be careful not to ingest any of the chemical. You should even go so far as to blow sanding dust away from you as you sand your project.)

Even if you decide to don a hazmat suit and make chemicals your choice to color hardwoods, the process is more involved than aniline dyes or stains. Not only do you apply your chemicals, but there can be the added steps of neutralization. What neutralizes what is something you need to know prior to getting started.

In the end, I’m not a chemist, nor do I wish to be one. And my finish room is not equipped for chemical mishaps. Besides, how many different soakings do you think your project can withstand before you run into problems?

The preponderance of information gathered from Internet woodworkers suggests that you coat inlay with a topcoat of some kind prior to a dye application. To me, this practice is conceivable if you’re coating a nice patera or larger-sized inlay, but what patience does it take to coat a piece of 1/32″ stringing that runs up and down card table legs? What brush should you use and how steady must your hand be? Don’t think about taping off each and every piece of string. If the time factor doesn’t bog you down, dealing with seepage under your tape will frustrate you to no end. And remember, you need to cover your string and only the string – topcoat that spills over the edge or is wicked into nearby woods also repels dye and that’s not going to look good in a completed finish.

One additional thought. You must choose your top coat to work with your dye or stain, not against it. As an example, if your dye was alcohol based, you would not want to use shellac to guard your inlay because shellac is also cut with alcohol.

I tried the coat-your-inlay technique on a slant-lid desk prospect door that had the only piece of inlay used on the project. I taped off an inlaid maple diamond and sprayed a couple layers of lacquer over only my inlay. I let it dry completely before moving on to dye the desk with water-based aniline dye. As I soaked my desk with dye, I noticed that my diamond had gone from near colorless (a high grade in diamonds) to a light yellow. It appeared as though my top coat held off a complete coloring of the inlay, but that there was some color added. Why?

In a previous article, I wrote about glaze. One area discussed was why you should glaze your entire project instead of simply around mouldings or other areas expected  to show age. The same reason also comes into play when dying over inlay which has a topcoat added. Your topcoat, while smooth to the touch, has small craters if viewed under magnification, even after sanding. Those craters gather dye and that turns inlay from white to something less than white. It may be acceptable, but it is not uncolored.

On a recently completed project I again used this method, but added another couple steps to kick up my results. As I installed my inlay, I made sure to spread glue around the edges of my recess. This would help deter dye from wicking into the inlay. After spraying a couple light coats of lacquer over the inlay, I also taped over the inlay to eliminate any microscopic craters from drinking in my dye. The added steps did the trick. In fact, I felt that the inlay may have ended up too bright when compared to my dyed finish, but that was taken care of as I added several additional coats of finish. I would highly recommend this technique if you have minimal inlay in your project, but if you are working with myriad amounts of string and other inlay the process is long and tiresome and boring and dull.

Now that we have covered techniques that should be avoided and those that work some of the time, let’s take a look at the one technique that I find works every time I use it. If you study pieces found at our museums, you’ll find mahogany, walnut and cherry furniture full of inlay. There are spice boxes with extravagant compass inlay doors, card tables built during the Federal period that have intricate leg, apron and top stringing, and English tea caddies with a multitude of banding work. In most examples you’ll find that the woods used did not have its color altered in any way.

The technique that works all the time is to build using woods and inlays that do not require color alteration. No dyes, stains or chemicals. I know it’s simple, but it is the best technique. If you keep the rules simple, success is much easier to find.

One additional note worth mentioning to achieve the best look in your project is to carefully select woods for any project you intend to finish without colorants. In fact, this is a good idea when doing any woodworking. Make sure your wood matches in color. That means before you begin have enough lumber on hand to get through your project.

Build Something Great!



Filed under Finish Techniques

A Week of Finish

Ever heard of powdered shellac? I hadn’t until Saturday when I presented a day long seminar on finishing for the Michigan Woodworkers’ Guild. As I talked about aniline dye, shellac and lacquer, there were a few questions asked and more than a few great ideas and techniques tossed about. With 90 woodworkers sitting in a group discussing finishes and finishing, you know there is going to be a lot of interesting information discussed.

I’m the guy they asked to speak and I hope attendees picked up something during the day that makes them better woodworkers and finishers. I seldom participate in an event such as this without gaining knowledge or a tip of some kind to make me better at what I do. This seminar was no different.

During our discussion about shellac, Ed Stuckey (see some of his work here), brought up powdered shellac. As he explained (and I intend to discover for myself), you add powdered shellac to your project so the powder settles into the grain. As you add another layer of liquid shellac, the powder is redissolved to help fill pores. This technique would certainly be faster in filling grain than multiple coatings of shellac where you sand the surface back to knock any shellac peaks into the shellac valleys. I am curious if it’s possible to use pulverized shellac flakes in the same way, or is there something altogether different about powdered shellac. I think this is worth a closer look. Thanks, Ed. To see a listing that I found on Ebay, click here.

Before leaving for Michigan, I wrapped up an article for The Finishing Store which is the online store for Apollo Sprayers International Inc. The Finishing Store publishes a monthly newsletter. My piece for this next issue discusses how to finish projects without muting, masking or otherwise destroying inlay. My last article was on glaze. Here is a link to that issue (click here). Be sure to check out other newsletters – finish guru, Bob Flexner, writes for each newsletter – as they are all available on the site.

Build Something Great!



I was informed that Don Williams, senior furniture conservator at The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, uses and deals in powdered shellac. I contacted him about the shellac and was told that the main reason woodworkers use this product is the speed at which the powder translates to useable shellac. Here is Don’s reply, “What I have is more properly described as #1 Lemon shellac flour, exceedingly finely ground with an analytical mill.  I use it much like standard shellac except that it goes into solution almost immediately.” He also added, “…it can be used as Roubo described by mixing it with beeswax and using it as a grain filler.”

I received a bag of shellac flour – the texture is very similar to baking flour – from Mr. Williams with which to experiment. As I become more enlightened, I will add more to this update. If you would like to pick up some of shellac flour to try in your shop, contact Don Williams at



Filed under Finish Techniques

Woodworking Questions

My email address is not secret. Many of you send questions to me once in a while. Most ask for information or help. Others wonder what the hell I’m doing. I like the questions, so if you need information or have a question about a project I’ve built, please contact me. Below are questions and answers that I thought were good information that should be passed along.

That Tricky Rabbet
I have started on a slant front desk based on the New England Secretary in one of your books. I have one question as I prepare the sides; what is the distance from the top of the writing surface to the start of the slant? It looks to be somewhere between 3/4″ and 1″, but I am not sure and it is not shown in the book.

John S

That’s a question I get a lot. The answer depends on the thickness of your lid – more exactly, on the thickness of its rabbeted edge.

Take a look at the photo. You need to start with your writing surface laid in, then determine the rabbeted area of your lid which would be 1/2″ on a 3/4″-thick lid if you are using a 1/4″ lip. Create a setup similar to the one shown in the photo to determine your length. My longer rule is attached at the edge of the desk top. The two rules are set to form a 90 degree corner with the 6″ rule measuring the thickness of my rabbet. (You can see how this figure could change based on your rabbet, lid and lip dimensions.)

Another method is to figure the distance algebraically using A squared + B squared = C squared where the measurement you’re searching for is C and the rabbet of your lid is both A and B. Using 1/2″ as the rabbet thickness results in a slightly under 3/4″ measurement. (Again,  you can see how the size shifts given the thickness of your rabbet.)

Build Something Great!

Tall Clock Dial Size
Hi Glen,

I have a year old copy of your “Building Period Furniture” that now looks like 10 year old copy (well used). I have two block fronts about 90% complete, two secretary bottoms about 50% complete. I like to build two at a time. While I am waiting for some more mahogany I am drawing the bench rod for the Pennsylvania tall case clock.

To keep proportions as perfect as they look, I am wondering what is the dial size you used in this clock and who is the supplier. Looking at suppliers here in the UK the the largest dial seems to be 280mm x 395mm. which seems too small. I bought your “Finishes that Pop” DVD just before Christmas. Great informative DVD.

Thank You,
Northern Ireland

Greetings Alan,

I’m glad to see your book getting such use. You are taking on very nice projects. I enjoyed building them, as well.

You are correct on your assessment of the dial sizes. Your dials are undersized as to what I use and what is a common size here in the States. The dial for my clock was 12.5″ wide (317.5mm, if my conversion is correct) by 17.625″ tall (447.675mm).

The movement  I used for the clock in the book was produced by David Lindow (Click here to visit his web site). You can get more information, movements and dials  from Mike Siemsen’s web site (Click  here).

Best of luck on your projects and …

Build Something Great!
Glen D. Huey

What is That Finish?
Hi Glen,

I am familiar with your aniline dye/shellac finish for a deeper tiger maple finish.  I always seem to get  a finish that is too shiny. I noticed that you recommend a ” dull-rubbed” lacquer. Is that the name of the kind of lacquer, a rubbed out lacquer or what?


Hey Bob,

When using shellac, I generally use either of two options to knock down the sheen. I either rub-out the finish using #0000 steel wool (sometimes I use wool lube to make the work a little easier), or I topcoat my project with a pre-cat lacquer from Sherwin Williams with a dull-rubbed effect sheen. The low sheen finish is made so by adding flattening agents to the lacquer. Sherwin Williams sells this product through its commercial divisions, not in the regular paint stores.

Another option that I am just beginning to explore is to use a water-based urethane in a satin finish, such as General Finishes Enduro-Var Satin. With this product, you apply a single coat, then after it’s dry lightly rub with steel wool.

Build Something Great!

Small Diameter Router Bits

I am a home shop woodworker who makes reproductions of American Colonial furniture.  I am having trouble finding a way to make 1/16” vein line for string inlay.  Is there a 1/16″ router bit available or how else does one prepare for a 1/16” string inlay.  I have previously used a 1/8” bit to inlay 1/8” string inlay and that worked very well, but in some pieces a 1/8” string inlay is too thick for the piece at hand.

I bought two of your books and have enjoyed studying them and using some of the demonstrated techniques on the pieces I have reproduced.

Several of the pieces I have made were from Lester Margon’s 1949 book “Construction of American Furniture Treasures”.  It’s a great hobby!!

Montgomery, AL

Hey Henry,

I’m glad that you found a few ideas in my books to make woodworking better for you. I, too, have spent many hours looking through Mr. Margon’s book – it’s a great woodworking book.

There are 1/16″ router bits to be found. If you visit there is a section that has router bits used for inlay work. The site also sells inlay and banding in many different configurations. I especially like the router bits because they are longer than many other 1/16″ bits available – as such, they reach past patterns and get to the workpiece. These bits have an 1/8”-diameter shank, so you would also need to purchase a  sleeve (shown in the middle) unless you have an appropriate collet for your router or are working with a hand-held rotary tool such as a Dremel.

Bosch has 1/16″ bits, too. These bits have shorter cutting lengths which could require that you set-up differently in order to use them for inlay as it is more difficult to reach past patterns.  The Bosch bit has a  1/4”- diameter shank.

I would suggest that you pick up a couple bits when and if you order. Bits this small tend to break more easily than larger diameter bits.

If you have additional questions, please contact me again.

Build Something Great !
Glen Huey


Filed under Design, Finish Techniques, Power Tools, Questions, Routers, Shop Tips