The Differences Between Shellac and Varnish


You need to select the right finish for your woodworking projects. Shellac and varnish, two of the most common finishes, are clear-coat options that are sometimes referred to generically. The formula and function of the two differ in durability, appearance and application.

Basic Differences

  • Shellac is a specific product derived from insects. Varnish is a generic term referring to a variety of products and formulas, including polyurethane. Shellac dries faster and harder than varnish, and is considered nontoxic. It's is not recommended for use in high-moisture areas because natural expansion and contraction of wood causes shellac to crack. Water and alcohol can damage shellac. Varnish is more resilient than shellac and is more resistant to alcohol and water damage. It's more appropriate for wood that contracts and expands under any circumstances. Varnishes are regarded as easier to apply and more versatile than shellac. Woodworking aficionados regard shellac as more traditional, with more warmth, appeal and a deep, rich luster that varnish can't duplicate.

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