Shellac vs Varnish: Difference and Comparison

Shellac and varnish represent similar kinds of things; they are different kinds of finishes used for wood to protect them. Still, they are different in several characteristics, such as their origin.

Both these wood finishes protect the wood from several factors, such as moisture, bacteria, and aging, as they form a protective layer on top of the wood.

They are two of the most popular finishes available in the market today.

Key Takeaways

  1. Shellac is a natural resin derived from the lac bug’s secretion and used as a wood finish to create a glossy and durable coating.
  2. Varnish is a synthetic or natural resin used as a wood finish to protect the wood from damage caused by water, sunlight, and other environmental factors.
  3. While shellac is a traditional and eco-friendly option, the varnish is a more versatile and durable option that can be used on a wider range of surfaces and materials.

Shellac vs. Varnish

Shellac is a resin secreted by the lac bug and used as a coating for wood, nails, and other surfaces. Varnish is a type of clear coating made from resin, oil, and solvents that are used to protect and enhance the appearance of wood, and it is more durable than shellac.

Shellac vs Varnish
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Comparison Table

Parameter of ComparisonShellacVarnish
OriginAnimal (female lac bug)Plant
ColorHas a natural tint ranging from several warm colorsHas no natural tint
CoatingUsually thinnerThick
PropertyIn dried form, it can be liquefied with alcoholCures as it dries
TextureLess hardHard
SolubilitySoluble in alcoholNot soluble in alcohol
ProtectionRelatively less protectionProvides more protection

What is Shellac?

Shellac is a type of resin secreted by an insect native to South East Asia, particularly the female lac bug. They are mainly found in India and Sri Lanka.

The insect secretion is processed as dry flakes, and further, during use, they are dissolved in alcohol to turn them down into a liquid state. It is used as a brush-on colorant for food glaze and wood glaze.

Shellac performs as a tough natural primer, sanding sealant, odor blocker, stain, tannin blocker, and high gloss varnish.

During the 19th century, shellac was one of the most dominant wood finishes used in the Western world, but in the 1920s and 1930s, it was replaced with nitrocellulose lacquer.

The shellac is obtained from the bark of the trees from where it is scraped off. The female lac bug secretes the gum in a tunnel-like tube called a “cocoon.”

After secretion of the shellac fakes, which contain particles of the tree bark, it is heated over fire resulting in the shellac liquefying and separating it from the bugs and wood.

Then it is further dried out into thin sheets and broken into fakes or dried in from “buttons” and sold.

Shellac is liquefied from has a shelf life of 1 year approximately.

Therefore whenever liquid shellac is sold in hardware stores, the date of production is mentioned for the user to know whether the product is suitable for use.

When applied in multiple thin layers instead of one thick layer, Shellac yields better results.

Shellac dries out naturally, leaving a high-gloss sheen. Shellac naturally comes in several warm tones ranging from blond to dark brown.

The tint of the shellac depends on the tree in which the bug has produced the secretion.

shellac

What is Varnish?

The varnish is a type of clear transparent coating. It is neither paint nor a stain. In its original state, Varnish does not have any color in itself, but it can be stained at certain times due to commercial purposes.

It is majorly used for the intention of sealing wood finished. It has a glossy finish, although semi-gloss options are also available.

Varnish, in general, does not refer to any one particular chemical composition or formula.

Initially, the varnish was formed by mixing resin-pine sap. It was an Egyptian technique. The varnish is highly flammable; proper precautions regarding its storage and disposal must be taken.

The plant-derived oils in the varnish are flammable in a liquid state. Traditionally varnish is prepared from a combination of drying oil, resin, and a thinner or solvent.

Although various types of varnish are made up of different components.

Several factors, such as heat and humidity, play an important role in drying and curing varnish.

The period required for the varnish to cure also partially dependent on the factor of which type of oil has been used and the ratio of the oil to the resin that is present.

On drying up and curing, the varnish protects various energy sources such as sunlight, ultraviolet light, and heat.

varnish

Main Differences Between Shellac and Varnish

  1. Shellac is obtained from the female lac bug, whereas varnish is obtained from the resin found in a few plants.
  2. Shellac has several warm color tones ranging from blond to very dark brown, with several varieties of brown, red, orange, and yellow. This tint depends on which tree the bug has secreted in. However, varnish has no tint to itself though it can be stained for commercial purposes at certain times.
  3. The varnish is relatively thinner; hence it is best to apply several thin coatings as they dissolve into each other on application rather than a thick coating. However, the varnish is much thicker and best for applying one or two coats.
  4. The varnish is found in dried form, but it can be liquefied with the help of alcohol for use in case of varnish if it cures if it dries and cannot be used any further.
  5. The varnish is relatively harder and provides more protection than shellac.
  6. Shellac is soluble in alcohol. However, the varnish is not soluble in water.
Difference Between Shellac and Varnish
References
  1. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/jf00005a001
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378517304001747
  3. https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsa/gsabulletin/article/69/5/487/4989
  4. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9780470712917#page=267

Last Updated : 11 June, 2023

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