Difference Between Shellac and Varnish (With Table)

Shellac and varnish both represent similar kinds of things, they both are different kinds of finishes that are used for wood to protect them but they are different on 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 that are available in the market these days.

Shellac vs Varnish

The difference between shellac and varnish is the different ways they are obtained from. Shellac is obtained from plants particularly the female lac bug whereas for varnish the resin is obtained from plants.

Comparison Table Between Shellac and Varnish

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, 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 that is secreted by an insect that is 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 it 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 that were 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 usually referred to as “cocoons”.

After secretion of the shellac fakes which contains particles of the tree bark, it is heated over fire resulting in the shellac liquefy 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 of “buttons” and then eventually 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 usually mentioned for the user to know whether the product is suitable for use or not. Shellac when applied in multiple thin layers instead of one thick layer yields better results.

Shellac dries out naturally leaving a high-gloss sheen. Shellac naturally comes in several warm color tones ranging from blond to very dark brown. The tint of the shellac depends on the tree that the bug has produced the secretion in.

What is Varnish?

The varnish is a type of clear transparent coating. It is neither paint nor a stain. Varnish in its original state does not have any color in itself, but due to commercial purposes certain times it can be stained. It is majorly used for the intention of sealing wood finished. It usually has a glossy finish to itself 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 inflammable hence proper precautions must be taken regarding its storage and disposal. 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 a solvent. Although various types of varnish are made up of different components.

Several factors such as heat and humidity play an important role in the process of drying and curing varnish. The periodrequires for the varnish to cure is 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

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 hasseveral warm color tones ranging from blond to very dark brown, with several varieties of brown, red, orang, and yellow. This tint is dependent on the factor of which tree the bug has secreted in. however, varnish has no tint to itself though to commercial purposes certain times it can be stained.
  3. The varnish is relatively thinner hence it is best to apply several thin coating of it as they dissolve into each other on application rather than a thick coating. However,the varnish is a lot thicker and is best for the application of one or two coats.
  4. The varnish is usually found in dried form but it can be liquefied with the help of alcohol for use but in case of varnish if it cures if it dries cannot be used any further.
  5. The varnish is relatively harder and provides more protection than shellac.
  6. Shellac is soluble in alcohol however varnish is not soluble in water.


Wood finishes have become a very popular concept in recent times. Two of the most popular type of wood finishes is shellac and varnish. Both types of wood finishes have quite different characteristics and can be distinguished based on several characteristics such as origin, color, coating, property, texture, solubility, and protection.

Shellac is obtained from animals however varnish is obtained from plants. Shellac is thinner in consistency than a varnish hence it is best to apply several thin layers of the coating as they merge into each other rather than a thick coating. Shellac also has several shades of natural tint to itself whereas varnish has no tint to itself.


  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