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One of the biggest causes of woodworking accidents is not taking your time. Rushing the job is also the main cause of sloppy work.

I like shellac, particularly for period reproductions where it’s appropriate to the original piece. However, while shellac is one of the easiest finishes to apply with a brush on small areas, it’s one of the most difficult to brush onto large surfaces.

One of the projects I’m wrapping up now is a folding oak table, based on an original from the 1860s. The piece has three main components – a solid top and two leg sets, each comprised of a pair of legs joined at the top by a skirt attached with mortise-and-tenon joints. Brushing shellac on these legs sets is especially easy, with shellac’s fast-dry, no-drip tendencies perfect for the turned spindles and narrow skirts.

For the tabletop, though, those same tendencies are a hindrance rather than an asset. Shellac sets up so quickly that it’s very difficult to blend brush strokes together to completely coat a large surface without getting lap marks of some kind. The trick is to work as fast as you can, but at the same time work as carefully as you can, and that’s a combination that never bodes well in woodworking. Especially not for a can’t-leave-well-enough-alone guy like me.

I did the underside of the tabletop first and worked as fast as I could, but because this was the underside I wasn’t being nearly as fussy about it as I usually am. As a result, the underside came out close to perfect when dry, with only one tiny lap mark that was easily leveled with a bit of fine sandpaper. The upper surface was another story.

Still working quickly, I took extra care every time one stroke of the brush met the coating left by the previous strokes. The result was that it looked terrible – lap marks, ridges and goopy smears all over the place. I had to sand the top almost bare again to level the finish.

The moral is that you still have to work quickly with shellac, because its fast set-up makes time the enemy. But for shellac, the key is working fast, not furious.

Till next time,

A.J.

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