Shellac has an Ancient History
Shellac, as the word is commonly used, refers to all forms of purified lac – a natural resin secreted by the tiny lac insect on certain trees, principally in India and Thailand.
“Lac” is derived from the Sanskrit word “lakh” which means 100,000 and refers to the vast swarms of insect larvae that inundate lac trees during brood season. There is a connection between the word “lac” and the Indo-European word for salmon, “laks”, very likely and a reference to great numbers of the fish observed in spawning shoals.
Not much is known regarding the very early history of shellac. In the Vedic period about 3,000 years ago it was called “Laksha.” One of the Vedic books contains an account of a whole palace constructed entirely out of lac resin.
Ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations used the dye extracted from lac for dyeing silk and leather and as a cosmetic rouge and a coloring for head ornaments. The superior adhesive quality of the resin made it useful for setting jewels and sword hilts as well as repairing broken pottery. The residue left after the extraction of the dye was made into a grinding wheel for jade – a technique still in use today.
It was in the field of medicine, however, that the most extensive applications for lac were discovered. It was prescribed either as an emollient, or as a stimulant to tissue growth or in the treatment of gum hemorrhages and menstrual disorders. In veterinary medicine lac was mixed with lard and the paste used to fill the cavities in the hooves of horses and cattle.
Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes (pictured) and dissolved in alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant, food glaze and wood finish.
Shellac is primarily used as a wood sealer and finisher today. It has the great advantage of being soluble in ethyl or denatured alcohol, an environmentally-safe solvent. Alcohol solvents also render shellac a quick dry—shellac coatings on wood generally dry in about 45 minutes, as opposed to oil finishes which take many hours to dry. In addition, shellac does not fade in sunlight or oxidize over time. However, shellac has a limited shelf life and may not dry properly if it has exceeded the shelf life recommended by the manufacturer. This shelf life may be as short as six months or as long as three years depending on the manufacturer’s additives.
Industrial uses for shellac include floor polishes, inks, grinding wheels, electrical insulations, and leather dressings. This natural, resinous sealer is non-toxic and is Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use to coat candies, pharmaceuticals, fruit, and baby and children’s furniture.
Shellac is available at most hardware or paint stores in clear or white shellac or orange shellac, which imparts an orange-red tint to natural wood. Other tints derive their color not from dyes or bleaches, but because of the tree to which the lac bug has attached itself—the sap affects the color of the bug secretions thus altering the color of the refined shellac. Shellac may be applied to wood, over varnish, paint, glass, ceramics, even plastic with remarkable adherence, but it cannot be used under synthetic sealers such as polyurethane.