I make a lot of things from pine as hard woods like oak are crazy expensive where I live. It’s fine for things like the set of small drawers pictured above. The problem I used to have with pine was achieving the Arts and Crafts style warm reddish-brown finish that I like. Dyes give patchy results on soft wood like pine, so I have been experimenting a lot with pigment stains. A particular favourite of mine is a reddish-brown colour called “traditional cedar” (a Wattyl Colourwood stain). I usually combine it with a small amount of another very dark brown (almost black) stain (Wattyl Colourwood “terra”) in order to achieve a rich dark brown. For durability I usually finish with a couple of coats of polyurethane. That gives an OK finish, but pine is a very white wood and the stained colour lacks the depth and amber warmth of an antique Arts and Crafts finish. Also, polyurethane can be very difficult to apply without getting dust nibs or runs or missed patches, and tends to give a bit of a plastic look to the finish. It’s great where you need durability though, such a the towel cupboard I made where people are likely to touch the wood with wet hands.
Recently, however, I discovered shellac. Of course I knew about shellac, but had never used it. Suddenly I was able to achieve the finish I wanted on pine. The key to the finish is amber shellac. It affords a lovely amber warmth to the finish, complimenting the red-brown stain. Now I know heaps of woodworkers will already be familiar with shellac and probably have their own preferred way of using it, but for those that are new to it here’s how I achieved the finish on the drawers in the photo above.
The first step is to sand the wood down to 180 grit with sand paper.
These are the pigment stains I use. “Traditional cedar” on the left, and “Terra” on the right. For the drawers I used a mixture of about 4 parts trad cedar and 1 part terra.
The stain mix is wiped on with a rag to give a nice dark reddish-brown (I think I’ve used too much terra in this test piece, more like 3:1).
Once the stain is dry, I apply a coat of amber shellac with a brush. You can see the instant warmth it adds.
I buy pre-made shellac. It comes in both amber and clear. Being dissolved in ethanol, it dries very fast and can be tricky to apply with a brush over large areas, especially if the air is warm. You have to work quickly, but build-ups from overlaps can be sanded back later.
When the first coat of shellac is dry (after one or two hours), I rub the surface with #0000 steel wool. You have to be careful at this stage or you’ll rub through the shellac and remove the stain. Difficult to fix.
I don’t have a good picture of the next step, but after the steel wool I rub on and wipe off a “glaze” of the dark Terra stain. Not much actually sticks, but it does make a difference and helps to give it a more aged look.
Once the glaze is dry, I apply two coats of the clear shellac with a brush to build up some depth. You only have to wait about an hour between coats, but after the second coat I leave the shellac overnight to dry and harden properly.
With the shellac properly dry I use some #000 or #0000 steel wool to sand the surface smooth (if it’s really rough I might even start with some 600-800 grit paper). I have done this step dry, but in this photo I’m using Danish Oil to lubricate the job (wipe it all off before it starts to dry). Here I am rubbing in circles to help reduce the fine ridges created by brushing the shellac. After this I rub the steel wool with the grain to remove the circular scratches (it doesn’t take much work). Finally, I finish the sanding with #0000 steel wool to give a smooth dull finish (like the third photo above).
The last part of the finish is to apply three coats of Danish Oil. This fills the surface and creates a beautiful shine which is not too glossy. I like Danish oil as it dries quite fast so you can build up the finish quickly.
And here it is with the Danish oil applied.