Finish for oak end tables

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I am kind of new to woodworking and am building furniture for our family room. I am building a TV stand and end tables out of red oak. I am very close to Amish country in Ohio and found out that they use catalytic varnish for the top coat finish. I can't seem to find catalytic varnish sold in local woodworking stores as it seems to be a commercial product. Can anyone tell me a comparable finish to use for the DIY wood worker or a source for catalytic varnish? Since the tables are being used in the family room they need to be resistant to water and other liquids when setting or spilling glasses or cups of beverages on the tables. Thanks in advance for your help.
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shellac. Water resistant. I would imagine the Amish use this as well.

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From what I have read, shellac is not known for its water resistance properties.
And is it the best finish for a table top with regard to durability?????

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Shellac is extremely water resistant. and yes, its durable, and easy to repair.

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I have Never used shellac, but I have read about it. :)
In Understanding Wood Finishes (my finishing Bible) by Flexner, he says that "shellac is probably best known for its limited resistance to water, alcohol, heat, and alkalis..."
Damaged by alcoholic beverages, heat will soften it...
"Because of shellac's POOR resistance to water, alcohol heat, and alkali, its NOT the best finish for tabletops or other surfaces that are subject to frequent use. But can be used almost everywhere else."
Again, I have never used shellac, this is what Flexner has written (a well respected finisher).

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read up on it here. Alcohol will soften it if its strong enough, but how often you going to have alcohol greater than 50% on a table? and it isn't "use it on kitchen counters water resistant, but more than suitable for what you want to use it for. what do you think they used before varnish and poly? .
http://www.popularwoodworking.com/features/fea.asp?id 06

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I also don't use candles to light my house, I use some of them new fancy light bulbs. :)
Many improvements have been made in clear coat finishes. They used shellac back then because they didn't have the choices we have today. Why not use what's best for a particular application? Table tops can take a hech of a beating. Shellac as a Top Coat is not as durable as some other finishes (polyurethane). However, as you mentioned, shellac is easier to repair. But I would rather spend my time doing other things then constantly repairing finishes.

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[...]

... or use a "natural" and robust finish, like wax. My parents have a maple kitchen table wich was waxed once, about 15 years ago, and although it's not spared anything looks as good as new. The only stain that seems to be paermanent was caused by a mushroom, which let it's spores fall onto the table, giving an interesting pattern, because it traced the mushrooms gills.
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mailto: snipped-for-privacy@physik.uni-bonn.de Phone: +49 228 73 2447 FAX ... 7869
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You have to admire a German physicist who also likes woodworking! :)
Cheers.
Phone: +49 228 73 2447 FAX ... 7869

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The article states: "Now shellac is rarely used as a finish except by high-end antique refinishers (which ought to tell you something)." I think that tells me that antique refinishers are trying to match the original finish which, by definition, would be what was used something like 100 years ago. Not that it's a superior finish. It has it's place, but based on what I've read in the Flexner book, I wouldn't use it on a table top unless that table was meant to be show-only.
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Keith, did you read the next sentence in that article? I did:
"Now shellac is rarely used as a finish except by high-end antique refinishers (which ought to tell you something). This is terribly unfortunate, because shellac still is one of the best finish choices for most woodworking and refinishing projects."
I would take that to mean that PWW is attempting to inform me that it would be terribly unfortunate for me to dismiss shellac as a high-end, show-only finish.
Ya know, it's interesting sometimes when people quote a book, and then cling to it like a Bible (I say this because someone used the term: Bible, somewhere else in this thread. I dunno about other folks, but I accept Biblical text on faith. Finishes? I prefer actual real-world first hand experience. The best books are wonderful as references, but they don't replace experience. My experiences with shellac have been that it's a tough, ridiculously repairable finish. The areas where it is clearly not suitable are applications where it is exposed to extreme heat (above 150F), caustic chemicals - particularly alkaline solutions (like say in a janitor's utility closet), or harsh solvents like nail polish remover. It is still the preferred finish for restorers of Arts&Crafts style bungalows, not so much for it's faithfulness to tradition (which it is), but for the unparalleled shine achievable with thin applications, the overall pleasing result of various shellacs on architectural woodwork, and its ease (and therefore low cost/impact) of repair.
There is a fantasy in wood finishing that the toughest most durable finish is the best solution, but the reality is that there is a trade-off. All finishes can and will be scratched. Period. Then the question becomes one of maintenance. The notion that shellac, in most applications, requires constant repair is bullshit (poppycock, Jeff). And what's going to take more time? A minor touch-up now and then, or a huge re-do, where the entire finish must be stripped to fix a problem in one area?
Now, about book quotes, especially regarding the esteeemed Mr. Flexner. First of all, there's a tendency to quote out of context (like the above citing from PWW), and then there's the whole book publishing process. Anyone who's been involved in producing a book knows well the sometimes indiscriminant scythe of the editor. Paragraphs are reworded, whole sections excised, photographs deleted. For the majority of writers, it's a gut-wrenching experience. For the real scoop, the best solution is to go directly to the source. And that's just what I've done in this area (seeing as I used to have a financial stake in collecting/dispensing accurate information on just this subject).
Let's just say that Bob has had a lot more to say about shellac and other finishes than what we've read in his book.
The bottom line is, shellac was greatly replaced not because of technological advances in finishing, but primarily because shellac is an agricultural commodity, subject to the same whims of market, climate and global politics of any major import/export. Prices and availability would sometimes vary significantly. Well, American know-how and can-do'edness being what it is, a few companies set out to make a faster/better/cheaper shellac replacement, not out of concern for a better finish, but out of a desire to create/control an industry by replacing a commodity with a chemically-synthesized product, and then promoting the hell out of it. "What's that? You want more? We can make more!!" And so it went.
And thus nitro cellulose lacquer was born. Not coincidentally, the chem engineers at these various companies were seeking to duplicate or at least approximate the properties exhibited by nature's ultimate thermoplastic resin - shellac. They came up with a rather clear, evaporative finish that rubbed-out well, was simple to apply, dried quickly and so on. Heck, it was so good, it was almost as good as shellac!! And so by the time there were tons of Philco radios being turned out, they were doused with lacquer (it's even got lac in the name). There were problems, however. The solvents for the different kinds of lacquer were very nasty, and lacquer itself had some issues - it required a significant build in order to achieve the gloss people were used to when using shellac, it orange peeled if you looked at it cross-eyed, it was difficult to brush and/or wipe, and after a decade or so, it yellowed. But people muddled through with the synthetic shellac anyhow.
And so that brings us to today, where we're looking for ways to preserve the environment and our olfactory senses, not to mention apply a reliable, durable, repairable finish - which translates to a goodly number of people switching from lacquer to shellac.
I read one of the disadvantages Bob listed in the PWW article with some interest. He's concerned about kitchen cabinets being subject to too much water for shellac to be applicable. I could see that for perhaps a sink base cabinet, but I wonder what the worry is? I mean, the one kind of water you see a lot of in a kitchen is water vapor from cooking, and that's *the* area where shellac exceeds all other finishes in protection. Do people really splash that much water all over their kitchen cabinets? On the counter top, sure (granite's a good choice here), but I must be missing something. Either that or there are people hosing down their kitchen cabinets daily.
O'Deen
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On 21 Jan 2004 17:16:33 -0800, snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com (Patrick Olguin) wrote:
<snip of shellacky hagiography (yeah, I know the term is broadly abused) >
Damned fine post, as usual, O'Deener.
But hell, ain't nitro lacquer an agriculturally based commodity in some sense. It's based on cotton. If the South had come up with nitro lacquer, they mighta gone places, back in the day.
I like nitro lacquer. I know it's nasty and kills yer brain but it's a pretty predictable finish, once ya get used to it.
The only thing that I can see in shellacky's favor is the tactile quality. I can polish up a properly cured nitro finish that is more clear than the most blonde of blonde shellacs but I can't get the feel.
(must be dat low molecular weight thing)
I think that shellacky is a better wipe on finish than nitro, even when when you use the right solvents to slow down the drying.
I think that nitro has greater clarity.
The interesting thing for a nitro user to fess up to is that the water based stuff is even more clear than nitro - but it looks too clear - go figure.
I can't even adequately explain the above sentence but nitro has just the proper ambering, to my eye.
I reckon it's what yer used to looking at and for.
If I didn't have a lot of money tied up in explosion proof fans and such, I'd be more ready to be a shellacky guy but, having spent my professional life trying to get shit out the door in the fastest and bestest way possible, I'd have to go with nitro as my finsih of choice for fine furnishings.
I know, this is a religious issue; most perfeshunnul cabinet guys have long since switched to finishes other than either shellacky or nitro - maybe I just like nitro because I'm on the third standard deviation of the learning curve.
Thomas J. Watson-Cabinetmaker (ret) Real Email is: tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet Website: http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1
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It's good having you back. Very eloquently put.
Take care Mike
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Mike G.
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You forgot about the most abundant solvent on the planet, water. Not very resistant to water. And my favorite solvent, ethanol.
Do you still think shellac is the best solvent for a table top? Lets think about how table tops are treated. Beverage spillage, water rings, heat damage due to coffee/tea mugs with no coaster. There are other finishes (varnish) that are more resistant to these conditions. Why not use them on a table top which will be better able to stand up to these conditions?
If you go back to the original post, Brian was concerned about protecting the table from spillage from beverages. Do you think shellac is the finish of choice for this job? The table he was finishing is going in a family room which tend to be "high use" tables. Still wanna tell him shellac is the best finish for this job?

They also have the same "fantasy" about finishes in the automobile industry. Funny. All finishes can be scratched, true. But the key is, to what extend and how easily? Which finish is most resistant to scratches? Is it shellac? The OP was concerned about spillage and that it "needed to be resistant to water". Still say shellac?

I thought this thread was about end tables.

Flexner specifically says that shellac IS NOT THE BEST FINISH FOR TABLE TOPS. Do you think that was an editing error? Unless the editor through that sentence in on his own accord, which I doubt.

You know Bob and have correspondence with him?

Ok lets assume that. What if he had more bad things to say about it?

concern for a better finish, but out of a desire to create/control an industry by replacing a commodity with a chemically-synthesized product, and then promoting the hell out of it.
How is it you know this? Is this a fact, a myth, your opinion? I thought their goal was to make a better finish (improved marketability, eh?). It's easier to push a better product over an inferior one, no?
pixalized:

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Dewaxed shellac is more resistant to water than nitro lacquer. Your favorite solvent is prolly applied to the surface in concentrations that will not bother the shellacky. you should lay offa that ethanol, BTW.

Mostly because they are ugly as shit.

Ever tried to tune up a damaged poly finish? Does the concept of witnes lines have any resonance with you?

See Supra.

I thought this thread was about the proper finish for end tables.

Flexner also says that he is talking about the shellac that is most readily available to people in Borgs. Dewaxed shellac (available from places where wooddorkers buy stuff) has a totally different profile of water and vapor resistance than the usuallly found shellac that contains high wax content.

And read carefully.

Yeah, he did. Don't that just skortch yer jeans?

Oh, Lordy - this is why the debate club has closed auditions.

Control of resources is a business standard and switching from a volatile market of agriculturally based resources to that of a predictable synthetic nature is logically - good practice.

Thomas J. Watson-Cabinetmaker (ret) Real Email is: tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet Website: http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1
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This is your opinion.

yep, it is. And it wouldn't be shellaccyy.

a little. :)

This is a debate?

Agreed.
Yeah, because you obviously did. (sarcasm)
I still wouldn't put crapashellacky on an end table that gets high use. But that's just me being logical.
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Yabutt, I was a cabintemaker fer a bunch o'years. Don't that count as bein' a perfesshunul witness, or sumpthin'

I've some Italian-American friends in South Philly whose Grandmas keep clear plastic on the furniture. Sure, it protects the furniture - but it makes it damned uncomfortable to be with. They keep that plastic wrap that comes on the lampshades, too. I don't like that look much. We're talking about the demographic that hangs velvet Elvis paintings in their house (more like Sinatra and Frank Rizzo in the specific reference) and I'd like to steer clear of that in my wooddorking.

Ya know, O'Deen sold that bugshit perfeshunally fer a while and he talked to lotsa folks. He's right smart about it.

Well, it sorta is - in a funky sense.

I'll admit - that was a cheap shot on my part. I'm a'beggin yer forgiveness.

There's other things that can be done. I'd personally put glass tops on the sunsabitches - but I guess that violates almost every prejudice I've expressed in the above (what is that shit about "consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds"?)
Have a good one, stoutman. Hope I didn't piss ya off.
Thomas J. Watson-Cabinetmaker (ret) Real Email is: tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet Website: http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1
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No. Ya didn't. It's all in good fun.
I don't claim to know everything about finishes, hell I just started this wooddorking stuff a year and a half ago. I have just read a lot of negative things about shelackky. I am reluctant to use it on "high use" items based on what I have read.
I need to go change my jeans. They are a little skortched :)
Cheers!
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Ah the expert speaks again from his whole year and a half of experience.
While you are imparting to Tom and Odeen all the things they don't know about shellac, which your vast experience has given privy too, why don't you tell them how there is no such thing as a sense of depth and a 3D effect from figured wood if you have a properly rubbed out finish.
I'm sure they would appreciate the knowledge you can pass on to them.
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Mike G.
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Ah, come on Mike.
Do you really wanna keep embarrassing yourself this way?
Hey everyone! Mike here thinks you can't put a gloss on a finish by rubbing out.

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