How To Get Shellac Finish Off Old Wood Floors?

removing shellac from wood

Shellac was among the most preferred wood sealing agent for woodworkers since the early 1900s – simply because it’s a tough sealant that can protect the wood surfaces very well.

However, if your wood floor or shellacked furniture has seen better days and you want to get the shellac off, there are a few ways you can do that.

One of the easiest ways to remove shellac is by using denatured alcohol. Apply a small amount of alcohol to a clean rag and wipe it onto the shellac surface.

You should see the shellac start to dissolve and break down in 2-3 minutes. Continue wiping until the entire shellac coating is removed.

While this is the easiest and most common way to remove shellac, it’s also the most time-consuming because if you do not follow the right steps and process, you could end up damaging your wood floors.

Below in this article, I will show you the proper way with detailed steps to remove shellac from wood floors without damaging them. So, let’s dive into…

What is Shellac?

Shellac is basically a resin secreted by the female lac bug on forest trees which is processed to be sold as dry flakes.

When dissolved in alcohol you can make a liquid shellac finish that can be used as a brush-on colorant and timber finishes to enhance the natural beauty of grained wood.

The application is easy and can be done with a piece of rag, brush, or sprayer.

The good thing is, that even when you want to refinish the wood, recoating can be done directly over shellac (without stripping it off) – unless you are planning to restore the surface with some other more durable floor finishing products like polyurethane or synthetic varnishes.

Why Do You Need to Remove Shellac?

Despite the huge popularity of modern polyurethane glosses, there are homeowners who still like to have natural shellac finish on their wood floors – thanks to its easy application and quick drying time.

Although the shellac finish is more traditional, soft, pliable, and can help achieve a beautiful amber look, the only drawback is it’s not as tough as polyurethane.

This means shellac isn’t very good at resisting moisture, foot traffic as well as daily wear and tear.

With shellacked floors, old carved furniture, or wooden stairs at home, you need to recoat them once in a while to upkeep the shine and finishing.

As an undercoat shellac finish will not be workable and it’s better to strip it off if you want to get the best benefits of polyurethane varnish.

Removing Shellac from Wood – 6 Easy Steps

If at times, you need to remove this natural finish and color from shellacked wood, it can be done either by sanding or by using denatured alcohol, or even both.

If there is only light shellac coating that needs to be removed for refinishing the wood later, you can use a sander to gently sand or use denatured alcohol.

But if the coating needs to be removed completely for applying another varnish or paint, I recommend sanding the wood followed by using denatured alcohol.

Here is a step-by-step process you need to follow…

Step 1 – Prepare

The first thing you need to do is to prepare the room you will be working in.

This means you need to have a well-ventilated room because denatured alcohol is flammable and also produces fumes that can be harmful to your health if inhaled for a long period of time.

Then you need to have a few essential things before starting to remove shellac from wood floors. These include:

  • denatured alcohol
  • clean rags
  • scrub brush
  • bucket
  • sponge or a mop

Step 2 – Clean

Before proceeding, with sanding or alcohol solution make sure you sponge or mop the entire floor nicely.

For old floors that have deposited dust, debris or soot, prepare a strong solution in a bucket with hot water and detergent.

Most wood floors with a shellac coating are protected with a wax sealer, so you need to get the detergent that can cut the protective wax layer.

After cleaning and getting the floors dried, move to the next step.

Step 3 – Sand the Floor

Lightly sand your hardwood floors with an orbital sander loaded with sandpaper of about 120 to 220 grits.

Wood materials like maple are however hard and will require you to go tougher with 24- to 36-grit range, especially if it has a lot of heavy finish on it and hasn’t been sanded or refinished for long.

Remember, when sanding and stripping shellac from wood floorboards it’s good to divide the floor using masking tape into 4–5-foot squares.

Working in small sections at a time will allow you to focus on smaller sections separately without messing up the job.

Step 4 – Apply Denatured Alcohol

Once sanded, spread and apply denatured alcohol evenly over the wooden floor section (one at a time) with a rag or a paintbrush.

Allow the solvent to work for about two to three minutes.  

And then with a paint scraper tool (plastic scraper or a putty knife) scrape off the finish as much as you can.

Make sure you take time and remove all the dissolved shellac finishing even if you have V groove floorboards or chevron flooring patterns.

Step 5 – Scrub with Steel Wool

Next, you will need to scrub the wooden floorboards with a pad of fine 000 steel wool.

Soak the steel wool pad in rubbing alcohol and work along the grain of the wood.

Do remember that using steel wool alone will not rub away the shellac. So, dip it into the alcohol or a thinner to work effectively.

Make sure you do not scrub the boards across it as it can cause streaking.

Step 6 – Remove the Residues

Finally, wipe down you’re flooring with a clean cloth dampened with alcohol.

This will completely get rid of the last bit of residue that may have remained on the floor section you are working on.

Well, you have now removed all the old shellac finishing from the wood floor section.

It’s time to switch on to the next floor section and repeat the process for all remaining sections.

How to Clean Spilled Shellac on The Carpet?

If you just noticed a fresh shellac spill on your carpet or an old stain, you should act quickly. The longer the shellac stays on the carpet, the harder it will be to remove.

To clean up a spill or the old stain on your carpet, blot with a clean white cloth to remove as much shellac as possible.

If the spill is fresh, you may be able to remove it with plain warm water. Blot the spill with a clean white cloth to remove as much shellac as possible.

If that doesn’t work treat the area with denatured alcohol for a few minutes. And allow the area to dry completely, then vacuum. This might also work to remove the old shellac stains from carpets.

Will Acetone or Paint Thinner Remove Shellac from Wood?

Acetone, paint thinner and mineral spirits are petroleum products that don’t work very effectively in removing old sticky shellac from wood surfaces.

These products may slightly soften the shellac but not enough to make it easy to remove. In fact, these products may actually make the job more difficult and time-consuming.

Your best bet for removing shellac is denatured alcohol. It’s by far the simplest and most dependable removal technique available.

Just in case, you do not want to use denatured alcohol or it isn’t available in your area, you can try using a product called Cooper’s Paint and varnish stripper.

Cooper’s Paint and varnish flusher is also a great option to use. Both these products are made specifically for removing old varnishes and it works reasonably well on shellac.

Before you use them on your vintage floors or furniture, make sure to test them on a small inconspicuous area first and follow the product directions provided by the manufacturers.

The bottom line

While removing shellac varnish from wood floors and furniture isn’t very easy, the best thing you can do is to be patient.

Do not try to remove all the shellac in one go because you will only end up damaging the wood surfaces. Work in small sections and take your time.

Start with the easiest and most common method – denatured alcohol. If that doesn’t work, you can always try other products like Cooper’s Paint and varnish stripper.

Also, keep in mind that acetone, paint thinner and mineral spirits are not the best products to use when removing old shellac from wood. So, you should generally avoid using them for stripping shellac.

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