Shellac vs. Varnish

What's the Difference?

Shellac and varnish are both types of finishes used to protect and enhance the appearance of wood surfaces. However, they differ in terms of their composition and application. Shellac is a natural resin derived from the secretions of the lac beetle, dissolved in alcohol. It dries quickly and forms a hard, glossy finish that is resistant to water and heat. On the other hand, varnish is a synthetic or natural resin dissolved in a solvent, such as mineral spirits or turpentine. It takes longer to dry and creates a durable, protective coating that is more resistant to scratches and wear. While shellac is often used for smaller projects or as a sealer, varnish is commonly applied to larger surfaces, such as furniture or floors, to provide a long-lasting and durable finish.


CompositionNatural resinResin, solvent, and drying oil
OriginDerived from the secretion of the lac bugDerived from various sources like tree sap, petroleum, or synthetic materials
ApplicationCommonly used as a wood finish or sealerCommonly used as a protective coating for various surfaces
AppearanceAmber color, glossy finishTransparent or slightly yellowish, glossy finish
Drying TimeRapid drying, typically within minutesSlow drying, can take several hours to days
ResistanceNot very resistant to water or heatMore resistant to water and heat
RecoatingCan be easily recoated without sandingUsually requires sanding before recoating
Chemical MakeupContains shellac resin and alcohol solventContains resin, solvent, and drying oil

Further Detail


When it comes to protecting and enhancing the beauty of wood, two popular options are shellac and varnish. Both shellac and varnish are commonly used as finishes for furniture, flooring, and other wooden surfaces. While they serve a similar purpose, there are distinct differences in their attributes, application methods, and overall performance. In this article, we will delve into the characteristics of shellac and varnish, helping you make an informed decision on which finish is best suited for your project.


Shellac is a natural resin that is derived from the secretions of the female lac bug. It has been used as a wood finish for centuries and is known for its unique properties. One of the key advantages of shellac is its quick drying time. It dries rapidly, allowing for multiple coats to be applied in a single day. Additionally, shellac has excellent adhesion properties, making it ideal for use on a variety of surfaces, including wood, metal, and even plastic.

Another notable attribute of shellac is its ability to enhance the natural beauty of wood. It imparts a warm, amber tone to the surface, bringing out the grain patterns and adding depth to the finish. Shellac is also known for its excellent clarity, allowing the natural color of the wood to shine through. This makes it a popular choice for antique restoration and fine woodworking projects where preserving the original aesthetics is crucial.

However, shellac does have some limitations. It is not as durable as other finishes, such as varnish, and is susceptible to damage from water, alcohol, and heat. This makes it less suitable for high-traffic areas or surfaces that may come into contact with liquids frequently. Additionally, shellac is not recommended for outdoor use as it can be easily damaged by UV rays and moisture.


Varnish, on the other hand, is a synthetic finish that is typically made from a combination of resins, oils, and solvents. It is known for its durability and protective qualities, making it a popular choice for surfaces that require a tough, long-lasting finish. Unlike shellac, varnish forms a hard, protective film on the surface of the wood, providing excellent resistance to scratches, stains, and moisture.

One of the key advantages of varnish is its ability to withstand the elements, making it suitable for both indoor and outdoor applications. It offers superior UV resistance, protecting the wood from the damaging effects of sunlight. Varnish is also highly resistant to water, making it an excellent choice for surfaces that may be exposed to moisture, such as outdoor furniture or wooden boats.

Another attribute of varnish is its versatility. It is available in various formulations, including gloss, semi-gloss, and satin finishes, allowing for customization based on the desired look and feel. Varnish can also be tinted or stained to alter the color of the wood, providing endless possibilities for achieving the desired aesthetic.

However, varnish does have some drawbacks. It has a longer drying time compared to shellac, often requiring several hours or even days between coats. This can prolong the overall finishing process, especially for larger projects. Additionally, varnish can be more challenging to apply evenly, requiring careful attention to avoid streaks or brush marks. Proper ventilation is also crucial when working with varnish due to its strong odor and potentially harmful fumes.

Application Methods

Both shellac and varnish can be applied using various methods, including brushing, spraying, or wiping. Brushing is the most common technique for applying both finishes, allowing for better control and even coverage. When using a brush, it is important to choose a high-quality brush with natural bristles for shellac and synthetic bristles for varnish. Spraying is another option, particularly for larger surfaces or when a smooth, flawless finish is desired. Wiping, on the other hand, involves applying the finish with a cloth or rag, which can be useful for small projects or intricate details.


In conclusion, both shellac and varnish have their own unique attributes and applications. Shellac is prized for its quick drying time, natural beauty enhancement, and versatility on various surfaces. However, it lacks the durability and resistance to moisture and heat that varnish offers. Varnish, on the other hand, provides exceptional protection, durability, and versatility, making it suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. It is important to consider the specific requirements of your project, such as the desired aesthetics, durability, and exposure to elements, when choosing between shellac and varnish. By understanding the attributes of each finish, you can make an informed decision and achieve the desired results for your woodworking endeavors.

Comparisons may contain inaccurate information about people, places, or facts. Please report any issues.