Shellac is a very useful tool in the decorative painter’s toolkit. It is one of the most versatile and yet under utilized medium. We have a small jar on every job because of it’s many uses (see below). Shellac is one of the oldest paint mediums, used in Ancient Egyptian and Roman times as a fixative and varnish. It has excellent durability and dries fast and hard.
Shellac’s origins begin with a female lac bug, who secretes a resin meant as a protective cocoon for their larvae. The resin is scraped off trees, placed in a straining mechanism and heated. The resin liquifies and drains (leaving impurities behind) onto a flat sheet. When dry, it is broken into flakes and sold in that form.
These resin flakes are used in many industries including culinary (yes it’s edible), cosmetic, textile, and the painting industry. The flakes are dissolved in alcohol (ethanol) to make liquid shellac.
There are three different types of shellac: amber (natural), clear (refined), and white (opaque).
The amber is faster drying, more potent and is most commonly used in our shop. Clear shellac is great as a varnish and surgical touch-ups. White is used as an opaque primer. The alcohol in the shellac evaporates very fast, forcing the mixture to thicken rapidly, and therefore making the shellac very difficult to brush. When applying a second coat, the first coat is reactivated – an additional challenge. These hurdles can be discouraging, but it’s worth mastering application techniques (confidence and speed are key). We always thin shellac from a can with 20% denatured alcohol – to give more open time.
Important qualities and uses for shellac (for the decorative painter):
* Reversible – once dry can be reactivated with alcohol to revert back to liquid
* Performance primer – it levels well (few brush marks), sands easily and provides a shiny surface, perfect for receiving paint
* Seals very porous surfaces – wood, raw plaster (see post: plaster repair)
* Isolation coat to prevent bleeding of resin (wood knots), pigments or odors from escaping
* Isolation coat to start fresh from impure or questionable surfaces – such as an unknown treatment or wax residue (if a waxed surface needs to be painted over/changed, clean the surface with Naptha to remove the wax, since there’s always a residue remaining, seal the surface with a coat of shellac to insure a strong bond to the paint)
* Used in French Polish technique
* Gilding: super smooth and isolate surface before using oil size in preparation for gilding
* Wood inlay and other paint techniques using Gouache (reversible medium with water) – seal the finished wood inlay “pieces” that are finished and wipe off areas with water that remain unfinished (this eliminates the need for tape)
* Furniture touch-up – mix shellac with powdered pigment
* Overall problem-solver – great with a wide variety of touch-ups (see post: plaster touch-up, and patch a hole)
With a this missing piece of the ceiling, this post shows how to make a plaster mold. We don’t make a habit out of fixing plaster or making molds, but for small, spot repairs, it makes sense that we do it. It’s always good to have skills that expand beyond painting.
A small ornament was destroyed when it fell from the ceiling. It would have to be re-created using a mold. See previous related posts: Part 1: Frick Collection Ceiling Repair and Part 2:Plaster Repair.
A putty was made out of a dental-like mold (fast-drying) and thoroughly pressed onto the model. We just followed the instructions on the box — mixing the 2 ingredients together which makes a pliable elastic mold that dries fast.
Freshly pulled out of the mold.
Let the mold dry completely. At the museum, we had the convenience of this kiln to assist with drying (at low temperature). Otherwise, be sure to dry to cure (6-12 hours).
Using a marker, signify extra areas to cut off.
Use extra plaster to filling the gaps on the surface.
Shellac was used on the surface to seal the plaster.
Finish the ornament with base paint, decorative finish as further explained in post: Ceiling repair at Frick Collection.
A large ornament fell from the ceiling in the gallery at the Frick Collection, requiring a plaster molding ceiling repair. This is PART 2 – how we affixed the ornament back in place. See the related posts: PART 1- Ceiling repair at Frick Collection and upcoming PART 3 – How to make a plaster mold.
The pieces were delivered to the shop so they could be studied.
We ordered from a specialty sculpture store, a strong casting plaster (almost too strong and set too fast). Casting plaster is stronger than plaster of paris. When mixed with water, it hardens very quickly to be cement-like. We used wellbond to glue the smaller pieces together.
Using a Dremel tool, the backside was etched for better adhesion of the glue.
The application is finished and ready for paint. See PART 1 for painting the ornament.
Part 1 of 3
We had one day to complete this ceiling repair at The Frick Collection (1 E 70th St in Manhattan). We received a call about a piece of plaster that had fallen from the 90 year-old ceiling in the main gallery. Apparently, there was water damage from the roof that had left the medallion just hanging on and it eventually fell (nobody was hurt, luckily).
Being able to complete a job like this from start to finish, shows versatility. There’s so many techniques in this “small touch-up” that we had to break it up in 3 posts: upcoming plaster repair and making a plaster mold.
In this post, we’re focusing on the job as a whole and the decorative painting.
The hole.The museum gathered all of the pieces. Luckily the main medallion was in good shape.
They were sent to our shop, where we looked at them closely. For the sake of preservation, we did a color analysis to establish the 3 main colors used, the glazing, and the gilding.
To save time, we pre-mixed the values of colors and selected the gold leaf that would match.Our supplies were delivered by messenger service. In NYC, it pays to pack efficiently. The shop. Not too shabby. Under the watchful eye of the old masters – Franz Haltz, Turner, Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc.
The area was protected. The museum provided the work lift. This is the hole from above.The pieces were affixed and filled with a casting plaster and secured to the ceiling. See upcoming post: Plaster ceiling repairFor a missing smaller ornament, a cast (purple area) was formed and we later made a mold. See post: How to make a moldOnce the ceiling was ready for paint, a coat of natural amber shellac was applied. This is an essential step to seal the raw plaster.Finished painting shellac.A moisture meter was used to be sure the surface was dry enough to continue painting due to the fresh plaster repair.This is a good reading. At 22% moisture, it is just on the cusp. Because the roof is open (unsealed), the moisture can continue to escape from the backside. It was OK to continue painting.The base paint that was pre-mixed in the shop was applied with a detail brush (long or short pointed).
The final decorative layer is gilding. In this case, I used a patent 22.5K surface leafing (slightly heavier weight than regular leaf).Water size was applied to the tips with a sable pointed brush. The leaf was applied once the size had dried to tacky. Rondin brushes are excellent for transferring gold leaf to a sized surface as well as applying the size.Finished touch-up.
A Slick Coat is a “grease” coat applied to a surface in preparation for a glaze application. The purpose of greasing the surface is to allow the next layer to be moved and manipulate easier and stay open longer. It is a clear solution and usually applied with a roller, sponge, mist spray, or rag. A water-based slick coat would only be used if the following layer is an acrylic glaze.
(If using oil glaze on the following layer, a slick coat of 50% linseed oil, 50% turpentine, and a touch of Japan drier is applied)
When the previous coat is absorbent, the water-based glaze in the next layer will be sucked up at a faster rate than a non-absorbent surface. Some absorbent surfaces are: flat or satin paint, applied textures, plaster, canvas, or raw wood (when staining over a light wood, use a stain conditioner as a slick coat).
How to test if your surface is absorbent? First, know the surface material. Then, wet a sponge and wipe an area. If the color of the substrate turns lighter or darker or changes colors once the water has evaporated, you know there is a transfer of moisture.
So imagine what happens when you cover a chalky surface with a glaze — it dries at an increased speed and therefore you have a shorter window of open time for a decorative finish. Lap marks and difficulty of maniputations are signs of an absorbent base surface.
A slick coat for water applications could consist of 100% water (perhaps misted or sponged onto the surface). More often, 2 parts water to 1 part glazing medium creates a slick coat that will not only fight the absorption rate but nourish the surface.
The downside of using slick coat is that it’s an extra step. Also, the curing time could be extended and prevent a quick finish of the final steps.
Most commonly, a slick coat is used on large or sensitive surfaces. However, as seen in previous post (Red Griotte part 1), a slick coat was used in the activation step of a faux marble.
Adding a greasy slick coat before a veining step (with crystallization) can allow for better blending into the previous step.
From where we left off in part 1 of the Red Griotte faux marble how-to, we now finish with some fine detail steps along with an overglaze.
Here is a picture of real Red Griotte. This marble is named after the Griotte cherry (from the Ukraine) which has a bright red color. Notice the coloring within the fragments along with the “C” shapes.
This is the last shot from part 1. Let this dry completely.
Using a combination of cadmium red and carmine lake (alizarin crimson) the process of detailing some fragments begins. Using a soft, samina veining brush, a random but clustered handful of fragments are colored.
On the palette – in addition to cadmium red and carmine lake, there is white, paynes grey, black, and yellow ochre. The veining brush is loaded so 2 tonalities will mark after each stroke. This type of a fragment is called a “quail’s eye”.
On some fragments, create a “C” shape with yellow ochre, using a sharper pointed brush.
Actually, this bristle veiner works great when you want the brush to “skip” across the surface.
An overglaze over the fissures is the final step. Mix a very transparent glaze (black, paynes grey, raw umber) and use the single head brecher to soften the white fissures using a zig-zag motion.
Here is the finished sample. A few coats of satin or gloss varnish will finish the look.
Here is a real Red Griotte mantel that is found in the Palace of Versailles.
This table top was painted in my studio.
There’s Red Griotte faux marble on the baseboard. The entire section under the chair rail is painted, actually.
This is a fantasy faux marble sample I created for a Japanese client.
Green Campan faux marble has a similar technique as the Red Griotte. See our post on these columns.
Here is a how-to for painting Red Griotte faux marble. This example is painted on a small baseboard piece. In this case, we base coated a dark brick color in oil – 2 coats. After, the surface needed to be degreased with whiting to prepare the surface. A water-based paint can be used, but it would be best to apply a coat of varnish before the second step (where alcohol will be used).
On the palette – cadmium red, carmine lake (alizarin crimson), burnt umber, and orange. In the palette cup, have a clear medium (for this step, low viscosity glaze). Using a flat badger 2-header, a medium red color was applied using a technique called “working in beds”. The brush is lightly loaded with color and then applied in streaks until the brush runs dry (not literally).
You see how the marks are becoming smaller – the brush is running dry. Think of a layered cake. That is the idea of “working in beds” – but not straight across like a cake.
This is after one complete pass with the first color.
A second tonality is then introduced. Here, burnt umber is added. Use the same technique.
This is the palette.
Using a round badger softener – the best softener for profile moldings, take time to melt the colors together to achieve this look. Let dry.
The idea is to have an even layer of glaze for the next step. A round badger gives the final smoothing to attain this layer.
Wait a few minutes (up to ten) to let the glaze set up a bit to help stabilize the glaze. This is important. If the glaze is too wet/fresh, the alcohol used on the next step will eat the glaze too fast.
Using a flat 2-headed squirrel brush, dip the brush in the palette cup filled with denatured alcohol. You can also use a chiqueteur brush — the important thing is the squirrel hair which gives the best print. Once the brush is heavily dipped into the alcohol, twist the brush to expel the extra alcohol (this technique is also used on the Shagreen post).
Using the tip of the hair, gently tap the surface. The action of the alcohol is not immediate, so continue to “work in beds” until the brush seems to be out of alcohol. The alcohol should start dispersing the color to form a reptile skin-like pattern. Note the area on the left of the image below. This area was erroneous because too much alcohol was on the brush or the glaze was too wet. At this point, the glaze was wiped off and the step was started again.
Tickle the surface with the tips of the brush.
The alcohol has finished opening the glaze at this point. It is possible to slow down the activation of the alcohol by hair drying the surface – but not too close.
On an angle like this, you can see the parts dispersed by the alcohol are completely dry.
Let the surface dry completely. Stay tuned for part 2.
Sadly, The Art of Faux: The complete sourcebook of decorative painted finishes by Pierre Finkelstein is no longer for sale on our website. The book is no longer in print and our inventory has since faded. Since published, the book has stood the test of time with over 50,000 copies sold. The AOF has been in consistent demand and sold internationally throughout the ever-changing times.
The brushes, tools, colors, and traditional techniques have stayed fresh in that book. Brushes have adapted with the use of synthetic fibers, but the model remains the same.
Nowadays, I use the sponge a lot less. I protect my hands by using a chiqueteur as much as possible.
Most of us work primarily in water-borne mediums these days (myself, included). The book is very oil-centric which can challenging to follow.
We’re all thinking of a plan to keep the information available that is in The Art of Faux - but revised and updated. Until then, hold on to your tattered, paint-laden edition.
This is not a step-by-step because it is a very painterly project. This post is more of a gallery of the different plates we completed for this particular room. The work was gratifying and the client was impressed. This job was hired by Anthony Baratta in NYC.
Here is another small project of painting switch plate covers to match embroidered fabric on the wall. See tile match post.
Softening with a round badger between steps.
Don’t forget to texture the inner plate for the edges.
Here’s where the decorative pattern hits the plate:
Using a piece of vellum paper, the pattern is traced with a hard, sharp pencil.
Use the traced area for the switch plate.
On the back of the vellum, scribble the area with a soft pencil.
Turn the design face up and carefully re-draw the pattern using a firm touch.
The pattern appears on the plate.
The area was painted lightly for sketching purposes.
Using fluid acrylic colors, the fine hatching of the stitching was applied with a sable, pointed liner brush.
It was very important that the embroidery painting was done with care as it was not possible to touch-up the background, easily.