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Woodworking/Deteriorating Shellac

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Question
I have inherited an old wood refrigerator (aka ice box), I assume from the 1910's. Parts of the surface have fibers and cat hair stuck to it, although it is not sticky to the touch. My suspicion is that the shellac started to break down and fibers from the blankets it was stored under are now glued to the surface. I am hesitant to strip the entire thing, as I really want to preserve as much of the original as possible. Any suggestions on how to remove the parts that are tacky? Any suggestions for cleaning that won't require re-finishing or staining? A soft bristle brush and rag dampened with soapy water did not work.

Thanks in advance!

Answer
Hi Mary, restoring such a surface can be labor intensive, but it is very likely that you can achieve good results. Old shellac can be cleaned with denatured alcohol, but keep in mind that alcohol is the original solvent for the shellac, so if allowed to sit on the surface, or applied too heavily, it will soften the shellac or even remove it. Removing hair, dirt, cloth fibers, etc., can probably be accomplished with wet sanding the piece with 320-400 grit wet dry sandpaper and a sanding liquid you can make with a cereal bowl of water with about a teaspoon of liquid dish soap stirred into it.(Dawn, Ivory liquid or similar) I suspect the shellac is quite thick on the surface,so that gives you quite a bit of insurance from sanding through the finish, which you want to avoid. Work in small sections with clean rags. You'll buy the sandpaper in full sheets, fold it into quarters and cut or tear each into 4 usable sand paper sheets. Fold those into 3rds to make a good sanding pad with 3 sanding surfaces to use as they deteriorate during the process. simply dip the paper into the bowl and sand the areas, wet, adding more liquid as you go, and check often by wiping the slurry off with a clean rag, until you get rid of the contaminates, and yield a smooth, clean surface.Sand only to that point, don't over sand the piece, but you'll likely need to do the whole piece to make it all look the same overall.Some experimentation will be necessary to get a feel for the process, and to achieve uniform results. Then it's typical to pad on a thin layer of new shellac to restore the surface, I would use a dewaxed Blonde on such a piece likely, depending on it's overall color, but there's a learning curve to padding shellac over a whole piece, and one also needs to have the shellac. Shellac is available dry, in flake form, in many different refined grades and colors,but requires mixing and thinning to the proper consistency with solvent for padding use, something I do not recommend to the novice, but I keep and use at least 3-4 grades of shellac regularly in the shop. A good alternative would be Zinnsers pre-mixed product in 'clear' or 'amber',(depending on the color desired, as it will affect the color of the whole piece slightly), but NOT 'Orange' shellac.  .... but if your results are good enough after wiping down the whole piece, a good paste wax may bring back the luster of the finish, without the need for padding more shellac. WoodCraft is a source for the shellac and waxes. I typically use a colored wax like the Briwax, or Fiddes, in a Brown or Jacobean-ish color when reviving such a shellac finish, but results will vary, and it's impossible to know what you will encounter, and what you're starting with, from my end. If you've never attempted this type of work, it might be a good idea to find a restorer to do it...unless you're very comfortable with this skill set. It's not Rocket surgery, but it does take a 'feel' for this kind of work, and a little knowledge and care to successfully complete, and a skilled restorer shouldn't charge too much -IF- the finish is restorable, but it likely is. The hunt for a good restorer should start with an established, local Antique store. They will know who is good in the area, and likely have at least one recommendation. Hope that helps a little- feel free to post back if need be.
Regards, Greg

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Greg Scholl

Expertise

Questions on Woodworking, wood finishing and refinishing of all kinds, repairing furniture and wooden objects,Architectural details, Woodturning, carving, tool usage, product usage, some chemistry as it applies to woodworking and related interests,cabinet making and furniture construction/design, etc. I have experience with all manners of colorants, finishes, paints, stains, dyes, glazes, and coatings,wood species recognition,usage,etc.

Experience

Fine furniture restorer and cabinet maker for over 30 years,serving high end Antique dealers, Interior designers, Collectors in the CT area. Sold, built, serviced, setup Home,Industrial and Commercial stationary woodworking tools for a major tool retailer in CT. for three years, sold hand and power tools, and offered instruction on use and care as well.I even have some Trade show Demo experience.

Organizations
none at this time.

Publications
Published in Fine Woodworking Magazine (12/97), included on Fine Woodworkings first "Best of Fine Woodworking" CD-ROM (2002)-("27 year compilation of expert know-how"),Multiple times in Family Handyman Magazine, local newspapers as well.

Education/Credentials
Art School at Silvermine Guild in Norwalk, CT., 9 year apprenticeship in a European run Cabinet and Restoration shop in CT., various classes on subjects having to do with the field. Seminars by Major tool manufacturers, Delta, Powermatic, Performax, Porter Cable, Skil/Bosch to name a few.

Past/Present Clients
Many varied clients including work on Martha Stewarts' Westport, CT. show house, many fine Antique dealers and private collectors in and around Fairfield County and in Woodbury, CT.(the Antiques capital of CT.)
Consulting for area Painting/Decorating and Building contractors on non painting issues..(staining, wood prep.,clear finishing, floor restoration and architectural detail restoration and repair, etc.), local Museums and Historical Societies.For the last two years I have been employed with Schwenke Auctioneers Inc.- Woodbury Auction LLC., as a staff photographer,IT tech,and doing restoration and repair work as well.

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