Introduction

man waxing the wood
Photo: Webb Chappell
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For 90 years, the Clear finish on the maple banister had survived the touch of countless hands without ill effect—until a recurrent drip from a leaky roof bleached and discolored the surface, leaving one ruined spot on the otherwise pristine handrail.

Usually, repairing such damage involves stripping the entire rail down to bare wood and starting over. But if the finish is shellac, a natural, nontoxic coating commonly seen in houses of this vintage, stripping isn't necessary. That's because, unlike varnish or polyurethane, each new coat of shellac dissolves into the one before it, so you can blend new into old without too much fuss.

For this repair, we enlisted John Dee, a painting contractor who has worked on several This Old House television projects. Dee dabbed, brushed, and padded smooth the new coats of bourbon-colored shellac. "You can't rush this," he said. His patience was rewarded in a few hours as the spot literally vanished beneath his intense gaze. It's time well spent; his work could last another 90 years, barring any more leaks.
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    Tools List

    • Artist's Brush
      Artist's Brush

    Shopping List

    1. Naphtha
    Cleans the old finish

    2. Denatured alcohol
    Softens old shellac and thins the new

    3. Artist's brush
    Natural bristles only

    4. Shellac flakes
    Also available premixed

    5. Cotton cloth

    6. Alcohol-soluble wood dye
    Darkens shellac to match old finish

    7. Tinted furniture wax
    Blends into crevices better than clear wax