How to Give It a Shellacking
Spot repairs on woodwork are easy when the finish is shellac
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.