Ultimate Wood Finishing | Shellac Wax Steel Wool

Woodworking and furniture enthusiasts often seek to transform bare wood into elegant, satin-finished pieces. This wood finishing technique using Shellac, wax and steel wool provides a classic and timeless finish to your woodworking projects. It may also be know as a Boston polish. 

Finishing wood with shellac and wax is nothing new. In fact, using Shellac for wood finishing has been done for hundreds of years. Using Shellac for wood finishing and furniture became more widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in Europe and North America.

I’m here to guide you through the process of achieving a beautiful satin sheen finish using shellac, paste wax, and 0000 steel wool. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll share my insights, suggestions, and step-by-step procedures to help you turn your raw wood into a work of art.

Preparing the Surface

The Importance of Surface Preparation

Before you dive into the world of wood furniture finishing, it’s crucial to ensure your starting surface is as flawless as possible. Take these steps:

Sanding Techniques

Selecting the right sandpaper grit is paramount. Choose the appropriate grit based on the wood type and its current condition. Remember to:

  • Using an orbital sander, opt for coarse grits for initial leveling and finer grits for a smooth finish.
  • Always sand with the grain to avoid scratches and swirl marks.
  • Use even pressure and consistent strokes to achieve an even surface.
  • For the final pass, hand sand using 200 grit and a  sanding block or use a card scraper.

Using a Card Scraper

For those who prefer an alternative to sandpaper and sanding dust, a card scraper can be an invaluable tool. I use it as a final pass instead of hand sanding. It does a much better job at providing a super smooth surface free of sander imperfections. I’ll skip sanding altogether and use only the scraper If I have S2S boards or ones that just came off my thickness planer. Follow these steps for effective use:

  • Hold the card scraper correctly and maintain the right angle.
  • Keep the card scraper sharp and well-maintained for optimal results.
  • For more information on card scrapers see Woodworking Tip: Using a Card Scraper

Tips for Dust Removal

Before applying any finish, ensure your work area is free of dust. Proper dust removal is essential. Here’s how:

  • Use a tack cloth or compressed air to remove any lingering dust.
  • Maintain a clean workspace to prevent dust from settling back onto your workpiece.

Applying Shellac

Understanding Shellac as a Finish

Shellac is an outstanding choice for achieving a satin finish. Here’s why:

  • Shellac is easy to use and clean up.
  • Shellac is an all natural product, setting it apart from other finishes.
  • It’s versatile, making it suitable as both a sealer or final finish.

Choosing the Right Shellac: Zinsser Bulls Eye Clear “SealCoat”

I recommend using Zinsser Bulls Eye Clear “SealCoat” shellac for this process. Here’s why:

Zinsser SealCoat shellac provides a clear finish without wax bleed-through. It dries quickly, reducing waiting time. It’s compatible with various topcoats for versatility. It’s a user-friendly option for both beginners and experts. It’s ready to use right out of the can.

Brush On Shellac

The first coat is crucial, and it sets the stage for a beautiful finish. Here’s how to apply it:

  • Prepare the work area with proper ventilation.
  • Use a high-quality brush to apply an even, thin coat.
  • Avoid over-brushing, which can lead to streaks and drips.
  • You can thin the Shellac with denatured alcohol for even faster drying. I thin down by 10-15%.

Sanding Between Shellac Coats

Sanding between coats is essential for a smooth finish. Sand with an orbital sander. Sand enough to remove any nibs or flatten drips or runs and just enough to dull the surface.

CAUTION: Stay away from corner edges to avoid sanding through through

  • Use fine-grit sandpaper (220-400) for this purpose
  • The lower grit will remove faster.
  • The higher grit you’ll have less chance of sanding through.
  • Remove dust before applying the next coat.

Building Up Layers: Second, Third, and Fourth Coats

To achieve a stunning satin finish, you’ll need multiple coats of shellac. Here’s how to apply them:

  • Allow each coat to dry for the recommended time.
  • Lightly sand each coat with fine-grit sandpaper.
  • Ensure even and thin applications to prevent buildup.

After these steps the surface should be dull and ready for the next step.

Wax and Steel Wool

Rubbing in Paste Wax with 0000 Steel Wool

Now, let’s apply the paste wax using 0000 steel wool for a fantastic result:

  • Tear off a small piece of 0000 steel wool.
  • Apply a small amount of paste wax to the steel wool.
  • Rub the wax-soaked steel wool evenly over the surface
  • Rub across the entire surface of the piece first at a 30 degree angle and then straight with the grain
  • Allow the wax to set for a specific time, typically 10-20 minutes.

Hand Buffing the Wax

To achieve that desired sheen, hand buffing is essential. Here’s how it’s done:

  • Use a clean, soft cloth to buff the wax in a circular motion.
  • Buff with consistent pressure and gentle motions.
  • If desired, repeat the steel wool-wax application and buffing


By following this detailed guide, you can transform your bare wood furniture into a stunning masterpiece. Enjoy the satisfaction of your hard work and appreciate the timeless beauty of your finished piece.

IMG_04891-1024x768 Ultimate Wood Finishing | Shellac Wax Steel Wool

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long should I wait between coats of shellac?

The ideal drying time between shellac coats is typically 30 minutes to 1 hour. Make sure the previous coat is dry to the touch before applying the next one.

Can I use different brands of shellac for this process?

While Zinsser Bulls Eye Clear “SealCoat” is recommended, you can experiment with other shellac brands. However, compatibility might vary, so it’s wise to do a test on a small area first. 

You could even mix your own from flakes and denatured alcohol. That’s beyond the scope of this article.

Is it necessary to use 0000 steel wool, or can I use a different type?

Using 0000 steel wool is recommended for its fine texture, which helps achieve a smooth finish. Lower grades of steel wool may leave scratches or not produce the desired satin sheen. Stick to 0000 steel wool for the best results. If you’re confident enough and want more sheen experiment with a  00000 steel wool.

What’s the best way to store unused shellac and paste wax?

To prolong the shelf life of your shellac and paste wax, store them in a cool, dry place with tightly sealed lids. It’s essential to prevent air exposure, which can cause the products to thicken or degrade over time.

How do I fix imperfections in my shellac finish?

Imperfections can happen, but they’re not the end of the world. If you encounter drips, streaks, or uneven spots, lightly sand the affected area and reapply shellac or paste wax as needed. Always sand with the grain to avoid creating new imperfections.

Remember that the key to achieving a stunning satin finish on your wood furniture is patience, precision, and attention to detail. This woodworking journey will not only result in a beautiful piece of furniture but also a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Embrace the art of transforming raw wood into a satin-finished masterpiece, and remember that practice makes perfect.

To earn about another type of furniture finishing, see our article on polyurethane coating finishing.

Jim Graf

I started with ZERO tools a few years back. I've learned a lot and built skills and confidence to do most any project. With this site, I'd like to share and empower others to take up woodworking and build their skill level and confidence, too. Anyone can do this!

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