How to remove shellac from old doors

Written by shauntelle hamlett
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How to remove shellac from old doors
Shellac can be removed with denatured alcohol (antique door image by fafoutis from

Shellac is an organic resin that comes from the shell of the Laccifer lacca bug, found in parts of India and Thailand. Until the mid-20th century, Shellac was the finish of choice for furniture and woodwork because it was easy to apply and dried quickly. If you've purchased a home from the 1950s or earlier, you may find yourself faced with stripping shellac from doors and other woodwork in order to repair damage. Unlike many modern, petroleum-based finishes that require specialised chemicals for removal, you can strip shellac with a couple of simple tools and some denatured alcohol.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Soft clean cloths
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Latex gloves or work gloves
  • Protective eyewear
  • Old credit card
  • Medium-grade green scouring pad
  • Soft-grit sandpaper (optional)

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  1. 1

    Remove the door from its frame and lay it horizontally in a clean work area. Remove any hinges and doorknobs.

  2. 2

    Apply denatured alcohol to the surface of the door, using a soft cloth. Apply the alcohol liberally to the door so that the surface is wet. Allow the alcohol to work on the surface for 10 to 15 minutes. Check the door regularly and reapply alcohol if the surface seems to be drying out.

  3. 3

    Use the edge of an old credit card to scrape the shellac from the door. Apply gentle pressure, scraping in the direction of the wood grain. Clean the card edge against the cloth as the stripped shellac builds up. Continue until the majority of the shellac is removed.

  4. 4

    Remove the remaining shellac by applying more denatured alcohol to the surface of the door with a fresh soft cloth. Allow the alcohol to soak for a minute or two, and rub the remaining shellac using the medium-grade green scouring pad. You also can use a soft-grit sandpaper, but you will need to sand carefully with the grain. Continue until the shellac is completely removed. The door is then ready to prep for staining or paint.

Tips and warnings

  • Work with denatured alcohol in a well ventilated area and wear proper protective eyewear and gloves. OSHA recommends that you do not wear contacts when working with denatured alcohol.
  • Denatured alcohol is highly flammable. Be careful to work away from direct heat and any sources of open flame or sparks. Store denatured alcohol away from direct heat.

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