Shellac creates attractive appearance and durability

Making flutes involves making decisions.

  •  What kind of wood to use.
  • What key to make the flute in.
  • How to add to the flute with pyrography (woodburning), wraps or inlays.

All of those decisions make each flute unique. An area where I’ve tried a lot of different solutions and finalized my decision is the final stage — the final finishing on the flute. I’ve tried a number of finishing approaches, which I’ll not belabor here, and have found shellac to be the most effective.

Blond shellac flakes dissolving in alcohol for next day's use.
Blond shellac flakes dissolving in alcohol for next day’s use.

I like shellac, in part, because it is a green product. Shellac is created by an insect that lives in India. The female lac bug secrets a sticky fluid on twigs to protect the larvae. That protective covering becoming the basis of shellac.

I use shellac flakes – ordered  from Shellac Shack in Oregon – and mix them to give the right thickness and color. Shellac is non-toxic and lets the grain of the wood show off, if it wants to.

Most flute players look at the finishing as more of a decorative aspect of the flute, but finishing the flute is important for the long-term play-ability of the flute too.

Finishing the flute is an important step because if wood isn’t finished, it continues to move a lot more than when it is finished. Even small moves can cause the flute to crack. Those little cracks will cause air to escape and guess what? You won’t hear a sound from the flute when there are cracks.

All of my flutes are finished with shellac both outside and inside.

Finishing a flute on the inside is an important step. If a flute hasn’t been finished on the inside, then the grain of the wood can become raised with the first moisture from a player’s breath.  All of these tiny grain ends that are raised really should be sanded down smooth to make smooth interior chambers. The smoother the walls of the chamber, the better the sound from the flute.

With my flutes first in halves, I am able to shellac, then sand and repeat the process until I am guaranteed the walls will remain smooth. Yes, even when moisture/condensation forms on the interior walls.

When moisture builds up in the interior of the flute from breath you get “wet out.” Most flute players will have experience having a flute “wet out” after playing a flute for at least an hour. When the flute “wets out”, the bird/fetish should be removed from the flute to allow the interior to dry out.

If the flute is never dried out, the moisture build up can lead to mold developing on the inside of the flute. That’s why I like a complete finish on the inside.  Sanding and shellacing the inside of each of my flutes greatly reduces the possibility of mold developing.  The moisture will evaporate and not cling to the sides and foster undesired growth.

Spalted maple flute with red bud fetish.  They have a calm sheen, but the wood shines through.
Spalted maple flute with red bud fetish. They have a calm sheen, but the wood shines through.

On the outside, I finish the flutes with 3-4 layers of shellac.  Enough to protect the outside but not so much as to detract from the beauty of the wood and the natural look. Shellac both makes my flutes attractive and a long-term possession.

Shellac is also used to create a French polish — a very, very shiny finish. This is achieved by applying many  coats of shellac.  While a process that some use, it is not one I choose as I prefer a more natural look.

Shellac had many other uses in the first part of the 20th Century, including being pressed to make 78 rpm records. If you’d like to learn more about how shellac is made, you can purchase the Fall 2014 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine and read “All About Shellac.”