Wood Finish From Old Records

Next time you’re working on a project that needs a durable wood finish, don’t grab the polyurethane. Follow [Victor Ola’s] advice and raid your grandparent’s record cabinet for some old 78 records. Modern records are made from vinyl. The stiff, brittle old 78’s from the 1960’s and earlier were made from shellac. Shellac is a natural material secreted by the female lac bug. It can be thought of as a natural form of plastic and was used as such for years until man-made plastics became commodity items.

Older 78 RPM phonograph albums are usually made entirely from shellac. [Victor] started by taking a few old cracked records and pulverizing them with a hammer. The shellac crumbs were then poured into a mason jar along with some isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol dissolves the shellac, creating a thick goo. More alcohol will thin the slurry down to a paintable consistency. The mixture is then ready to be painted on any wood surface. Wiping off the excess will reveal the wood grain.

Shellac is normally amber in color. Records are black because carbon is added to the mix. This makes the shellac stain dark and makes it a flat finish. While it would be fine to leave it this way, [Victor] added a coat of lacquer over his shellac stain to achieve a glossy finish on his upcycled gramophone.

If you’re getting into woodworking, don’t worry – anyone can do it. Just make sure you have sharp tools.

36 thoughts on “Wood Finish From Old Records

    1. There’s literally tons of shellac records that nobody wants anymore. The collector’s market has been dwindling (read: dying off). So the records end up in landfills or as decorative items. With this way of recycling they’re actually of some practical use again.

      1. That’s how antiques work. They might be out of style right now, but give it a while and people will want them again. The main thing is that nobody is making them anymore, and a whole era of people’s thoughts and feelings are pressed on them. Just go buy a bottle of shellac if you want to put a varnish on your wooden raspberry pi case or whatever.

        1. All that’s important about a record is the information it contains. The rest is just so much decaying stuff that gets worse and worse as time goes by. Why would anyone want to keep it?

          Shellac discs have the unfortunate property of self-destructing when played, so all you can do is look at it.

          1. Handling and cleaning the disc still wear it out, and risk breaking it every time you take it out of the sleeve. The shellac itself doesn’t have an infinite shelf life either.

            If you really want to listen to it, just digitize the record instead of fucking around with obsolete formats. An old shellac disc is a novelty item that some people think is valuable because it’s rare. They aren’t all that rare.

        2. Similarly old cameras have effectively zero value if they cannot be shot. Maybe a broken Leica or Hasselblad could be fixed for less than it’s value but those are exceptions with hype value. Even working cameras for film formats that can no longer be purchased now have very little value. Mass produced items with a use that can no longer be used tend to have much higher supply than demand.

          1. If you have a Hasselblad you don’t want, I’ll take it. Those medium-view SLRs usually had detachable film backs. I’m sure I could scavenge a CCD plane to work with a gorgeous camera. One day I’ll figure out how to fit one into the Canon AE-1 Program that I scored for free.

            I grew up in antiques country (upstate NY). Value increases thanks to paucity. Creating a reserve for what will be valuable in the future means having space and ignoring it. Space doesn’t exist in big cities. However I can go to the hardware store and buy stain, or kit boxes, or anything else.

            I’ll keep what few lacquer records I have. They’re worth more to me in their prepared, listenable condition. We’re probably only a couple scripts away from taking high-rez photos of them to reconstruct their sounds without a destructive stylus.

          2. Kodak Disc is a completely dead film camera format. Advanced Photo System film was last made in 2011 by Kodak and Fuji so there’s still some old stock left. There was very little professional interest in APS and it wasn’t very popular for amateur photographers either due to it being a smaller format than 35mm.

            What could be done is a digital “film” cartridge for Disc cameras. Could also be done for 110 and 126 cartridges. They would be much easier than making a digital cartridge for 35mm or APS since Disc, 110 and 126 don’t rely on a spring loaded plate attached to the camera to hold the film flat. It would be easier to incorporate the sensor into the plastic cartridge, least costly for Disc because it could use a smaller sensor.

            Remember those “world’s smallest” 110 cameras? They were a lens, shutter and winding knob arrangement that snapped onto the front of a 110 camera, making the cartridge itself the camera body. The same could be done for a digital version.

            Owners of the Kodak Retina 126 SLR would love a digital cartridge to be able to use those cameras again. The 126 SLR used the same lens mount as the 35mm Retina Reflex line but the 126 SLR didn’t support all the features of many of the lenses.

            There was one attempt at a digital 35mm film that nearly made it to production. The company had got the bugs worked out so that they were getting near 100% good product and had working production ready prototypes of the peripherals for connecting to computers. The biggest hurdle to the system was slight differences in the distance between the film can and the focal plane between camera models. The digital film had to be assembled to fit each brand, and they finally got that workable. Making that distance adjustable might have been added to a later revision. But the money ran out, and as digital cameras gained in quality and dropped in price, consumer interest in digitizing their old SLRs dropped off.

          3. The nice thing about film cameras vs. digital cameras is the superior dynamic range and resolution of film, plus all the idiosyncracies of the process that produce unique results. Without that, an old film camera fitted with a CCD is just a poor and inconvenient digital camera.

      2. I agree, I’ve been seeing tons of these old 78’s going to landfill since the late 60’s. Interestingly enough one could use the shellac to fake antiques or make faux vintage finishes for restorations. If you can get the carbon out, there would be a specialty market for real vintage shellacs for the hobbyists, and conservation specialists

  1. I wonder if you could at least lighten the color of the shellac by using an oil or turpentine extraction technique to remove the carbon black. Since shellac dissolves in alcohol it probably isn’t as soluble in oils.
    Basically just add some turpentine to the jar after you’ve dissolved the pieces in the alcohol and agitate the mixture. (Keep away from flames)

    1. Or get the dry pearls or flakes and add them to alcohol.
      Many grades available.

      Carbon Black – I thought that was carcinogenic?
      ~15 years ago I had to sign a waiver for a pro wood stain that contained Carbon Black.

      1. Where do you think they got the plots for the new series?
        TV executive: If we re-do the shows, the fans won’t be able to say “They are just recycling earlier show plots!”

    1. The beetles exude the shellac until it thickly coats the branches of trees. The branches are beaten with sticks to break up the lac bug juice (thus giving someone a “good shellacing”). It is dissolved in ethanol or methanol – don’t use issopropyl as the story suggests – and filtered. It is dried into flakes or sold as “one pound” or “three pound” shellac, which is the pounds of shellac per gallon of solvent. The modern shellac sold for finishing is food safe. It is what they use to coat the kind of candies that can sit in a plate for ages. You can coat a frosted cake so it doesn’t dry out. And it is the chief ingredient in paints used after fires and to cover stains. Great stuff. Don’t use old records for food purposes. Shellac has a pretty short shelf life for the best finish.

  2. “Shellac is a natural material secreted by the female lac bug.”
    So.. this made me wonder if I could skip both destroying old records and visiting the hardware store by raising some bugs. I was dreaming of an unlimited supply of free “almost plastic”

    It’s even melt-able. Hmm… maybe an environmentally sound 3d printing material?

    Ok, anybody want to take up that challenge?

  3. I do hope these are BROKEN records that have lost their usefulness as a sound recording medium. The information, not to mention memories, contained on them are often irreplaceable and worth far more in sentimental value than the mere shellac they are made of. If you need shellac, go to a hardware store! Don’t raid your grandfather’s record collection just because you can.

    1. They can only be pressed once. They lost their usefulness as a sound recording medium a long time ago.

      They still might have value as sound storage however with those original sounds still pressed on them!

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