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I am making something for outdoor use and I've painted it with a matte exterior latex paint. I'm satisfied with the protection that the paint will offer but I'm experimenting with ways to make it look nicer.

Right now I am considering glossy finishes. I have found that I much prefer the appearance and texture of shellac (de-waxed) to a high gloss spar urethane.

I don't really need good scratch resistance for this particular piece, and the paint should protect the wood enough from moisture and sunlight.

I'm also not too concerned about color changes over time as long as it is uniform. The paint is just brown, and maintaining the precise brown isn't super important.

My question is, how should I expect a fairly thick shellac finish (over paint) to behave outdoors over time? It will be exposed to sunlight, a wide range of temperatures, and plenty of rain, snow, and ice. Should I expect flaking? Spotting? Blemishes (I've heard it gets cloudy with moisture)? Other weird stuff? Or will it maintain its nice appearance? If it does get grimy, will it be prone to staining (with polyurethane a good wipe down with an all purpose cleaner takes care of it)?

I already own the paint and don't really want to buy another gallon of glossy paint; I'm trying to do this with the stuff I already have sitting around collecting dust on my shelves.

  • Sounds like the planter project is progressing nicely. – Ast Pace Mar 21 '16 at 23:59
  • @AstPace Heh. I've been killing time playing with finishes, because the ol' friend-with-a-truck is out of town and I haven't been able to get all the wood yet. – Jason C Mar 22 '16 at 2:40
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My question is, how should I expect a fairly thick shellac finish (over paint) to behave outdoors over time? It will be exposed to sunlight, a wide range of temperatures, and plenty of rain, snow, and ice.

I'm going to reference this thread at This Old House for some of these answers.

Should I expect flaking?

Yep. Shellac will trap moisture under the finish, which will cause the finish itself to bubble, flake, and peel over time.

Spotting? Blemishes (I've heard it gets cloudy with moisture)?

Yep and yep. Besides the aforementioned issues with flaking/peeling, shellac does not like getting wet. If you've ever left a hot or a sweating beverage on a bare shellac-ed wood surface, you've seen the dreaded ring in the finish. Now imagine that, but all over, and most likely non-uniform. The clouding eventually disappears (or lessens), but that takes a while of non-wet conditions and low enough humidity or high enough heat to make it happen.

Other weird stuff? Or will it maintain its nice appearance?

Varnishes (and other varnish-like finishes) just don't hold up well outdoors. The constant battering by UV rays and weather wreaks havoc on the film, which requires quite frequent maintenance to keep in anything resembling decent shape.

I already own the paint and don't really want to buy another gallon of glossy paint; I'm trying to do this with the stuff I already have sitting around collecting dust on my shelves.

If you don't want to waste your time further down the road reapplying finish, I'd bite the bullet and get the correct product now.

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Shellac doesn't do well with water, that's your starting point here. It's also relatively brittle and with the expected movement in the wood you're likely to see problems with cracking.

Bonding to the paint shouldn't be an issue initially at least, the perceived wisdom is that "shellac sticks to everything and everything sticks to shellac" and while that's a bit of an exaggeration it should bond very well to just about any paint. But you may see the paint shucking it off after multiple cycles of swelling and contraction.

The main objection of course might be shellac's well-known issue of clouding when exposed to water.

I already own the paint and don't really want to buy another gallon of glossy paint; I'm trying to do this with the stuff I already have sitting around collecting dust on my shelves.

I would suggest you try thinned varnish. It's not inherently a bad idea to coat paint with varnish, it's actually done more commonly that we tend to think although this is for interior projects. However, there is a potential problem here in that you'd probably want to use spar varnish (specifically formulated to be more flexible than regular varnishes) but this is noticeably yellow or amber and could give too much of a colour change for your liking, even if applied in 2-3 thin coats.

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Shellac is perhaps the worst choice for the outdoor use. If you ever set a wet glass on shellac finished furniture, you'll notice a white ring. Water softens shellac and overtime it will wear away from the surface. When it softens with water, it has a tacky feel which is a magnet for dust. When it dries, any dust or dirt essentially glues to it.

The lowest cost solution, is to just leave the paint as is and reapply it when it looks weathered. If the paint you're using is a good quality latex paint, it won't crack and flake off.

If you want a very durable and relatively inexpensive solution, get some polyurethane (preferably water-based, since it doesn't darken the color) and wipe or brush it on.

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I've wondered this and done some experimentation myself. Shellac is the most beautiful finish, IMO, and non-toxic, natural, has character, etc--so of course I would like to use it. The answer is not so simple. The clear sanding-sealer and "clear" slightly colored shellacs are not good for outdoors. I tried it on my deck and the sanding sealer clouded. However then I used an amber shellac and it looked great, it didn't cloud much and over time flaked off. However I felt it might be too slick for a deck. Then I read that canoe builders use the amber shellac on the bottom of their boats--so yes the darker kind with wax is used in water. I finished a bannister in it and it flaked off after a year or two, but looked good. Most recently I just mixed some amber shellac with linseed oil. It looks good in an antique way but not quite as good as shellac alone perhaps. Old time spar varnish I've heard was made by mixing shellac plus linseed for flexibility. I suspect the linseed was heated to a high (450+?) degrees so that the shellac polymerized. I suspect this because this is how music instrument varnish is made--at that temperature certain changes occur which make it tougher I think. If you're going to try that, make sure you use all adequate precautions and common sense and research about heating hot oil. I didn't heat, I just mixed some tried and true linseed oil with amber shellac.In my imagination there is a perfect outdoor formula with shellac.

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