What’s the Difference Between Shellac and Lacquer?​

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated June 24, 2022
Woman in her studio is vanishing a wooden chair
Photo: TRBfoto / Tetra images / Getty Images


  • Shellac is a biodegradable non-toxic finish derived from beetle secretions.

  • Lacquer is a finish made from resin mixed with a solvent agent.

  • Shellac gives a high-gloss finish in a warm tone, but it isn’t very durable.

  • Lacquer is extremely durable and gives a clear finish in a variety of sheens.

  • Shellac is easier to repair, but lacquer is more resistant to scratches, heat, and water.

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Whether you’re refinishing your hardwood floors or a piece of old furniture, you’re eventually going to need to choose a finish. Most homeowners are stuck weighing the pros and cons of varnish versus polyurethane versus shellac versus lacquer. In the ultimate battle, shellac and lacquer remain fierce competitors. They’re similar products with nuanced differences.

So, how do you know which to use? It depends on how you want to use it. This guide will tell you what you need to know.

Shellac Pros and Cons

French wooden cabinet in an antique shop
Photo: Andreas von Einsiedel / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images

Shellac is a type of finish made from secretions of the lac beetle—yes, an actual insect found in Southeast Asia. In nature, the secretion is used as a protective coating for larvae, but we use it as a protective coating for our furniture. Why choose shellac? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Pros of Shellac

Shellac is a natural, sustainable finish that doesn’t emit harmful VOCs that destroy your indoor air quality. In fact, it’s technically edible and used in food manufacturing to coat things like pills, candy, and coffee beans (but please don’t eat the shellac you get at a hardware store). Homeowners love shellac for its ease and appearance. This high gloss finish dries quickly and gives furniture a warm amber tone that makes it look brand new.

Cons of Shellac

The main problem with shellac is that it’s not as durable as other finishes—and it’s highly flammable, thanks to the high alcohol content. This finish is susceptible to water damage and very sensitive to heat and other chemicals like ammonia or alcohol-based cleaners. For example, if you put a hot coffee cup on a shellacked table, you can bet you’ll get a white ring. In short, it’s a poor choice for high-use kitchen and bathroom furniture even though it can spruce up an antique.

Lacquer Pros and Cons

Lacquer is a finish that’s typically made from organic plant resins or synthetic resin mixed with a solvent agent. It’s got a variety of different sheens but generally dries clear unless you choose a tinted option. This product is heralded for its durability, but there are some other benefits. Let’s get into it.

Pros of Lacquer

Applying lacquer to a wooden board with a spray gun
Photo: GregorBister / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Lacquer is extremely durable and scratch-resistant, so you can use it as a true protective coating. It’s also water-resistant (say goodbye to unsightly water rings!) and creates that coveted smooth, high-gloss sheen you often see in modern furniture. If you’re looking for an even coat, lacquer is thin enough that you can apply it with a sprayer and don’t need to worry about brush strokes.


The main problem with lacquer is the fumes. This finish often contains solvents like xylene and toluene and emits high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ventilation is a necessity, though water-based or low-VOC lacquers are a little bit less harmful. 

Damage is another concern. Despite the general durability, you can scratch or chip lacquer. Once it’s damaged, it’s difficult to repair. You can’t easily buff it out like shellac.

Shellac vs. Lacquer

Should you use shellac or lacquer? It varies from project to project. Depending on your needs, a local carpenter and hardwood floor contractor near you will probably each give you different advice.


Both shellac and lacquer can produce a high gloss finish, though lacquer has other sheen options. As far as color goes, shellac is known for its warm, amber tone. Lacquer dries crystal clear (as long as you don’t choose an option with tint) and is popular because it doesn’t turn yellow over time like other finishes. Lacquer also typically has a smoother finish because you can apply it with a spray bottle.

Best Appearance: Lacquer

Options and Customizations​

Shellac has its signature finish, but it does come in a variety of warm tones—from light blonde to dark brown, to reddish-brown or orange-brown. Lacquer, on the other hand, has different options for both sheen and color. Standard lacquer is clear but you can purchase tinted lacquer in a variety of sheens—from mid-gloss to high gloss.

Most Customization: Lacquer


Shellac is particularly vulnerable to damage from heat, certain chemicals, and water. A hot mug or plate will cause a ring. In other words, if you’re going to stain your deck or kitchen table, you probably don’t want to finish it with shellac. The good news is that shellac is easily touched-up by buffing in another coat. 

Nonetheless, lacquer is still more durable. It can remain intact for years and doesn’t turn yellow like its cousins varnish or polyurethane.

Most Durable: Lacquer


Both shellac and lacquer come with a similar price tag. Expect to spend anywhere between $12 to $25 per quart. You can also purchase shellac flakes to dissolve in denatured alcohol which typically cost $25 to $50 per half-pound (though most homeowners are best-served purchasing pre-mixed liquid shellac) or a lacquer spray which costs $5 to $15 for around 11 oz. 

Most Affordable: Tie

Ease of Installation​

Shellac dries so quickly that it can be difficult to get an even coat. Though lacquer is subject to the same issues if you’re using a brush, using a spray bottle will help create a pristine, even sheen.

Easiest to Install: Lacquer

Ease of Repair

Hand polishing antique wooden furniture
Photo: Simone Madeo / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

You can try to buff out scuffs in lacquer using a polishing compound for a high gloss finish or steel wool and paste wax for a satin finish. Nonetheless, shellac is still easier to repair. You can buff out a water stain using lemon oil and steel wool. You can also repair scratches and cracks by simply buffing more shellac into the area.

Easiest to Repair: Shellac


Because shellac is more prone to damage, it does require more maintenance. You may have to buff out scratches more regularly than lacquer. You will also have to refinish lacquer periodically because it only lasts about three years.

Least Maintenance: Lacquer

Length of Life​

Both shellac and lacquer last about three years in the can (though they may last longer depending on how it's stored). You’ll need to refinish lacquer around every 7 to 10 years if you’re using it on a high-use surface, such as floors. Shellac floors need refinishing much sooner, as soon as signs of damage start to show.

Longest Lifespan: Lacquer


Eco-friendliness is a vital difference between shellac and polyurethane, lacquer, or varnish. Shellac happens to be one of the most common non-toxic finishes along with certain waxes and oils. Though it’s not a vegan product (it’s made from lac beetle secretions) it is biodegradable and sustainable. Lacquer, on the other hand, is typically a source of harmful VOCs.

Most Eco-Friendly: Shellac

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