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I have a custom made totem pole that is over 20 years old. It has been shellacked a few times in an effort to preserve the wood. Although this seemed to work, the colors have darkened and disappeared. I am trying to restore the original colors and need advice as to what type of paint products to use. Would appreciate any advice.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
First, shellac is a poor choice of surface coating, especially over painted
surfaces, as it will inevitably darken. As to colors disappearing, this is
either a function of them being masked by the darkened shellac or fading
resulting from the use of non-lightfast pigmented paint. Colors exposed to the
full spectrum of sunlight would need to be of the highest lightfastness to have
any hope of survival.
Unless you made the Totem Pole yourself, we cannot recommend a
restoration process or materials for such an endeavor. This should really be
treated by a trained objects conservator. You can find one in your area by
using the American Institute for the Conservation of Artistic and Historic
Works “find a conservator tool.”
Okay, here I go about shellac again....I don't mean to berate the issue yet I remain confused about its properties and want to understand better. Conservators have told me it darkens with age, don't use it. However the woodworking industry says otherwise (i.e. see https://www.shellac.net/news/2018/12/21/7-questions-facts-myths-about-shellac-for-wood-finishing/) as does this article (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780081002148000154); and my own 20+ sample of platina shellac has not darkened at all (I know, a relatively short amount of time, but there isn't any perceptible change). Are there actual conservation studies on how a platina, bleached shellac ages, or is shellac's reputation anecdotal? Or maybe changes are due to specific considerations (i.e. darkening occurs only in colored or impure grades, or dependent on how shellac interacts with certain materials)? Perhaps, given my lack of conservation training, I'm misinterpreting the studies that say shellac's not affected by UV light, and there are factors other than UV which cause it to darken that I'm not considering?
Thanks for your patience in explaining this to me.
I know little about shellac, but it's possible that the different tree resins making part of it could age to darker shades over the decades. A mere twenty years or so however should still be somewhat within craft permanence. It occurrs to me that the shellac has caused some of the colours to be saturated from a previous opaque but underbound state. This would incline them towards transparency, revealing the colour of the wood underneath. On top of this, the colours probably weren't of professional artists quality, possibly even house paints. I've seen dramatic colour changes of these within ten years. Not only may they have faded, but they may not even be the same colours anymore. I personally doubt the original colours can be recovered without repainting. If you could take it back to the original artist/artists they would probably be interested (with a fee) in restoring the pole to their original intention, but not necessarily to a perfect replication of it first appearance. You could be shocked by their choices, but at least it would be still a wholly authentic work. Either this, or live with time's changes.
To clarify, shellac is not a resin but an exudation from an insect, the female lac bug (in a similar sense to how wax is produced and extruded from a bee). So it doesn't fit into the category of tree resins, most of which do discolor with age.
No, but the colour of the shellac is apparenty due to the type of wood the insects have been living on. So I'm supposing (perhaps falsely) there's some kind of distilled resin component within the shellac.
Shellac is the insect exudate from the Keirra Lacca Kerr
and other related insects. Basically, it is exuded to hold the insect’s eggs/larva
to a branch until they are hatched. All raw shellac (meaning the raw exudate
stuck to the host branch) has a deep color. This is a result of organic
components in the host tree and, especially, inherent dyestuff in the resin
itself. Truly raw shellac has a dyestuff that can be extracted in an alkaline
aqueous solution to yield a deep crimson color. This was the principle use of
lac until the 18th century. In fact, the term “lake” color was a corruption
of the word lac. Lac was the source of one of the most important red dyestuffs
used for the creation of red lakes. The various grades of shellac run from
stick lac, which is the only grade that contains the full amount of lac dye, to
relatively unrefined seed lac, to ruby, to amber, to lemon, to pale, to blonde,
and finally bleached. However, there is no tree resin component in shellac (in
the sense of added tree resin).
There is no doubt that shellac darkens. This has been
observed for centuries. Bleached shellacs, especially modern methods of bleaching,
are less quantified in terms of yellowing. I have paint outs of numerous
contemporary bleached shellacs that have substantially yellowed in the past 7
years. These were applied quite thick. My initial reason for making these paint
outs was to document autofluorescence under the influence of long-wave UV
light. Incidentally, I observed a rather marked yellowing in that time. This
seemed to correspond to all anecdotal and empirical observations about the
resin. As I wrote to Koo more than a yar ago, the thickness of my paintouts likely
exaggerated the perceived yellowing, but it does show the capacity of the
It seems to be true that modern bleached shellacs appear to empirically
yellow to a minor degree in the short term (despite the results of my paintouts).
There are other issues unrelating to these issues. Bleached shellacs, those
that appear to yellow to a lesser degree, change greatly in their solubility
overtime. This have been known for almost a century. Modern, dry, and bleached
shellac will become insoluble in ethanol in a very short period of time. The
dried film becomes even more so over time.
Soooo, at this point, I remain against the use of shellac
for a transparent top coating for FINE ART that would be damaged by darkening
over time. However, I am not an expert on everything. We have a query about
this question to the conservation field at large to see if there is any new
info to impart.
Lets also keep in mind that despite all of the dire
predictions, there are numerous examples of copal/oil varnishes on 19th-century
paintings that appear to have yellowed only minimally. Others using the exact
same materials (we know because the Pre-Raphs were good at recording their materials)
were train wrecks. Small additions of media or very thin applications of “theoretically”
problematic materials may have no deleterious effect. In some instances, they
may have been beneficial. I am only suggesting "best practice"
You are admirably patient with my questions, Brian - thank you for that. My confusion arises not from your clearly worded replies; it's from the other voices on line, such as the study cited (I just pressed on that link and see it doesn't take you to the article, so I'll try again: pdf ). I do believe your experience with shellac, as well as other conservators who affirm it darkens; yet I also read a seeming scientifc paper from the coating industry that says it doesn't darken...hence my confusion. I don't have the scientific background to understand the contradiction. Valuable as anectodal evidence is (it's primarily what I rely on in my own understanding of materials), a conservation-based, scientific study on shellac could help to square or counter the opposing view that's put forth by woodworking & coating experts.
Again, many thanks for your patience, and for looking into the subject further. Koo