General Question

christybird's avatar

What kind of lacquer or stain should I use on a mahogany dresser?

Asked by christybird (819points) September 8th, 2008

I recently bought an old mahogany dresser that someone (gasp!) painted white. I am going to strip the paint and sand it, but how should mahogany be finished? The natural color of the wood is quite beautiful, so I would like to preserve that. I also would prefer to finish it as “naturally” as possible, and not use a lot of stinky chemicals.

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3 Answers

Harp's avatar

I’m a big fan of shellac, which I use to finish my harps. It dries extremely fast, produces a gleaming surface that’s very flattering to nice hardwoods, and uses alcohol as a solvent.

Don’t use the prepared shellacs the hardware store sells. Buy dewaxed flake shellac from a woodwork supply outlet and dissolve your own in denatured alcohol (solvents section of Home Depot). There are many natural hues of shellac available, from a nearly colorless “super blond” to the rich amber “garnet” and several in between. All would complement the warm tones of mahogany well.

To build up a nice finish, shellac is applied in many, many thin layers. The easiest way is to swipe it on with a swatch of t-shirt material folded in 4 to form a square pad. Keep your shellac in a squeeze bottle and resoak you pad from the bottle before each swipe (wear latex gloves). By the time you’ve done the whole dresser, the place you started will be ready for another coat.

After every 3 coats, sand the entire surface with 400 grit sandpaper moistened with a few drops of vegetable oil (keep adding oil as the paper dries out). Wipe the excess oil off the finish with a clean rag, and apply 3 more coats. Repeat.

You’ll probably need a good 9 coats applied over a couple of days, for a deep finish. When all your coats are down, let it dry for 48 hours. Then sand with 600 grit paper, followed by 1200 grit. This will leave the shellac with a matte finish, but it can be brought back up to a high gloss by rubbing it out with rubbing compound. You can get this from auto parts stores.

With a fresh cloth pad loaded with a dab of compound, rub the finish in a circular motion using firm pressure. Work small patches of the finish at a time, reloading with compound between patches. The rubbing compound is an extremely fine abrasive cream that smooths the shellac to a mirror finish.

When you’re done, apply a good furniture wax, buff, and admire.

OK, I’ll admit this is a hell of a lot of work, but any good finish is. Polyurethanes are easy, but they look like crap. Lacquers are pretty, but they’re finicky and noxious. “Danish oils” are super easy, but not worthy of fine woods.

One cautionary note: even dried, the shellac will be soluble in alcohol. Don’t spill booze on it.

Here’s a good shellac source, and here’s a nice FAQ.

Good Luck!


Snoopy's avatar

When we remodeled our kitchen….I learned something I guess I never really understood. You have a wood and then you have a stain.
e.g. you can have oak wood w/ a pine stain or vice versa.

Sounds like you have answered you own question. You have a mahogany piece that you would like to keep as “natural” as possible as the wood itself is “beautiful”. Seems like you need something clear…..

Also, as an aside, if there is much in the way of intricate carving I would consider having the piece “dipped”. The piece is dipped in a vat of stripping solvent and done in toto all at once….

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