Saturday, December 1, 2012

[Offtopic?] Where Wheels and Wood Collide

Beetles and Bikes. How do these relate to woodworking?

In Southeast Asian jungles, secretions from the lac beetle are harvested and rendered into the wonderous substance we call shellac. Durable, smooth, non-toxic, and attractive, it has long been the coating of choice for fine cabinetry and even fruit. Yep, you have most definitely eaten the stuff.

Sure, we all know shellac is a great finish for woodworking projects, but how does the amber-tinted stuff affect other materials, like say, cotton?

Here are my bike handlebars with a couple rolls of fresh yellow tape:

The cloth feels fine, but will rapidly stain and eventually fall apart with exposure to the elements. How about 3 coats of amber shellac?

It now almost looks like leather, no longer garish yellow. The feel is much better as well. The shellac fills in the pores in the coarse cotton cloth and leaves a smoother, more pleasant and just slightly tacky texture. It will now shed water, and resist rotting for decades, provided a new coat is applied here and there. The photographs do not show the change in texture much, but should convey the earthy, warm glow that results from this wonderful substance mixing with another organic material.

I've been impressed enough with this combination that I have applied it to another bike as well. This time, starting with a medium-obnoxious "grass green" which started like this:

After 3 coats of amber shellac, we end up with a pleasant forest green. One more coat might turn it olive, and I might just do that. Here is the current result:

The texture is improved as before, and the loud color is muted just enough. It will continue to burnish and mellow with age, just like it does on wood. It makes me wonder what other materials shellac could improve. Twine-wrapped tool handles? Leather hinges? If you have used shellac in non-wood finishing contexts, I would love to hear about it.

Ok, so shellac is great, but why talk about bikes on a woodworking blog?

I could easily go into a rant about how traditional woodworking and utilitarian/sport-touring cycling are just two manifestations of the same ideals, but that would likely bore most of you, and if you get it, you already get it. Instead, I will get back to the topic at hand, and show some more shellac:

This insert for the bottom of a metal basket is made of old grey cedar fenceboards which I planed down substantially, shaped with a rasp, and nailed together using cross-battens on the bottom (which double as anchor points to secure the insert to the basket). Inserts like this are commercially available, and possibly a bit nicer than my one-afternoon job, but my cost was just time and a few grains of shellac. The wood is now durable, relatively rain-proof, and much more handsome than the naked rack or the raw grey cedar was.

Wine crates have been a common sight on French "porteur" style delivery bikes for many decades, but otherwise wooden luggage is not generally considered practical for bicycles. I consulted with Jan Heine of Compass Bicycles, generally regarded as the expert's expert on "Golden Age" bicycles, and he concurs that wooden luggage has never been popular. He speculates that aside from the weight, wood is too fragile in the event of an accident to warrant its use for anything more than casual riding. He is probably right.

I have it in mind to push the limits of absuridty, though, and eventually explore wooden trunk boxes as well as porteur front racks for city bikes. While indeed too heavy for extended trouing, it seems to me that thin, lightweight wood, a simple lock, and some sensible design could provide a useful bit of protection and organization for cargo while running errands (such as fetching coffee and bagels) around town.

In the meantime, though, thanks to all those lac beetles for giving us this precious goop!


  1. I've used amber shellac on my handlebars..cork wrapped..for years. It works really well and looks and feels like leather. It ages to a nice patina. When it gets scruffy, just re-do the shellac.

  2. I saw that first pic of your bike and my first thought was "someone must be a fan of Grant Peterson" ... but then you mentioned Jan Heine. I have great respect for both of those gentlemen. And both of those bikes you posted pics of look great. I used to ride with moustache bars and really liked them. Not a fan of road bikes myself... Grant's ideal of a "country bike" with an upright position is just right for my taste :0)

  3. I have also put some shellac on my handlebars, and even on the bare metal to protect it from rust.
    I've put some shellac on my Xtracycle deck too, because it rains quite a lot around here.
    After all these experiments, I made a google search and found lots of other peoples were already using shellac for the same uses...


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