Ethical Sourcing of Shellac – Myth or Fact?

Sharron Bruty

Shellac is a natural resinous substance that is derived from the secretions of the female lac beetle, which is native to India and Southeast Asia. The resin is harvested from the bark of certain trees, where the beetles lay their eggs and secrete the resin to protect them. The resin is collected, refined, and processed to make shellac.

It takes something in the region of 100,000 to 300,000 insets to produce a kilo of raw shellac resin. The resin is then refined by being melted down and filtered before being dried in flat sheets and broken into small pieces or flakes before being sold. To use the shellac, the flakes are crushed or ground into powder and dissolved in alcohol to create a liquid.

Shellac is a versatile and widely used material in the world of printmaking, particularly in collagraph printmaking. It is used as a hard ground for etching plates and is prized for its durability, adhesion properties, and ability to produce fine, detailed lines and textures. You probably know Shellac is used for French polishing and fake nails, but probably didn’t know that it’s used for know how it’s used in confectionary.  And some citrus fruit is coated in shellac by supermarkets. Hhmm… I’m a printmaker get me out of here!

Does Ethically Sourced Shellac Exist?

Shellac does have environmental properties – natural, sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable, but shellac isn’t vegan. Shellac is produced in the forests of India and Thailand, creating an important income in these areas. If you are going to use shellac, you should be aware that modern methods of harvesting lac involve killing the beetles to obtain the resin. This can be done by heating the branches with the beetles on them to kill them or by soaking the branches in water, which drowns the beetles. These methods are less sustainable and are generally not used in areas where traditional methods of harvesting are still practiced. But can I find anywhere that practices these traditional methods?

Are there any suppliers that offer shellac that is certified as sustainably harvested, which means that it has been obtained in an ethical and environmentally responsible way? I find brands like Liberon whose products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), supporting sustainable harvesting practices in India, where their shellac is sourced. But I’m not sure if this extends to the lac harvesting. I’m not even sure if this isn’t yet another endless rabbit hole I’ve fallen into! You can buy shellac from art suppliers such as Jacksons.

Am I going to stop using shellac to save a few (million) beetles, sorry, but no! If I could source shellac that was obtained in the least intrusive way, would I pay a little more? Definitely! So if you know more than me, do share. Collagraph printing does allow me to follow a more sustainable printmaking practice, but I’m always happy to improve my practice.

 

 

One of the major drawbacks of shellac is it can cause brushes to stiffen rendering them useless. I find it almost impossible to really clean shellac from the bristles of a brush. So what I tend to do is keep a brush or two just for shellac.  To clean your shellac brush, place into a container filled with methylated spirits for several minutes. The alcohol dilutes and softens the shellac, making it easy to remove with soap and water. Also if you’ve messed up and your brush has gone hard, try sticking it in meths and it should soften. So I might not be able to save the beetles, but I can save my brushes and make them last much longer. I used to put on a fairly thick coat of shellac, but a recent workshop showed me I didn’t need to, and that a thin coat is fine and dries in half an hour. Remember to seal the sides, but you don’t need to seal the back, saving shellac.

 

Happy Printmaking folks.