Cowabunga, Success!…

It’s not often that I get to claim success. Usually after meandering through information trying to find something new, I end up with either a dead end or a kind-of-good result but with caveats. After reading Maryjane’s comment on the post at Ceramic Arts Daily about using grain alcohol instead of denatured alcohol, it seemed like that could be the holy grail I was looking for. As per my last post, I spent some time trying to find some alcohol even purer than the Everclear because I sensed that the 5% water content might inhibit it’s usefulness. So first off, thanks Maryjane and thanks to everyone that commented on the last post and educated me even more about alcohol. You’d think after drinking alcohol for so many years, I wouldn’t need any more education… of course I’m not really interested in lemon/mango flavored vodka. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the 95% grain alcohol would work because the alcohol is what dissolves the shellac flakes, not the additives that make it denatured. Anyway, here’s a before and after shot of a beer glass (you’ll notice that it’s not as dark as it is from the can)…

So I started with the equivalent of a 1 lb. cut as the woodworkers refer to it. This means 1 pound of shellac flakes to 1 gallon of alcohol. I did it with 28 grams of shellac flakes to 1 cup of alcohol which is the same proportion. Overnight the mixture dissolved completely but the mixture was too thin so that morning I doubled it to 56 grams shellac flakes in the same cup of alcohol. It dissolved completely by the next day too. It seemed a bit thin still and I was concerned that during the sponging with water phase that the thin areas would wipe off. The reason I thought this is because out of the can, if my shellac application was not-even-that-thin, it would abrade off. To my surprise and delight the thin mixture seems to soak into the clay even more thoroughly and holds up really well during the sponging. What this means is that this mixture is not only as good as the out-of-the-can shellac, in some respects, it’s better. Here’s some more shots (I’m getting a bit carried away with the brushwork)…

To conclude, the best thing about this success is that I can easily sit there all day painting away with only the slight scent of grain alcohol which would be the same as if I sat there all day with a glass of strong bourbon sitting on the table. This means that when winter comes and I can’t put a fan in the window, I can sit and decorate all day without donning the cursed respirator.

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20 Responses to “Cowabunga, Success!…”

  1. Brian Says:

    Very nice. Great work!
    So, I’m still playing with the acrylic medium angle. I’m also finding a thinner medium works better than thick, seems to soak in deeper before drying and making an impenetrable ‘skin’.
    I’m finding something between GAC100 and airbrush medium is working better.
    How would you describe the consistency of your mix?

    • jim Says:

      hi brian, I guess i would describe it as painting on like the consistency of india ink, maybe a touch thicker. good luck with the GAC100 and airbrush path.

  2. Michael Says:

    Great success story. I can feel your excitement and look forward to the patterns that come from the improved working conditions!

  3. Gordo Says:

    Cowabunga, indeed. The effect you wanted and no respirator required to boot. They look great, Jim.

  4. ang Says:

    get outta town.. that’s brilliant!!!….. so now i’m on the hunt for ethanol to cut my shellac flakes with!!! hehehehe….bin the gas mask time woohoo!!!! so thats a 2:1 mix shellac to moonshine…?

  5. Judy Shreve Says:

    There’s something poetic about decorating a beer stein with alcohol. But hallelujah no more fumes or masks! And the work looks great!

  6. Connie Says:

    wow!! That’s awesome!! congrats!!! Now if you ahve a bad day in the studio you and take a nip and work at the same time. haha

  7. Paul Barchilon Says:

    Awesome, so glad to hear that worked out! Now if only I could find a less toxic way to work with gold luster, lol.

  8. Ashley Says:

    I have played with this bas relief technique but have always just used wax emulsion and really cold water so as to not melt the wax off. I have never been happy with it, as it does not result in crisp images. I have never used shellac due to ventillation and respirator requirements. This however looks like it will fit the bill. Thanks for the tip!

  9. jeff Campana Says:

    GREAT to hear Jim! I know how big of a problem that was.

  10. Alex Says:

    Fantastic! Great solution (bad pun). I’ll be curious to see how this behaves as you get some evaporation happening over time. Nice work!!

  11. meredith@whynot Says:

    it really worked – that is fantastic!

  12. Zygote Says:


  13. Casey Says:

    Wowsers, what a great solution! I just came home with shellac and alcohol thinner but I think I am ready to pursue your new avenue also. Been away from pottery for 20+ yrs and excited to try some new things. Thanks and bless you for sharing.

    p.s. Your daughter is an absolutely adorable widget, and I really love that you are READING her W.O.O. books. Carry on, Super-dad.

  14. Eugene Hon Says:

    Fantastic breakthrough. Thank god for the internet and Ceramic Arts Daily – as well as having a blog and being connected in this way. Who said being a potter is a rather simple profession, throwing on the wheel without having scientific knowledge. Ceramic Science and history as taught by ceramic departments worldwide, equips us to always improve/progress, looking for easier, simpler, better and hopefully in the future, more greener ways to arrive at workable solutions. Well done to a process of sharing; a fine example of collective intelligence.

  15. Chavron Says:

    My God, Jim. you’ve done it! with a little help from your friend MJ. Now you can say Eureka! like a real scientist.

  16. Kern-Kern Says:

    I’m stealing your invention.

  17. Jane Says:

    Wow! Apart from your beautiful work, this shellac story is quite an education. I have used white shellac from the can, and found it so watery (would run off the brush and roll down the pot), that I had to let it sit out for a while to get more viscous. Since the can has a best before date on it, it makes sense to make up the amount you need as you have done. Thanks.
    PS: my site is about 5 years aout of date..oh well

  18. Mike Says:

    Absolutely love this technique….it seems to work pretty good for me just our of the can, i had to because my local Loews doesnt carry the flakes. But i also find that this works much better with a porcelain or a fine stoneware…too much grog will wipe your designs away. Thanks again Jim…im having so much fun with this.

  19. nenia Says:

    Thanks for sharing your find and I congratulate the results are magnificent! Nenia

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