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Episode 2.3: Shellac of All Trades (Script)

Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.

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There is a tiny bug. About the size of an apple seed. It lives on the soft, young branches of a pear tree in India. It is a larva, freshly hatched, and, along with hundreds of thousands of it’s siblings and cousins, has just emerged from the protective shell built by its mother. They crawl slowly to newer, less crowded portions of the tree, and begin to feed on it’s sap.

The larva metabolize the sap and secrete a resinous cell which hardens, encasing their bodies while they metamorphosize into adults. The males will grow eyes, antennae, legs, and wings. They will leave through an opening in the cell and fertilize many of the the now, much larger females by walking over their resinous cocoons. They will die soon afterwards.

The females will not undergo the same final changes as the males. They’ll grow no appendages, no wings, no eyes. They grow large, secrete more protective resin, and lay the eggs. Once this is complete, the female shrinks and dies, leaving her eggs protected within the hardened shell to mature.

This is the life of a lac insect. The whole shebang. Their entire world exists on this tree branch, or maybe eventually, another one nearby. They go through this life cycle a couple of times a year, completely unaware of the massive worldwide industry that rests entirely on their tiny backs.

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These insects play an important role in the economies and survival of the rural and tribal villagers in the places where lac is harvested and cultivated. Often, the first stage of harvesting is performed these people, much in the same way it has been for over 3000 years. Back then it was called Laksha, which meant “100,000,” a reference to the multitude of insects needed to produce useful quantities. During the Vedic period in India’s history, laksha was so ingrained in the people’s lives that it even played part in their mythology.

There is one ancient story of warring families. The sons of a blind king who was forced to renounce his throne and name his younger brother as the new ruler, plotted and schemed against their cousins. With the help of his evil, maternal uncle, the eldest of the Blind King’s sons offered to build his cousins, the soon-to-be monarchs, a wondrous palace. He hired an architect to construct it completely out of lacquer, derived from laksha, which was highly flammable. The palace was filled with narrow corridors and dead ends, designed to be a death trap when set alight.

The not-evil cousins, however, were alerted to the plot by another clever uncle, who hid his warning in a poem. One of the lines being about how rats and porcupines can survive a forest fire by burrowing into the ground. When the betrayal was set in motion, they survived the fire by escaping the palace through an underground tunnel. Believed dead by their enemies, they regrouped and planned for the wars to come.

The lac for the palace was harvested by hand, and today it is done in mostly the same fashion. Farmers and their families go out into the groves of trees where they have cultivated the insects, tying infested branches from previous harvests to new trees so that a colony of the insects can take hold. They break off many of the branches that are coated in the resinous shells of the insects, called stiklac, and bring them to a central location. Once gathered, they scrape the resin off the branches with knives and spread it out to dry. Sometimes they have noisy, specially made machines that can do the scraping, but for the most part it is done the old way.

After the tree bark and other debris is removed, the remaining resin is called seedlac. It is washed, spread, and dried. The farmers then bring it to market and sell it to middlemen or to bulk purchasers. The sales from the substance account for 25-30% of their total earnings from farming. It’s cultivation provides a stable income, even during rainy seasons or in wetter regions when regular crops can easily fail. Lac insects prefer a few species of trees, but can thrive on over 400 different species of plants. This provides an incentive for the farmers to protect the groves of these plants, many of them having nutritional, medicinal, or economic significance, instead of clearing them to make way for less diverse crops.

Additionally, the various types of plants used for cultivation can alter the properties of the lac that is produced. Colonies on some plants may produce a waxier shellac, others may change the color, or the solubility. Altogether, lac cultivation is a driving force in maintaining biodiversity in the regions where is is practiced.

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Once bought on the open market, the seedlac is processed at a factory. Many of the byproducts of the process, such as dyes and waxes, are sold off for industrial usage as well. The invention of synthetic dyes, spurred by an accidental discovery in 1856 by an English chemist named Henry Perkin, nearly wiped out this additional revenue stream, but today it has seen a resurgence as the popularity of natural ingredients for products, such as those in the healthcare, beauty, and food industries become increasingly popular. People wanna know the dye for the lotion they are rubbing on their face came, naturally, from a bug’s butt rather than some mysterious chemical process in a lab.

To extract the resin from the seedlac, the most ancient process is still commonly used. The seedlac is placed in a long, cloth bag. One end of the bag is held in front of an oven. On the other end is a crank, twisting the bag while the lac is heated, forcing it out through the cloth, like a filter. The melted lac is scraped off of the bag and poured into small medallions that look like coins made of honey, stamped with the company logo, and sold as “buttonlac.”

Alternatively, the molten shellac can be poured and stretched over a porcelain container, filled with hot water. It is taken by a worker, often grabbing the ends of the now thin, flexible sheet, with his hands, chin, mouth, and toes to stretch it out even thinner. The sheet is eventually as large as the worker, causing them to resemble a giant, amber-colored flying squirrel. It is then laid out to cool. This process can also be done by a large machine with many rollers, but that isn’t nearly as much fun to describe. Regardless of the method used to stretch them, once cooled, the sheets are broken up into shellac flakes and sold.

The shellac left in the bag after these processes is called Kiri Shellac. It contains more impurities, but can still be used. It becomes what is known as “garnet shellac.”

Though the process for refining lac resin has remained roughly unchanged for thousands of years, its variety of uses has expanded and grown significantly.

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Shellac made its way to the western world via the trade routes established by Marco Polo and his successors. A few hundred years later, the waxes, dyes, and coatings made from the tiny insects would be adorning the walls and galleries of the great houses, cathedrals, and palaces of Europe, in the form of paintings, furniture, sculpture,and even jewelry created by the old masters.

By the Victorian era, Shellac was THE finish for expensive furniture. What became known as the French Polish soared in popularity for pieces made from mahogany and other nicey-pricey woods. Still popular with high-end, and historically-minded artisans today, the French Polish technique involves laying down, abrading, and burnishing layer after layer after layer of shellac over a long period of time, leaving an incredible high gloss finish on the surface. Despite this arduous process, the look was quite breathtaking, and on the right piece, unmatched in terms of aesthetic beauty.

Despite its newfound popularity as a finish, lac was still being cultivated mainly for the dyes and waxes that are now considered byproducts of its refinement process. As the popularity of the newly invented synthetic dyes grew, Shellac became almost entirely sold as a protective coating, a use that began to drive European industrialists to experiment with ways to reduce or eliminate the natural amber color of the finish. They discovered by adding chlorine to an alkaline solution of shellac, then precipitating the resin, a much more pale, straw color was produced, making it clearer than the current oil finishes, and adding to its growing popularity.

Germany found itself at the center of this new shellac-bleaching industry. At one of the facilities that handled the process, in the town of Mainz, a man named Henry Zinsser worked as a foreman. Looking for more than just a position in a factory in Germany, Zinsser took his skills and set his sights across the Atlantic.

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New York City, 1849. In a small workshop on 59th Street in Manhattan, Henry is hard at work, bleaching small batches of Shellac. His customers are other recent immigrants, familiar with the newly clarified version of this age-old resin, and happy to see it finally available in the United States.

At the end of the day, Henry retires to his newly built home, just a few doors away. His customers, however, are spreading the word to American born artisans and craftspeople of his wonderful bleached shellac, and that it could only be found at America’s only bleachery, run by a German fellow named Zinsser.

It’s not long until Zinsser’s small batches became massive. He began selling to other companies, who repackaged his formula under their own branding. In 1908, his sons began to package their family’s product under their own brand, Bulls-Eye. The company would ride an immense wave of success as more and more industrial uses for shellac began to emerge.

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After the great Mississippi flood of 1927, there wasn’t much left for the poor black population of the lower river valley. The devastation was massive, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes. The african americans, though, were hit hardest. They found themselves unable to leave the area, largely due in part to debts owed to their sharecropper plantation bosses under a form of indentured servitude. Instead, they were put into camps and held. Those who could leave, fled in hopes of finding employment among the large factories in Northern cities. From all of this misery, a delta blues musician, named Charley Patton wrote a song.

1929. Gennett Records, Starr Recording Studio, Richmond, Indiana. A Friday, like almost any other summer Friday for everyone outside of that studio. Inside, however, Charley Patton thumped rhythmically on his guitar while he strummed, as was his style of play. He was in the middle of recording the marathon 14 sides that would earn him the title of the Father (or grandfather, depending on who you ask) of Delta Blues. In the mix was a song called “High Water Everywhere, parts 1 & 2,” and it described the devastation of the Great Flood as seen through the eyes of the poor black workers who lived through it. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest blues songs ever made.

The song eventually also found its way up north to a factory in Wisconsin. At that time the sides of each record, or 78, could hold about 3 to 5 minutes of sound recording. Charlie’s song was broken into two parts so it could be pressed on to a disc, which was made by combining an extremely versatile industrial resin called Shellac with pulverized slate or limestone, cotton fiber for tensile strength, and carbon black pigment, usually made from ash.

These days, if you’re looking to score an original pressing of Charlie’s song, on an old shellac record, it’ll cost you tens of thousands of dollars, or the equivalent of about 1000 bottles of shellac-based nail polish, about 440,000 shellac-coated tablets of over the counter pain medication, or 6000 pounds of delicious honeycrisp apples. Easily enough to keep the doctor very very far away. Oh, and they’re coated in shellac, to preserve their freshness.

Of course with that kind of money you could also buy about 270 gallons of a shellac-based primer, produced by the Zinsser company, based on a formula by a german immigrant, derived from a resin, cultivated for millennia by rural farmers, produced by a tiny, apple-seed-size insect, living on the soft, young branches of a pear tree in India.

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Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.