Denatured alcohol, a staple in most woodworking shops, is changing. Due to new regulations—particularly those in California—it’s nearly impossible for some woodworkers to buy denatured alcohol. I haven’t had a problem finding it here in Connecticut, but I did notice the addition of “fuel” to the label. Knowing that many backpackers and boaters use denatured alcohol for cooking purposes, I figured that was a marketing ploy. While that may or may not be the case, there’s probably more to it than that, and in this post we’ll dive deeper into the changes behind that label. We’ll also share some sources and alternatives for those who aren’t able to buy denatured alcohol locally anymore.
Denatured alcohol vs. “fuel”
“Natural” alcohol is ethanol, the active ingredient in your favorite alcoholic beverages. Drinking alcohol is regulated, and more importantly taxed, by the government. As woodworkers, we’re not interested in drinking the stuff, most often we want to use it as a solvent for shellac. So manufacturers denature it, or add poison, so we can’t drink it. There are various ways of doing this, but most often this is done by adding methanol, otherwise known as wood alcohol. For what it’s worth, the top search result for “wood alcohol” brings you to a page on cancer.gov—rarely a comforting sign.
I’m not known for my cautious nature, but if I am going to be breathing in fumes from my finish, and getting it on my hands, and have the option of doing it with less poison, I want that one! Both ethanol and methanol are inherently volatile and evaporate completely in a fully cured finish. There is little evidence that a shellac finish suffers when more methanol is added to our denatured alcohol. However, there is no reason to take methanol lightly with regard to safety during use.
The version found most often in your local hardware store is labeled “fuel.” There are two brands of solvent commonly found in local hardware stores, Klean Strip and Sunnyside. Klean Strip lists the denatured alcohol on their website as a heating fuel, and according to the material safety data sheet (MSDS) it contains 30%-60% ethanol and 30%-60% methanol. The same mix applies to Sunnyside. In other words, the product in the can is either mostly ethanol, or mostly methanol—your guess is as good as mine. Thankfully, Klean Strip has a “Green” line of solvents. Their “Green” denatured alcohol is 80%-100% ethanol, and 3%-7% methanol, a major reason Klean Strip Green is often recommended as the best solvent for shellac.
Where can’t you buy denatured alcohol?
While this question might seem silly, we posted a survey and received over 200 responses from all over the United States and Canada. Around 40% of respondents reported difficulty buying denatured alcohol—over half of those responses were from woodworkers in California. Many in Canada, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, aren’t able to buy it locally. There seems to be a few sources and loopholes though, and we’ll share them below.
We’re not going to get into the why of it—or for that matter, if the why even makes sense—but the California Air Resource board banned the sale of denatured alcohol around two years ago. Since then, many woodworkers have had to get creative in sourcing their favorite shellac solvent. I reached out to a few highly regarded woodworkers and asked them where they source their denatured alcohol. I have chosen to redact the names of those I deem awesome.
Woodworker #1 replied:
“I am not a lawyer, I just want to clean my shellac brush. Fortunately for me, I have a son who lives in [redacted] Arizona. From time to time he buys the environmentally clean denatured alcohol at the local Home Depot. That is all I can say on the matter. However, my shellac brushes are clean.”
Woodworker #2 simply replied “Arizona.”
Woodworker #3 reported that they are still able to get it at a hardwood dealer that sells a lot of high-end and tough-to-find finishing supplies. I confirmed that this is because some of the regulations are more relaxed in San Diego county than in the rest of the California.
For what it’s worth, one respondent from the survey told me that they get denatured alcohol from their cannabis growing supply store.
Let’s be clear, it is illegal to cross state lines with banned products, and it would also be illegal for me to buy a can of denatured alcohol and send it to my friend in Los Angeles.
I was surprised to see that denatured alcohol has become hard to get in some (all?) parts of Canada. Respondents in Ontario and Quebec reported that they can only get it at Lee Valley, Motion Canada, Juneau Peinture, and La Maison du peintre. Online, Lee Valley’s version is listed as “Shellac/Lacquer Thinner” (more on that below). Motion has denatured alcohol listed on their website, but only as a factory order item.
Specialty supply stores in other regions
Respondents in Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have reported it isn’t available on the shelves of their local home center, but they were able find it at a painting supply or woodworking supply store.
Some have said that they find denatured alcohol sold as “fuel” from camping suppliers such as REI and from boating suppliers. That said, check the MSDS sheet because that type of mixture will likely have high amounts of methanol.
Methyl Hydrate – Commonly found in Canada
Mike Mascelli discusses Methyl Hydrate, and if it’s a usable substitute in the shop.
Currently there are a few places selling denatured alcohol online and shipping to many places we’ve mentioned that won’t allow local sales. You’re likely to pay a premium, but considering most woodworkers rarely use more than a gallon of denatured alcohol a year, it may be worth the added costs, even with shipping.
Alternatives to denatured alcohol
For many woodworkers, the alternatives to denatured alcohol are actually their preferred shellac solvent, and for good reason.
Grain alcohol – Grain alcohols, such as Everclear and Graves, are often found in your local liquor store. The higher the proof, the more pure it is, so many woodworkers prefer 190-proof grain alcohol. Some have had success with 151-proof, but it’s probably best to avoid 120-proof because at that point you’re introducing more water into your finishing solution than you probably want. Unfortunately, higher-proof grain alcohol is not available in California and many other regions.
Culinary solvent – Until recently, I hadn’t known of the existence of culinary solvent—which for all intents and purposes, is just pure 200-proof ethanol, manufactured and packaged for use as an ingredient in perfumes, cosmetics, mouthwash, and other products. You’ll pay a premium for it, but currently, CulinarySolvent.com states that they ship to 39 states, including California. Some states require a permit before shipping.
Director of The Krenov School Laura Mays told me:
“At the school we bought a 5-gallon can of food-grade alcohol, which is 200-proof ethanol. It’s about $350 for the 5 gallons because of a massive tax on it. $350 seems like a lot but it works out at $17.50 a quart, which isn’t so so bad. And I never had any problems using the hardware stuff for shellac but the food-grade stuff is, in theory at least, perfect!”
Shellac reducer – Lee Valley and Mohawk both sell a product labeled as “Shellac reducer” or “Shellac/Lacquer reducer.” Lee Valley states that their version is a mix of ethanol and isobutyl alcohol. Mohawk’s Shellac reducer MSDS declares it is ethanol, butanol, and isopropanol.
Both isobutyl alcohol and butanol are otherwise known as Isobutanol or 2-Methyl-1-propanol, and is a synthesized alcohol. Isopropanol is commonly found in rubbing alcohol. Both are likely used as a denaturant, and at first glance shouldn’t affect shellac solubility and may be marginally safer than methanol.
Lee Valley does not have an MSDS sheet on their site for their shellac reducer, but Mohawk’s consists of 75%-100% ethanol and 2.5%-10% butanol, and isopropanol, a ratio reminiscent to Klean-Strip Green denatured alcohol.
I think I’ll head down to the local liquor store next time I need shellac solvent. It just seems simpler and given the amount of denatured alcohol I go through, I won’t go broke doing it. It is likely that many woodworkers will be forced to do the same, or switch to shellac reducer. Time will tell how shellac reducer acts when mixed with our favorite shellac flakes, but I know that woodworkers are industrious and creative, and I doubt that simple chemistry will ever get between us and a perfect French polished finish!
*Thank you to William Hoffman, a materials scientist, for the help on this article.