The raw shellac, which contains bark shavings and lac bugs removed during scraping, is placed in canvas tubes (much like long socks) and heated over a fire. This causes the shellac to liquefy, and it seeps out of the canvas, leaving the bark and bugs behind. The thick, sticky shellac is then dried into a flat sheet and broken into flakes, or dried into "buttons" (pucks/cakes), then bagged and sold. The end-user then crushes it into a fine powder and mixes it with ethyl alcohol before use, to dissolve the flakes and make liquid shellac.
Liquid shellac has a limited shelf life (about 1 year), so is sold in dry form for dissolution before use. Liquid shellac sold in hardware stores is often marked with the production (mixing) date, so the consumer can know whether the shellac inside is still good. Some manufacturers (e.g., Zinsser) have ceased labeling shellac with the production date, but the production date may be discernible from the production lot code. Alternatively, old shellac may be tested to see if it is still usable: a few drops on glass should quickly dry to a hard surface. Shellac that remains tacky for a long time is no longer usable. Storage life depends on peak temperature, so refrigeration extends shelf life.
The thickness (concentration) of shellac is measured by the unit "pound cut", referring to the amount (in pounds) of shellac flakes dissolved in a gallon of denatured alcohol. For example: a 1-lb. cut of shellac is the strength obtained by dissolving one pound of shellac flakes in a gallon of alcohol (equivalent to 120 grams per litre). Most pre-mixed commercial preparations come at a 3-lb. cut. Multiple thin layers of shellac produce a significantly better end result than a few thick layers. Thick layers of shellac do not adhere to the substrate or to each other well, and thus can peel off with relative ease; in addition, thick shellac will obscure fine details in carved designs in wood and other substrates.