The role of the lac bug in recorded sound

April 1988
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.

Copyright 2016 Lynn Bilton

Old friends are best friends; old ways are best ways.

Take shellac.

Around 50 million pounds of the sticky stuff are exported yearly from India. So it was early in the century when shellac in its myriad of disguises figured as the one indispensible ingredient in the mechanical musical recipe.

Just what is shellac composed of?

It turns out that the venerable miracle material consists of the processed and purified secretions of the tiny red lac bug, tachardia lacca, of the group Coccidae, or scale insects.

The female bug sticks its proboscis into a host tree and instantly begins to exude an amber crust. Male bugs aren't quite as useful. They don't yield as much lac, and after fertilizing the female their life comes to an abrupt end.

At the finish of the insect's six month life cycle the lac encrusted twigs are gathered by cottage entrepreneurs all over India, from whom they wend their way to primitive factories and are processed something like this:

Flake shellac was commonly available in hardware stores across America as recently as 30 years ago, but most shellac is now sold in liquid form, three or four pound cut, referring to the number of pounds of shellac dissolved per gallon of alcohol. White shellac consists of a bleached, de-waxed refinement of the orange version.

Consider the manifold applications of shellac as a finish in music machine cabinetry. As a filler. As a washcoat to stiffen wood fiber. As a sealant under varnish. As a final finish, reflecting the warm orange glow of many Edison models.

Applied with a drop of linseed oil on a special rag, shellac was tediously skidded across the surface of most Swiss music boxes to build up the brilliant luster known as French polish.

Mixed with aniline coal tar dye, sprayed shellac produced the beautiful, even mahogany sheen of a Victor VI.

Sometimes the Swiss craftsmen used stained shellac as a graining medium. A coat of brown shellac was placed on the wood and allowed to dry. Then a brush dipped in black shellac was skimmed back and forth over the wood until streaks began to appear in the mucky concoction, and the humble lac bug was magically transformed into magnificent rosewood veneer.

Consider now the less well known applications of shellac as an adhesive.

As early as the 1840s, shellac was employed to secure the chicken feather dampers of music boxes. But its principal benefit to the sound industry came with the advent of the phonograph, for the saphire stylus on the reproducer was incredibly held in place by nothing stronger than ordinary stick shellac.

A good method of removing a two minute Edison needle is to heat with a soldering gun. (A  flame may crack the jewel.) Push the needle out from the rear, clean the setting with piano wire, and renew with flake shellac.

So cohesive can the shellac joint become that it was used to bond layers of mica in the 20th Century Higham reproducer.

Consider too the usefulness of the amber grains as sealant: shellac can become so watertight that it was once applied between the layers of planks on wooden sailing ships.

Player piano manufacturers floated shellac through interior chambers, sealed leather pouches, and gasketed nipples to wood with it, all in an effort to achieve pneumatic tightness.

The resin had some unsuspected applications in the phonograph trade as well. A few drops were placed over the white tubing in Exhibition reproducers. And it was misted over painted and polished parts, such as Edison bedplates and shiny Victor arms.

Soaked in a solution of borax, the flakes sealed and stiffened leather elbows, just as long-ago fashionable beaverboard hats were stiffened.

But it was in record manufacture that millions upon millions of lac bugs were expended, for the industry was the single largest consumer of shellac.

Shellac was mixed into four minute Amberols to harden the wax, and was probably added to the gold molded records.

As a natural plasticizer, shellac was ideal for the flat disc record, and when the proper amount of resin (typically 15% to 30%) was introduced to some inert materials, the talented lac bug could sing like Caruso or Galli Curci.

Here is a recipe for 78rpms records from a 1917 book:

During World War II the government declared shellac a strategic material, fearing traffic would be choked on the high seas. Record companies recycled, conducting scrap drives, paying 2-3 cents per dated disc.

The search for replacement materials led to vinyl records, modern plastics, and the demise of the lac bug's role as pre-eminent helper in recorded sound.

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866

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