Shellac is made from the waxy secretions of the lac insect, Kerria lacca. Shellac was widely used as a finish and waterproofing agent for many purposes. The original bicycles had wood or metal handle bars with no additions. Bicycle riders found that wrapping the metal of the handlebars with cloth tape gave a better grip and increased the comfort of the ride. However, moisture can seep into the cloth causing it to rot. The cloth will fray from the friction with the hands and must be periodically replaced. What is a bicyclist to do?
Coating the tape with shellac solved several problems. A shellac coating greatly extends the lifetime of the cloth tape. The shellac penetrates the cloth making it waterproof and sealing it from moisture and road dust. This discourages odor-producing microbes from colonizing the cloth. After it dries, the shellac solidifies and forms a matrix that holds the cloth in place and prevents fraying. The thickness of the shellac coating affects the quality of the grip. Less shellac leaves a rougher surface. More shellac can make the grip smoother.
Today, there are many more options from handlebar coatings including many synthetics. Traditionalists still prefer the shellac look and feel.
Today is bike to work day in Tippecanoe County, Indiana.