Two days and counting: Shellac
Another evaporative finish, shellac dries nearly as quickly as lacquer. But the fumes from Shellac's solvent -- usually denatured alcohol -- aren't nearly as potent, allowing you to push your deadline a bit.
Pre-mixed shellac found on home-center shelves usually comes in a 3-pound cut (three pounds of shellac flakes for each gallon of alcohol). To speed drying and improve brushability, thin this to a 1 1/2-pound cut, mixing equal parts finish and denatured alcohol.
Then use a natural-bristle brush and spread the shellac quickly to avoid noticeable brush strokes. If you leave gaps of unfinished wood in your stroke pattern, don't try to rebrush them; catch them on the next coat.
Allow the first coat to dry for 90 minutes in a warm and dry shop (two hours in a cold or damp shop). Then sand lightly with 320-grit sandpaper, cleaning or switching the paper if it starts to gum up. Remove the dust and repeat for the remainder of the day -- coat, dry, sand -- until you are satisfied with the buildup. Give your project a rest on Christmas Eve and give it away on Christmas.
The downside: Shellac has a limited shelf life (around three years). So, if you can't find a manufacturer's date on the can, ask the retailer about the freshness of their stock on hand.
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