Many of the great French builders wrapped handlebars in cotton tape coated with shellac. Today cork tape is the norm. While cork tape does provide better cushioning, it is fragile and needs to be replaced at least once a year. Shellaced tape lasts for years, or even decades. When it gets worn you can simply brush on a fresh coat. As for appearance, well look at the photos and judge for yourself. Even well worn shellaced tape has that special beauty or patina that's only evident in natural materials.
Yes, shellac is a natural material. It is the crusty secretion of the lac beetle (Coccus lacca) that lives in the forests of Assam and Thailand. It is a natural polymer that when dissolved in alcohol makes a varnish like coating sometimes called "French polish". Though I've never eaten any, I understand it's edible, however, denatured alcohol is not. You could dissolve it instead in good-natured (grain) alcohol.
Shellac may be bought pre-mixed at most hardware stores in clear and amber tint. But it is better to mix your own from dry flakes that come in clear, amber, and garnet shades. This can be had at paint stores. Shellac should be fresh. Old shellac may not dry, will not be as clear, and may not be as water resistant as fresh. It must also be free of contaminants, such as water. It is better to mix a small quantity of flakes with denatured alcohol as needed, rather than rely on a pre-mixed can that might be old. And since pre-mixed shellac is often available locally only in quart cans, the average rider will never use up even half a can before it gets old.
Shellac will add its tint to cloth tape. I like to experiment to find the best color tape and shellac for a particular bike. This photo shows the three colors of cloth tape I was considering for a new bike.
Here they are with a coat of shellac.
I wrap handlebars in a style I've seen on some Alex Singer bikes. I think his method differs from that used by other constructeurs, for those of you who follow such trivia. Both methods involve starting the wrap at the stem-end of the bar, thus eliminating the electrical tape or twine required to finish a wrap started outboard and leaving a cleaner looking bike. But Singer's method involves wrapping the top half of the bar from the center out, and the bottom half from the end in. "But why is this better and who cares?" you ask. Well, Singer's method not only looks better, but it prevents the rider's hands from 'curling' the tape as he pushes forward on the drops.
If using brifters or aero levers, I secure the cables with duct tape (the good metal foil type) rather than with black electrical tape which can show through light-colored cotton tape. The metal duct tape is also used to secure the ends of the cotton tape under the brake lever hoods.
Wrapping bar tape is not easy and it often takes me several tries to get it looking nice and even. It usually takes 3 rolls of tape for any, but very narrow, bars.
Wrapping from the center toward the brake lever. Note the lack of twine.
Wrapping from the bar's end toward the brake lever.
Shellacing handlebars is pretty darn simple, but I'll go through it step by step anyway.
I've spent countless hours varnishing wooden boats, and one thing I've learned is that it pays to have a good brush. Good brushes hold more shellac and so don't need to be 'dipped' as often. They leave a smoother finish, and they last almost forever. I won't suggest you buy a $50 varnishing brush, but a decent quality bristle brush (like the one in the VO shellac kits) is worth the investment. I use a semi-disposable brush called "The Fooler" that's popular in the marine trades. It's made in Indonesia from pure bristle, has a proper wooden handle and costs around $3-$4.
In addition to a brush, you'll need a bit of masking tape and some alcohol to wipe up any spills and clean your brush.
First mix your shellac according to the instructions. Remember to use only denatured alcohol from the hardware or paint store, never rubbing alcohol which contains water. Shellac flakes take a long time to dissolve, between 8 and 24 hours. I mix in an old glass mason jar that I leave on my desk so I'll remember to give it a vigorous shake every hour or two. That way I'm ready to shellac after work.
If you use aero brake levers or brifters, secure the cables to the bars with electrical tape or metal foil tape. Tape your bars and put a wrap of masking tape (or any type of tape) around the center section of the bar to keep shellac off. Spread a drop cloth under your bike, or roll it outside. I don't bother to mask-off the bike because any shellac dripped on it can easily be wiped off with a paper towel dipped in alcohol.
I pour as much shellac as I think I'll need into a paper cup or old jar; that's about 6 or 8 ounces for 6 or 7 coats. If any is left over after the job is finished it will be discarded, not poured back into the original container. This ensures that the original shellac is not contaminated.
The first coat of shellac will fill the weave of the cloth and use up as much shellac as all the subsequent coats. Brush it on as evenly as possible and don't leave any dry spots. Wait at least a couple of hours after the first coat to allow this first thick layer to dry. The longer the better. The next coat will darken the tape and be much easier and faster to apply. It will also dry in less time, 30 to 60 minutes. You can keep adding coats as soon as the previous one has dried until you archive the desired color and texture. But don't put on too many coats, or the bars will get slippery when wet; leave a little texture. In between coats I wrap my brush in Saran wrap to keep it from drying out rather that washing it.
That's all there is too it.