Wax for Fine Finishing

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This article is from Issue 37 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Top off your work with a final lustrous touch.

By Craig Bentzley

Wax has been used for centuries as a protective coating and polish for wood, and is still a relevant product for today’s woodworker. While modern finishes are more resistant to moisture and scratching, wax still offers many benefits.

Although a buffed layer of wax may be only a few microns thick, it serves several purposes. Wax enhances the sheen of film-forming finishes by filling in minute scratches left behind by steel wool and other abrasives, creating a more light-reflective surface. Waxed finishes are also more abrasion resistant and easier to keep clean than an unwaxed finish. Wax isn’t truly waterproof, but it can prevent damage from spills that are mopped up quickly.

Wax alone isn’t a good surface treatment for objects that see hard use, but it works great as a quick finish for decorative items such as picture frames. And you can use it to rejuvenate dull or aging finishes. Whatever the application, a waxed surface has a fine tactile quality that begs to be touched.

Given the benefits, it’s surprising to think that many woodworkers have omitted wax from their finishing regimen. More than ever, it has a rightful place in a finisher’s bag of tricks. Here’s what you need to know to improve any finish or apply wax as a stand-alone finish.

Carnauba wax (A), beeswax (raw and refined) (B), an array of commercially prepared waxes (C), buffing and application brushes (D), grater (E).

Types of wax

Wax is derived from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources (Photo A). The oldest animal-based wax is beeswax. Grated and dissolved in turpentine, it served as a furniture polish up through the 18th century.  However, pure beeswax remains sticky for a long time and is too soft to provide much protection, so better waxes replaced it.

The most common vegetable wax is carnauba, obtained from the leaves of a Brazilian palm tree. Its hardness offers high shine and good durability, but it’s difficult to buff to a consistent sheen, which is why most commercial paste wax formulations combine it with beeswax. Paste wax that’s heavy on carnauba is targeted to the flooring industry. Floor waxes can be used on furniture, but they require serious elbow grease or a power buffer.

Mineral waxes, such as paraffin and microcrystalline wax, are refined from crude oil. Unlike beeswax or carnauba, these synthetic waxes are non-acidic and won’t degrade antique finishes or corrode metals. (Although a bit pricier, microcrystalline has become my go-to wax, because it’s harder and more durable.)

Having tried homemade concoctions, I recommend sticking with premixed cans. Raw ingredients are expensive, preparation is labor-intensive, and heating mixtures can be hazardous. Plus, the results may disappoint. Instead, find the commercial brands you like best and stick with them.

Wax To Watch Out For

Toluene, a solvent used in some blended waxes, can wreak havoc on fresh shellac and lacquer. Read the label. If the product contains toluene, let these finishes cure for at least a week before waxing.

Use dark wax on dark woods, since clear waxes can turn white with age, highlighting pores and crevices.
Wipe excess wax off with a soft cloth. A buffing pad will quickly bring up a mirror-like shine on flat surfaces.

Steps for a fine finish

Wax is most often used as the final step for a premium film finish, whether it is shellac, lacquer, or varnish. It imparts an unparalleled luster and offers some protection against scratches, abrasion, and water damage.

The secret to wax application is “less is more.” Since virtually all of the applied wax is removed, a heavy coat is wasted. Put a dollop of wax in the center of a soft cotton cloth, pull up the corners so the wax oozes through the cloth, and apply with light, overlapping strokes (Photo B). When the solvent flashes off, leaving a uniform haze, remove the wax with flannel, terry cloth, or a buffing pad on a random-orbit sander, as shown in Photo C.

Many craftsmen apply two or more coats of wax, assuming that they’re creating a thicker film. While the two-coat strategy might catch any spots they may have missed, it’s almost impossible to build up layers of wax, since new wax will dissolve the old layer.

Remove as much wax as you want to achieve the look you’re after.
Leave plenty of wax in recessed areas to create an antique look instantly.

Wax as the sole finish

For decorative items like picture frames, mirrors, or carvings that aren’t subject to handling, wax serves as a quick and easy finish. For open-grained woods like oak or ash, consider using a liming wax (Photo D). First, sand to 120 grit, raise the grain with a dampened cloth, lightly resand, and then scrub the wood with a stainless steel brush to open the pores.

For these frames, I first accented the oak with golden oak aniline dye. After it dried, I worked wax into the pores and carved details with an old toothbrush. I allowed a few minutes for the wax solvents to flash off, and then wiped off the excess wax with a soft cotton cloth.

After letting the wax set up for a couple of hours, I applied clear wax to seal the colored layer, then burnished it with a denim cloth. Adding colored pigments to white wax or using other colored waxes will achieve a multitude of effects. For the opposite effect, use ebony wax as shown in Photo E.

Work the wax into carvings with a soft bristle brush.
Use a stiff shoe or wax brush to remove excess wax from carvings and crevices.

Rejuvenating an old finish

A fresh coat of wax can often revive old furniture almost as well as a complete refinish. The best approach is to first wipe down the piece with mineral spirits or a proprietary cleaner to remove any old wax, grease, and dirt. Rub until a fresh rag shows no discoloration, then smooth any rough areas with steel wool.

After cleaning, apply wax as you would on a new piece of furniture. If the piece isn’t a true antique, you can use any wax. If the piece has antique value, I recommend going light on the cleaning process and using a microcrystalline wax as shown in Photo F. Buff off the wax to reveal renewed color and sheen as shown in Photo G.

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