Finishing Touch: Wax finishes
Beeswax mixed with turpentine (to keep the wax from hardening) and perhaps with linseed oil (to enhance the wood grain) was a traditional wood finish used for eons. Over time other waxes such as carnauba (made from the leaves of a palm tree) and paraffin (made from saturated hydrocarbons) were added to the brew while linseed oil was replaced with boiled linseed oil (linseed oil to which dryers are added).
While modern film and penetrating oil finishes offer super protection and durability, wax finishes still have their use today both as a finish on bare wood or as a topcoat over any other finish. Wax finishes are best used on pieces that won’t be exposed to excessive handling and wear, such as carvings, woodturnings, display cases, picture frames, shelving and other low-wear items.
As a finish or topcoat, wax reduces friction to give a wonderfully silky-smooth feel, enhances the sheen on wood surfaces (especially when buffed to a rich, glossy shine), helps hide fine scratch marks and other minor imperfections, makes dusting furniture easier, and adds some protection against moisture. You can even mildly alter the hue of wood by using a coloured wax.
The major drawback to wax is that it isn’t durable and requires regular (at least annual) maintenance.
Wax is the easiest finish to apply. Basically, you wipe it on (sparingly), have a coffee, and then buff it off. The key is to apply sparingly. You want to use a little dab each time rather than plopping down a gob and spreading it around. Typically, you’ll let the wax dry between 10 and 15 minutes then buff with a clean cloth or even a high-speed buffer like the King Canada 8369N (kingcanada.com). If you choose to apply a second coat wait until the wax hardens. Overnight will do.
There are dozens of different waxes on the market. I tested these six popular brands, applying them to an unfinished Douglas fir board. After laying on a thin coat I left the wax to dry as per the manufacturer’s instructions and then buffed it out. I repeated the process the following day. If you apply wax over a film or penetrating oil finish you can expect to obtain a higher sheen than on unfinished wood.
I didn’t find a substantial difference in application and appearance between the waxes. All six were easy enough to apply and buff. The Lee Valley, Mohawk Blue Label and the Minwax barely changed the colour of the Douglas fir while the other three waxes left a slight yellowish tinge, which I didn’t find unappealing.
Briwax contains a blend of beeswax, carnauba, naphtha and toluene (which gives it an extraordinarily strong odour). It has a soft texture and can liquify above 65°F (put it in the refrigerator to re-harden). However, it can be applied in a liquified form as the toluene dissolves the wax completely. I found it slightly tacky to rub out, though it buffed to a glossy sheen (slightly less glossy than the Minwax). It has a VOC level of 663 grams/liter and is available in natural (clear) and 18 colour tones. Also available in a toluene-free formula that contains xylene and mineral spirits (which I would recommend over the Original version). Made in the U.K.
Clapham’s Beeswax Polish
$22.50/200 grams ($11.25 per 100 grams)
Clapham’s contains a mixture of beeswax, carnauba and deodorized mineral spirits. It has a soft creamy texture and appearance making it easy to apply and quick to buff. Because it’s so soft you might apply more than is necessary – remember the mantra “sparingly.” It has virtually no odour, although it’s also available scented with essential oil of lavender. Along with Walrus Oil, Clapham’s is one of the most natural wax finishes you can get (it was a favourite of James Krenov). It gave more of a satin sheen than the other waxes. The twist cap makes it easy to open and close the container. Clapham’s doesn’t state how long it takes to fully cure, but I would assume within a week or so given there is no oil in the product and mineral spirits evaporates quickly. While the VOC level isn’t specified, I expect it’s insignificant. Also available in 50 gram and 1,134 gram sizes. Made in Canada.
Lee Valley Blue Label Paste Wax; Mohawk Blue Label Paste Wax
Lee Valley #80K4906
$37.50/454 grams ($8.26 per 100 grams)
$29.95/454 grams ($6.60 per 100 grams)
I’ve listed these two together because they are essentially the same product, manufactured by Mohawk in the U.S. (The Blue Label brand was originally made by Behlen.) Blue Label wax is made of carnauba, paraffin, turpentine and mineral spirits. It has a noticeable odour, but much less so than Briwax. The wax goes on easily and buffs out with no trouble. It has a pleasing satin sheen and barely changed the tone of the sample board. Blue Label wax is available in natural and brown tones. VOC level of 615 grams/liter and a three-year shelf life.
Minwax Paste Finishing Wax
$14.95/450 grams ($3.32 per 100 grams)
Minwax is made of paraffin, mineral spirits and turpentine. While the company mentions carnauba as an ingredient it doesn’t appear in the material data sheet. In the can Minwax has a dark appearance and a hard consistency (less so than Walrus Oil). It emits an odour similar to the Blue Label wax. The Minwax was easy to apply in a thin layer and it buffed out quickly, producing a higher-than-average sheen. The least expensive of the waxes I tested, it has a VOC level of 615 grams/litre and a three-year shelf life. It’s available in a natural and a dark tone. Made in the U.S.
Walrus Oil Furniture Wax
Made in the U.S., Walrus Oil is handcrafted from carnauba, candelilla, polymerized safflower oil, hemp seed oil, tung oil and perilla seed oil. It also contains a dash of lime for freshness. It’s a solvent-free, odour-free, super hard wax, which means you’re unlikely to load your pad too heavily. A little goes a long way. It also left a slight yellow cast and cured to a super smooth, matte sheen. Walrus Oil takes up to four weeks to fully cure (likely because of the natural oils). It has about a two-year shelf life (the expiry date is printed on the can). Like Clapham’s wax, the Walrus Oil container has a twist lid that makes it easier to open and close than paint can lids. My preferred wax finish for drawers and cabinet interiors.
Not just a topcoat
There are, of course, other uses for wax in the shop. Dipping screws in wax makes it easier to drive them into wood. A thin layer of wax on wooden drawer runners makes them slide like a breeze. Likewise, a thin layer of wax on the sole of your hand planes will make them glide across wood surfaces without compromising the plane’s cutting efficiency. For this application, make sure you use a silicone-free wax like Veritas Tool Wax ($15.50/125 ml, LeeValley.com).
Useful for repair work
Wax filler sticks, like those from Trade Secret (tradesecret.ca), are useful when you need to make minor repairs to finishes. Use them on fine scratches, small nicks and shallow cracks and gouges. They’re available in a wide range of hues. Unlike putty, the wax won’t shrink. Simply rub on, wipe off and buff.
Make your own wax finish
Yes, you can make your own wax polish. You’ll need a block of refined beeswax, boiled linseed oil and turpentine. Break the beeswax into chunks, place them in a Pyrex bowl, and then place the bowl over a pot of boiling water. Once the beeswax has melted pour it into a glass container along with equal amounts of the boiled linseed oil and turpentine (the ratio is 1:1:1). Let the concoction settle for a day or two before using.