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Wax

Wax as a Woodworking Finish

What it is

The wax that is used for finishing wood products is primarily carnauba wax, though virtually any kind of wax can be used (from bee's wax to paraffin wax). Carnauba wax is extracted from the leaves of the carnauba palm (Copernica prunifera, native to northeastern Brazil) and then refining and bleaching the wax.

When to consider it

Because wax offers very little in the way of protection, wax has limited use in the modern woodworker's arsenal of wood finishes. The wax is easily worn off, is easily damaged by high heat (such as a cup of tea), provides very little protection to water vapor, and requires re-application every year or so.

Because of these limitations, wax is almost never used as a primary finish, but is instead used to complement other finishes. Wax can be applied over oil finishes, such as tung oil, or over other finishes such as shellac. The benefit of wax on finishes such as these is that the wax can be buffed to provide a fine shine, and the wax is easy to re-buff as needed.

Advantages

There are many different waxes available. The following is a general list of advantages:

  • Mildly water resistant
  • Moderately resistant to acids and alkali
  • Does not color the finish of the wood
  • Easy and quick to apply (rub on, rub off)
  • Very forgiving during application
  • Easy to re-apply if the original finish becomes worn or damaged
  • Non-toxic and food-safe (Once solvent has evaporated! Be careful!)

Disadvantages

  • Damaged by alcohol
  • Must wait for underlying finish to cure completely, or solvent in wax may damage underlying finish

Variations

The only variations on wax that I am aware of are:

  • Paste waxes or waxes with solvents added (apply with rag, wait, buff to shine),
  • Solid waxes (usually applied to project spinning on lathe), and
  • Spray waxes (spray on, but toxicity unknown).

There are various types of waxes in use for finishing:

  • Carnauba wax is one of the hardest natural waxes, and takes a hard, glossy shine with a slick feel. By itself, it is brittle and very difficult to polish once it has dried.
  • Beeswax is a moderately soft, sticky wax with a wonderful smell, and it buffs out to a mellow glow. Although it becomes slippery when it melts, at room temperature it is too sticky to use for machine surfaces like table saw tops. This stickiness, however, makes it ideal for floors or for surfaces that should not slip too easily. Some people also find the beeswax smell objectionable.
  • Paraffin or canning wax is soft and very slippery (almost greasy), and tends to flake off if applied too thick. Can be used as an additive to make harder waxes buff more easily.

How to use it

As with any traditional product that has been used for many years, there will be many different opinions on how to use the product. What I will present here is the most simple and straightforward technique of applying paste wax, and I will identify optional steps as such.

Precautions

Be careful with the handling and disposal of the rags used to apply paste wax. The wax itself is not a problem, however the solvents used to make the wax soft enough to apply are highly flammable and combustible. Allow rags to thoroughly dry on a non-flammable surface (such as a concrete block), or washed, or soaked with water before placing in the garbage. Solvents can generate heat through an exothermic reaction with the air (oxidation), and this reaction accelerates as the rags get hotter, and this has been known to start unintended fires.

Preparation

As with any finish, your ability to fix woodworking mistakes is greatly diminished once you start to apply any finish. Ensure the wood surface is adequately prepared before you start to apply the product.

Sanding sealers are not usually beneficial under wax finishes. They may be used, however, under the primary finish that might have been applied to the project, such as under the oil or shellac finish that the wax is ultimately covering.

Sand the surface using progressively finer sandpaper until you reach 220 grit (or optionally 320-dry grit) sandpaper. This will leave the surface smooth and there should be no visible scratch marks that remain.

Since wax does nothing to accentuate your workpiece, you can optionally apply an oil, shellac, or both oil then shellac finish before finally finishing it with wax.

Application

Use any clean, lint-free rag to apply wax. If you use a rag that has rough-cut edges, be sure to fold the rag so the rough edges are held in your hand and are not on the wood surface, since any loose wood fibres may catch the edge of your cloth and leave troublesome lint behind.

Use the rag to scrape a small amount of wax out of the can and proceed to apply the wax to the work surface. Work from the least accessible areas (interior or underside) first and work towards the easiest sides.

Apply by rubbing along the grain. Do not apply too much wax since only the thinnest microscopic layer will remain after buffing. Your goal at this point is simply to "wet" the complete surface and to ensure you have not missed any spots. If there are any globs, remove them with your rag before continuing on to the next section of your project.

Approximately 1/2 hour after applying the wax, the layer that you just applied should be completely dry. The surface of your project should look like it has a hazy finish, like someone washed the surface with a soapy cloth. Rub the project with a clean rag to remove any excess surface wax. Follow this up with a more vigorous buffing. The surface friction that you generate with your buffing partially melts the wax and smoothens the surface. Some people feel that you can use an automotive car polisher to accomplish the buffing step, but this is highly dependant on the shape of your project, and how delicate it might be, and how much damage you might cause if the buffing pad catches on a corner of your project.

Your project is ready to deliver and use immediately.

Repairs

Repairs for projects finished with wax couldn't be simpler. Simply use a clean rag dipped in the appropriate solvent to wipe off the existing wax finish, let thoroughly dry (1/2 hour at least), then re-apply wax as per the application instructions.

Removal

Wax is easy to remove by simply using a clean rag dipped in the appropriate solvent. The solvent-moistened rag can then be used to rub off the old wax. It is highly recommended that you wait for the solvent to thorough evaporate from the project before attempting to apply a new finish.

Where to get it

Lee Valley Tools

Cleanup

Please see the Precautions section above for appropriate disposal of rags used to apply paste wax.

Wax can be removed with a solvent such as turpentine or naptha.

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