How And When to Use Paste Wax
Contrary to popular belief, paste wax is not a good choice for a protective finish. Even though you may still read articles or hear other woodworkers advocating the use of paste wax as a protective finish for raw wood, the simple fact is that when it comes to protection, paste wax is very inferior compared to oil finishes or topcoat finishes like lacquer, varnish, polyurethane etc. It is true that wax was used for centuries as a wood finish, but that was before the advent and discovery of oil finishes and film finishes. Wax provides no significant protective barrier for wood against heat, water, water vapor or chemical spills such as from an alcoholic beverage. Wax is very soft and never dries to a hard finish. Its melting point is approx. 140 degrees F, which is way too low to protect against any kind of hot object. Even a cup of hot coffee placed on a tabletop that has been finished with wax only will melt the wax right through to the wood. Because wax is so soft, most of the excess applied needs to be wiped off in order to achieve a clear and polished surface, therefore the film surface of a wax finish is way too thin to protect wood against water or moisture (water vapor). Even milder solvents like mineral spirits (paint thinner) and turpentine will dissolve wax almost immediately, therefore it has no resistance to chemical spills.
Wax can be an effective barrier against water vapor when applied in a thick coating to the end grain of boards or freshly cut wood. Because it is applied in such a thick coating, it prevents the moisture from escaping too quickly, thus the freshly cut boards or wood will not check.
About the only protection wax affords is against abrasion, and even that is not significant. It's not the actual film of wax that protects wood against abrasion, because the film is too thin for that. Wax makes the surface slippery, thus objects slide across a waxed surface, rather than digging in and scraping. You must remember that wood needs more than just abrasion protection. A piece of furniture that has only wax to protect it will soon become dirty and will have no water, water vapor or chemical protection. A wax finish will soon become filled with dust and dirt that will stick to it and create a dull, dark ugly mess. The only way to fix this is to remove all the wax, clean the wood and sand the surface to prepare it for another finish, hopefully not just wax by itself.
However, when applied properly and for the right reason, paste wax can be very effective and add beauty and color back to an old piece of furniture. A wax finish can be very effective on a carved or turned object that receives very little handling, especially when you want a low sheen and don't want to change the natural color of the wood too much.
Paste wax is best used as a polish over an existing finish such as lacquer, varnish, shellac, polyurethane or even oil finishes. As mentioned, it will give you a little extra protection against scratches, but most modern finishes like polyurethane and newer lacquers and varnishes are very hard to begin with and usually the finish alone is abrasion resistant enough. Thus, using paste wax to maintain and regularly care for your furniture is by far the best reason to use paste wax today. A paste wax will add shine to a surface by filling in small scratches or voids in a finish. The finish will appear shiner and deeper because the light that was getting trapped in those scratches and voids before the wax was applied, is now reflecting off the surface. On darker pieces of furniture it's best to use a dark colored paste wax. This will not only polish the piece but also hide some minor scuffs and scratches.
Many people believe that pure beeswax is the best choice for use among paste waxes. This is not true. True, in the past beeswax was often used, but that was because it was the only wax available. Today, paste wax manufactures blend natural waxes like beeswax and harder carbuna wax with synthetic waxes. The waxes are selected for cost, color, slip resistance and hardness. This blend of waxes makes a paste wax that is harder and in many other ways superior to pure beeswax, which is also very expensive in pure form. Waxes like carnuba are much harder than bees wax, but are too hard to be used alone without blending with other softer waxes.
All waxes are originally solid. They are made into a paste by being dissolved into a solvent. Years ago, turpentine was used as the solvent, but today petroleum distillate solvents such as mineral spirits,and toluene are generally used to dissolve the waxes.
Most commercially made paste waxes are very similar in their quality and the sheen they produce. In fact, you can take the ten top brand waxes, apply them side by side to a finished surface and not see any significant difference in gloss or sheen. About the most significant difference in these waxes is in the amount of time you need to wait before wiping off the excess and buffing out the wax. Certain waxes like Briwax use a quicker evaporating solvent like toluene. Because these solvents evaporate quicker, the wax turns back to solid quicker, (becoming hazy) and once the wax hazes over, it's time to wipe off the excess and buff it out. Other waxes with slower evaporating solvents like mineral spirits will take longer to turn back to solid and haze over.
Applying Paste Wax
Many manufactures of furniture polishes and furniture care products always talk about wax build up. Some have even produced special products that eliminate wax build up. This is ridiculous because there is no such thing as wax build up. When you apply wax, you must remove approx. 99 percent of it when you buff it out. If not, you will never attain a shine. You must only leave a very thin layer on the surface. Therefore, there can be no such thing as wax build up.
Make sure that the surface of your finish is clean and free of any dirt. If not, clean it with a mild soap like Murphy's Oil Soap and water. Take a piece of lint free soft cotton cloth and put a lump of paste wax in the center of the cloth. This will limit the amount of wax you apply to the surface and you need not have to continue to dip into the can. Twist the cloth into a ball and kneed it in your hand to soften the wax a little. Apply the cloth over the surface of the finish letting the wax seep through the cloth onto the surface. You can apply the wax in any direction, using any motion, straight, circular, with grain, against grain etc. When the wax is first applied, it glossy because of the amount of solvent in it. as the solvent evaporates, it will start to turn back to solid and the surface will become hazy. If you wait too long the wax will be difficult to remove. If this happens, don't worry, just take some fresh wax apply it over the hardened wax and wipe it
off right away. The solvent in the fresh wax will re soften the hard wax again and you can remove it. If you don't wait long enough, you will still be removing all the wax and you will have no sheen at all. Work on small areas at a time until you get used to how long you need to wait until the wax has hazed and the excess needs to be removed. Wipe off the excess with a clean piece of lint free soft cotton cloth. Buff the surface with the cloth until you achieve a even sheen.
DO NOT USE SOLVENT BASED WAXES ON WATER BASED FINISHES OR ON ANY FINISH THAT HAS NOT CURED FULLY. THE SOLVENT IN THE WAX MAY HARM THE FINISH.
There are a number of methods used to apply paste wax, the method I just described is the most basic, but not the only. If you would like additional info on applying paste wax, please feel free to e-mail me.