Finish Wax Formulae
by Ray Lancon
Waxes have many uses around the woodshop, including helping to prevent rust on machinery, lubricating screws and sliding surfaces, preventing glues from sticking to clamps or fixtures, and serving as finishes on many wooden articles.
High-quality waxes are available from companies like Behlens, but most consumer-grade waxes available in hardware or auto stores contain silicones, which can seriously compromise the adhesion of paints and glues. To reduce the risk of contaminating my wood projects from tools, I avoid the use of silicones altogether and, rather than buying premium wax preparations from specialty stores, I blend my own. Besides saving money, blending my own waxes allows me to control the consistency and composition to suit my needs.
Types of Wax
Although hundreds of different waxes exist, I mostly use carnauba, bees, and paraffin waxes.
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.
Paraffin or canning wax is soft and very slippery (almost greasy), and tends to flake off if applied too thick. I use it primarily as an additive to make harder waxes buff more easily.
Types of Solvents
I have used mineral spirits, varnish-makers-and-painters (VM&P) naphtha, and turpentine as solvents for wax. All of these solvents are quite flammable, and should be used with great caution, particularly around heat.
Mineral spirits or common paint thinner is the cheapest solvent that I know of, but I don't like to use it because of its objectionable smell. Recently I discovered odorless mineral spirits. Although they are much more expensive ($10/gallon versus about $3/gallon for stinky), they have almost no odor. Although I have not tried odorless mineral spirits as a solvent for wax, it should work and may be worth experimenting with. Turpentine is stronger smelling than mineral spirits, although some don't find it objectionable. VM&P naphtha is fast drying and low in odor (at least, to my nose), and is my personal favorite solvent for waxes.
I recently performed an experiment to compare the drying times of these three solvents. On a dry day with an air temperature of about 75° F. I placed one drop of each of mineral spirits, turpentine, and naphtha on a sheet of paper and measured the time to evaporate. Mineral spirits took the longest time of 8.5 minutes. Turpentine was next at 5 minutes, and naphtha was the quickest at 2 minutes.
Citrus-based solvents are said to be refined from citrus fruit peels, and they retain this citrus smell. I kind of like the smell, although others have commented that it smells like bug-spray or other, less-pleasant things. I haven't used it with wax, but it may be a more fragrant alternative to try.
Some Remarks About Mixing
All of the proportions are approximate, and none are critical. Blends can be modified to change properties by reheating, adding more of the desired ingredient, and allowing the blend to cool and solidify.
I like to use wide-mouth, glass jars with metal lids that screw on one or more turns, rather than the more common quarter-of-a-turn lids; salad dressing, mayonnaise, and peanut butter jars generally have retained the full-threaded lids. Even better than glass jars would be the kinds of tins that premium waxes come in. I have not been able to find these tins available empty, but you might want to save commercial wax tins. The lids on automobile wax cans don't seem to seal very well, and I worry about silicone contamination, so I don't use these.
Beeswax and paraffin wax will eventually dissolve in solvent at room temperature, although it is much faster to melt them first. Carnauba wax must be melted before it can be dissolved in solvent, and if the solvent is too cold the wax will harden and drop to the bottom.
The consistency of the cooled wax can be checked by sampling some of the hot solution with a small spoon, allowing the sample to cool, and feeling the cooled solid. If too hard, more solvent can be added; if too soft, more wax can be heated and added to the solution or the lid can be left off the jar, allowing some solvent to evaporate. The sample can also be applied to a surface to check for its properties when buffed out.
If a blend feels too gritty, too much carnauba wax was used; try adding some beeswax. If a blend is too sticky, add paraffin wax for a softer blend, carnauba wax for a harder blend. If a blend is too greasy, too much paraffin wax was used; add more beeswax or carnauba wax to dilute the paraffin.
A Hard, Low-Friction Wax Blend
This wax blend is my favorite, and I use it for many purposes. It buffs out to a shiny finish, so it works well for shiny-finished wood projects. It works particularly well at keeping the rubber feet on my stereo equipment from leaving marks on the shelves of my stereo cabinet.
I rub this wax on cast iron tool surfaces, plane blades, and any other metal that can rust; in fact, using 0000 steel wool as an applicator, this wax does a pretty good job of cleaning off crud and light rust. It is hard enough that I have not noticed it rubbing off onto boards as I cut them. Its low-friction properties make it an excellent choice for lubricating sliding parts in dusty environments. However, as a thread lubricant for wood screws, I feel that this wax is too slippery, and I prefer the beeswax blend described later.
Put 4 parts carnauba wax, 1 part paraffin wax in a glass jar, filling it no more than half full. If desired, a small amount of beeswax may be added for a smoother-feeling, creamier blend. Put the glass jar in a pan with not quite enough water to float the jar and slowly heat on the stove to just below a boil. Swirl the jar occasionally to mix until all the wax is melted.
Take the pan of the heat and pour about an equal volume of solvent into the jar and swirl or stir to mix, then cap the jar to prevent evaporation. If the solvent is too cool and the wax starts to come out of solution, place the jar back in the still-hot water and swirl occasionally to mix. When completely dissolved, take the jar out of the water and allow to cool for an hour or so.
To apply this wax, rub it on with fingers, steel wool, or a cloth, and buff out immediately, particularly if a fast-drying solvent was used. If too much wax is applied, it may be necessary to buff off the excess with a coarse cloth or steel wool, perhaps repeating after a few hours or the next day. (Note that steel wool will scratch and dull a glossy finish, so use only on metal surfaces or where a satin finish is desired.)
A Satin, Non-Slip Wax Blend
This wax blend has a delightful aroma and its soft glow complements satin finishes. In creamier consistencies, it is an excellent, foolproof, wood finish.
This wax leaves a non-slip surface and, when fortified with carnauba wax, is excellent for floors. I also use this wax to keep machine parts from slipping too freely; for example, I use a little on the blade-guide post of my bandsaw.
Almost paradoxically, this wax becomes very slippery when heated, so it is an excellent wax to lubricate wood screw threads with. The driving friction heats the screw and wax enough to melt and slip but, afterwards, the wax becomes sticky again, perhaps improving the holding power.
This wax will rub off on wood, so it is not good to use on tablesaw tops and similar machine surfaces, particularly if water-based stains or finishes are to be used.
Put beeswax and 10-25% paraffin wax, in a glass jar, filling it no more than half full. Up to 25% carnauba wax can be added for a harder, more durable wax. Put the jar in a pan and fill with almost enough water to float the jar, then heat slowly on the stove, swirling the jar occasionally to mix. If the melted wax spills over the edge, the jar will be very slippery and difficult to hold without dropping it into the water. When the wax all melts, remove the pan from the heat and pour an equal volume of solvent into the jar for a firm paste wax, or slightly more for a creamier blend. Swirl or stir to mix, cap tightly, and allow to cool for an hour or two.
This wax can be applied with steel wool and rubbed hard to take a glossy finish down to a satin, or can be applied with a cloth to leave the gloss alone. Because this wax is softer than the carnauba wax above, you can wait a little longer before buffing.
To use as a finish, apply several coats to well-sanded (or scraped) wood with a coarse cloth, rubbing hard between coats. The rubbing tends to further smooth the surface of the wood. A stiff, fiber brush can be used to buff out corners and carved detail.
Sources of Supply
Beeswax can sometimes be found in craft stores in larger quantities than those overpriced, one-ounce cakes sold in hardware stores. I buy paraffin (canning) wax at the supermarket. It is so cheap and I use so little that I haven't looked elsewhere.
Although I am sure there are other suppliers, a quick scan of my catalogs showed pure beeswax and carnauba wax, in half or one pound quantities, available from Garrett Wade (1.800.221.2942), Woodcraft (1.800.225.1153), and Woodworker's Supply (1.800.645.9292).
Mineral spirits (both stinky and odorless), turpentine, and VM&P Naphtha should be available from any paint or hardware store. The citrus-based solvent that I used was marketed under the Livos brand name, and Garrett Wade also carries something similar.
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