Wax Finishes Roundup

A portion of the wax products tested for this report

Wax Finishes Overview: This is the first article in comprehensive series, which will explore various finishing products available for woodturnings. This series will cover traditional wood finishing products and those designed for use in other industries like antique restoration, conservation and marine boat building to name a few. My goal is to expand your options when deciding which finish to use and to discover new products that perform well in a woodturning environment.

What is Wax?

Wax is one of the oldest and most versatile natural substances ever used by man. The earliest recorded use of wax was by the ancient Egyptians, who used wax (ca. 3000 BC) in the mummification process and for protective coverings. Wax is a very complex mixture of many different types of compounds. It can be simply defined as a substance that is solid at ambient temperature and when subjected to moderate temperatures, becomes a low viscosity liquid.

Most paste/liquid wax finishes sold today are a blend of various kinds of waxes with some type of solvent. Essential oils, drying oils, pigments, dyes and other ingredients may also be included in commercial wax finishes. Many manufacturers are reluctant to disclose the specific ingredients in their wax finishes, which makes it difficult to make informed buying decisions.

"Calabash" Black Ash green salad bowl (Craft Supplies U.S.A. Lemon Oil Wax)

Choosing Wax Finishes

Wax finishes have been used to protect wood for centuries. However, it has been largely replaced in modern times by finishes that are more durable. However, as a woodturning finish wax remains quite popular and is frequently used as a topcoat over other finishes.

The damaging effects from ultraviolet rays, air pollution, moisture, acids, dirt and ordinary wear and tear combine to degrade any surface finish. While it is true that wax finishes are not as durable as some types of finishes, they do provide protection from dust, dirt, mold, scratches, and occasional moisture.

Microcrystalline and Macrocrystalline - Paraffin waxes in particular are highly resistant to moisture. Microcrystalline waxes are also highly resistant to acids, alcohol and fingerprints.

Certain wax finishes also provide excellent protection against the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation, through the use of ultraviolet inhibitors. These inhibitors help prevent fading and associated colour loss in timber by effectively blocking ultraviolet radiation.

"Black Echoes" Magnolia bowl, burned (Briwax)

When deciding which type of finish to use on your turnings, several factors should be considered. Is the piece functional or artistic? Will the surface be subjected to significant handling or wear, like mixing bowls or writing pens? Will the surface be exposed to frequent liquids, food acids or alcohol? What gloss level is desired, flat, satin, semi-gloss or brilliant gloss?

Obviously, artistic items that are handled infrequently offer more finishing options than functional or daily use items. However, no single finish is right for every type of turning or every species of timber.

Types of Wax

There are many different types of waxes. However, for simplicity they can de subdivided into these relevant groups:

  • Insect (Beeswax and Shellac Wax)
  • Vegetable (Carnauba, Candelilla, Ouricury and Japan)
  • Mineral Waxes (Montan, Ozokerite, Ceresine)
  • Petroleum (Macrocrystalline - Paraffins and Microcrystalline)
  • Synthetic Waxes (Polyethylene)

Waxes used in furniture polishes may include, but are not limited to Beeswax, Carnauba, Candelilla, Montan, Macrocrystalline - Paraffins, Microcrystalline and Polyethylene. Frequently, these waxes are blended to provide a finish with certain performance and durability characteristics.

"Red Sky at Morning" Black Cherry salad bowl (Arbortech Arborwax)

Beeswax is a glandular secretion from young worker honeybees and is used to build their honeycomb structures. The wax is harvested by removing the honey through centrifuging and melting the remaining comb. The melted wax is then filtered and cast into moulds. Contaminants such as pollen, gums and resins add various colours to the wax, which can range from yellow to brown.

Beeswax is a medium hard wax with a penetration of 20 dmm at 25 degrees Centigrade and 76 dmm at 43.3 degrees Centigrade (ASTM D1321)*. It is slightly tacky and has a melting point of approximately 64 degrees Centigrade. Used by itself, it produces a pleasant satin finish. It is frequently used as a base ingredient in many traditional wax finishes.

"Second Chance" American Elm salad bowl (Livos Glevio Liquid Beeswax)

Note: The standard test used in industry to measure the hardness of a wax is called a “Penetration Test” (ASTM D1321). This test measures the depth (in tenths of a millimetre) that a specially configured and weighted needle will penetrate the surface of the wax, at specific temperatures. Low penetration numbers indicate very hard waxes.

Carnauba Wax is obtained from the outer waxy coating of palm fronds from the Copernicia cerifera, the Brazilian Carnauba Palm. The fronds are collected twice a year in September and December. The wax is extracted by separating the wax from the frond with mechanical beaters.

A maximum of twenty leaves can be collected during each of the two yearly cutting seasons. On average, these twenty leaves will produce about 1kg of Carnauba wax. The colour of the wax is determined by the age of the leaves when harvested and ranges from pale yellow (new, unopened leaves) to greenish brown (older leaves exposed to sun and weather). The pale yellow wax is the highest grade of Carnauba available.

Carnauba wax is the hardest natural vegetable wax, with a penetration of only 2 dmm at 25 degrees Centigrade and only 3 dmm at 43.3 degrees Centigrade. It is brittle and non-tacky with a melting point of approximately 84 degrees Centigrade. This wax produces a very high gloss and is frequently used to increase the melting point, gloss level, durability and lubricity of other waxes.

Cutting your solid Carnauba bars into wedges simplifies the application process

Candelilla Wax is a natural vegetable wax found on the outer coating of the Candelilla shrubs Euphorbia Cerifera, Euphorbia Antisyphilitica and Pedilanthus Pavonis. These shrubs grow primarily in the Coahuila and Chihuahuan deserts along the United States - Mexico border. The wax is extracted in the field by heating the plants in water and adding sulphuric acid. The floating wax is then skimmed and filtered.

"Vision Quest" small Eucalyptus burr bowl (Briwax)

The colour of the wax ranges from yellow to tan and is slightly tacky. It is softer than Carnauba wax, with a penetration of 3 dmm at 25 degrees Centigrade and a melting point of 70 degrees Centigrade. It is sometimes used as a substitute for Carnauba wax, due to its high gloss and similar hardness characteristics.

Ouricury Wax is obtained from the fronds of the “Syagros coronata”, the Brazilian Feather Palm. It is very similar to Carnauba wax in gloss and hardness, but darker in colour. However, the wax is significantly more difficult to extract than Carnauba and requires mechanical scraping of the fronds to release the wax. Ouricury wax has a melting point of 82.5 degrees Centigrade and is sometimes used as a replacement for Carnauba, when a darker coloured wax is desired.

"Eye of the Tiger" shallow Tiger Myrtle bowl (Liberon Black Bison Wax)

Crude Montan Wax is a naturally occurring vegetable wax extracted by solvents from lignite coal deposits and peat. Refined Montan Wax has undergone additional processing to remove any resins and asphalt. This hard vegetable wax has a melting point of 79 to 90 degrees Centigrade. The colour ranges from dark brown to light yellow. Montan wax imparts a high gloss and increases water repellence and scuff resistance.

Macrocrystalline Wax (Paraffin Wax) is a petroleum wax made from deoiled slack wax, which is derived by dewaxing base distillate lube oil streams of predominantly straight chain alkanes. Paraffin wax is brittle and has a low melting point between 46 and 71 degrees Centigrade. Paraffin waxes impart high resistance to moisture. Due to their low cost, paraffins are frequently added to other wax blends.

Microcrystalline Wax is a petroleum wax containing branched and cyclic saturated hydrocarbons, as well as normal alkanes from deoiled residual bright stock lube oil streams. Microcrystalline waxes have a crystalline structure much smaller than totally natural waxes and have a very high resistance to moisture, alcohol, acids and fingerprints.

Pecan salad bowl
(Renaissance Wax)

Microcrystalline waxes are obtained from the residual fraction of crude oil distillation (Petrolatum) or from crude oil tank bottoms. Hard grade microcrystalline wax (from crude oil tank bottoms) has a penetration of less than 11 dmm at 25 degrees Centigrade and a melting point of approximately 60 to 93 degrees Centigrade. Plastic grades of microcrystalline wax (from Petrolatums) have penetrations greater than 11 dmm at 25 degrees Centigrade.

Polyethylene Wax is a synthetic wax made from selective high or low-pressure catalytic polymerisation of ethylene feedstocks, which produces waxes with various melt points, hardness and densities. (Ethylene is produced from natural gas, or by cracking petroleum naphtha). High-density polyethylene waxes melt between 85 and 141 degrees Centigrade.

Low-density polyethylene waxes melt between 30 and 141 degrees Centigrade. Polyethylene wax penetration test results vary depending on the type of wax, between 7 and 12 dmm at 25 degrees Centigrade. Polyethylene waxes increase abrasion resistance and help to provide a non-sticky wax surface.

"Offering Plate" Curly Myrtlewood bowl (Craft Supply U.S.A. Lemon Oil Wax)

Application Methods for Wax Finishes:
Traditional and High Speed

Traditionally, paste and liquid wax finishes are applied to turnings with a soft cloth, natural bristle brush or rubber while the piece is stationary. After the solvent in the wax has sufficiently evaporated, it is buffed with a soft cloth, brush or a buffing wheel/pad to develop the lustre. Most wax finishes typically require two applications for best results.

Friction sticks are available in various colors and gloss levels to suite any need

High-speed wax application methods include spraying liquid waxes onto larger turnings and the application of solid wax onto high-speed buffing wheels, which transfers the wax to the item by friction. Handheld friction stick waxes are applied to the surface, whilst the piece is rotating at a relatively high speed. A small amount of wax is melted onto the surface by friction and is immediately buffed with moderate pressure to produce the lustre.

Special Purpose Wax Finishes:
Conservation, Liming and Patinating

Conservation, or archival quality wax finishes are the preferred choice of many museums and those who restore artifacts and fine art pieces. Microcrystalline waxes are frequently used because they are pH neutral, will not attract atmospheric acids and will not discolour even white materials.

Other important characteristics include high resistance to fingerprints, water, acids and alcohol as well as being fully reversible without damage to the original surface. Conservation or archival quality wax finishes are also available with specially prepared pH neutral blends of Beeswax, Microcrystalline and Carnauba wax.

Special purpose waxes include those that contain various dyes, pigments, mica powders, metal powders, or other ingredients to enhance the grain. Coloured waxes can highlight the grain when darker/contrasting colours are used over lighter timbers.

Liming and Patinating wax finishes can produce dramatic special effects on certain coarse grain timbers like Ash and Oak. Liming wax finishes create a white “pickled” finish because part of the wax remains in the pores of the timber after the excess is removed.

This limed effect is particularly effective when used over dyed timbers, resulting in a very provocative finish. Patinating wax finishes create jet-black highlights in the pores and are typically used on coarse-grained, light coloured timbers. However, patinating waxes can also be used with excellent results on timbers like Walnut.

Small Winged Elm bowl
(Mylands Wax)

High Speed, Heat Assisted Application for Wax Finishes

Typically, wax finishes are applied onto the surface of turnings with a soft cloth, rubber or natural bristle brush. After the solvent has sufficiently evaporated, the wax is buffed to develop the lustre. Depending on the solvent used, the time required before you can begin buffing the surface could vary from a few minutes, to twenty-four hours or more. In my production studio I use a high-speed heat assisted method of applying wax finishes, which helps to speed the evaporation of the solvent and the subsequent buffing of the surface.

Several products are available to achieve a "glass smooth" surface

Finish sand the item and remove any dust that may be in the pores of the timber with a blast of compressed air, or a tack rag. Apply a cellulose sanding sealer (if desired) and friction dry with a piece of safety cloth. When dry, cut the surface back with a burnishing wax or wire wool.

Set your lathe revs to 1200 (or as close to it as safety permits) and apply the wax to the spinning timber with a small piece of safety cloth, or a brush. Apply moderate pressure to the spinning workpiece, which will create friction and melt the wax. Work the wax impregnated safety cloth back and forth across the surface insuring that the surface is completely covered with the heated wax. The addition of the heat to the application process helps to saturate the surface fibres of unsealed timber and speeds the evaporation of the solvent carrier on sealed surfaces.

After the surface has been well covered, change your lathe revs to 2000 (or as close as safety permits) and continue to traverse back and forth across the surface of the timber with moderate pressure using the safety cloth. Many wax solvents will evaporate quickly at this speed and the drying times will be reduced by up to seventy five percent.

Let the piece spin in the air for a few moments (without applying the safety cloth) to evaporate any remaining solvent. Continue your revs at 2000 and after the wax has dulled, you can begin to buff the surface with a clean piece of safety cloth, a soft bristle brush or a lamb's wool pad.

This method is particularly suited to spindle turning, but will also work well with smaller bowls and hollow forms. Obviously, the size and shape of the item, number of structural defects present and the quality of the lathe and its fixing will determine the speed at which you can apply and buff the wax.

Small White Ash bowl
(Fiddes Supreme Wax Polish)

Secrets to Success with Pure, Solid Carnauba Wax

Pure solid Carnauba wax imparts a brilliant gloss to woodturnings and in my experience, it has proven to be a very durable finish. To achieve the highest possible gloss level, follow these simple rules.

  • Wash your hands! Any residual bits of sawdust or sanding grit on your fingers will compromise the quality of the gloss if you touch the piece, whilst it is rotating on the lathe.
  • Cut a small wedge from a solid bar of Carnauba wax. One end of the wedge should taper to a fine point. The other end should be 5-6mm wide. Use the fine point end to apply the wax to the turning, whilst it is rotating as fast as you can safely turn the piece. Friction will melt a thin layer of wax onto the surface of the turning.
  • As you are moving the wax wedge across the turning, you can see a dull band of wax being applied to the surface. Insure that you move at a constant speed across the surface and apply a thin, even coating. Maintain the sharp point on the wedge tip by scraping the area with a knife. These wax scrapings can be kept and melted to form another solid bar.

Sycamore salad bowl
(Regency Wax)

  • To buff the piece, start at one end and apply sufficient pressure with a CLEAN piece of safety cloth to melt the thin layer of surface wax. Do not apply too much pressure whilst buffing, or you will remove the wax. Applying too little pressure will cause streaks. A final light buff across the surface will deliver a brilliant gloss finish.
  • Larger turnings cannot be polished using this method due to speed and safety considerations. However, you can use a standard cloth buffing wheel to safely apply pure Carnauba to the surface of larger turnings. Another option is to apply a high grade Carnauba paste wax to the surface and then buff the with a soft flannel buffing wheel at 1750 - 2000 revs.

The Beall Wood Buffing System can perfect and smooth many types of finishes

Safety Concerns When Using Wax Finishes

Modern paste and liquid wax finishes are available with a variety of solvents. Some waxes may contain toxic solvents like Toluene, Xylene, or other harmful solvents. Since waxes are generally applied by hand, it is important to protect yourself when applying any wax that contains harmful solvents.

If you are in doubt about any required protection measures, contact the manufacturer, or obtain a MSDS (manufacturer's safety data sheet) sheet in the U.S., or COSHH sheets in the U.K. from your local stockist. If you are in doubt, always consider any solvent to be potentially harmful and take appropriate protection measures.

Several of the waxes are
also available in liquid and semi-liquid forms

In my studio, I use a two-step protection protocol for applying any finish. Step one, is the use of chemical resistant gloves (off the lathe) to apply any type of finish that is not 100% food-safe, straight from the container. Step two, is the use of a certified respirator outfitted with an appropriate vapour cartridge to handle any fumes generated during solvent evaporation.

This two-stage protection protocol offers significant protection from epidermal absorption of harmful solvents or toxic driers, as well as preventing respiratory compromises from the inhalation of toxic or harmful fumes.

Wax Finishes: Summary

Modern wax finishes are available in single wax or blended wax formulations in a variety of colours and lustre levels. The broad range of waxes available allows turners to customise the finish to suit any particular need. In addition to traditional wax finishes, special purpose waxes offer enhanced resistance to moisture, acids, alcohol and fingerprints.

Long-term colour loss in timber is a concern with many turners, as well as woodworkers in general. The use of ultraviolet inhibitors in Arbortech's new line of conservation quality waxes, offers significant protection against colour loss in exotics and other timbers. Because this protection is available in a wax form, it is easily renewed.

The continuing advances in wood finish research represent an ongoing commitment by manufacturers to respond to the needs of woodturners and other woodworkers, with state-of-the-art finishing solutions.

"Aftermath: Black Rain - Hiroshima and Nagasaki" curly White Ash, scorched platter (General Finishes Satin Finish Wax)

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Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.