Someone asked me recently about what I use to protect the finish of my saws (and by proxy other tools, both hand and machine tools). The answer is straight forward, though perhaps not as simple as I initially thought… I use paste wax to help protect them from rust and also to reduce friction in their use. I also use paste wax on some of the furniture I make and restore also. I have often sensed a bit of confusion on using waxes, what they are and how they work, in conversations I've had with others. Some revile it – likely because of a bad reaction with a finish of some sort or perhaps in some cases because of unrealistic expectations.
Now, I'm no chemist, nor do I claim to be any kind of an expert - but hopefully I can pass on a (very) little knowledge of the subject to help a woodworker understand it a little better (including myself!)
Wax is an important tool in my arsenal – it has many uses, both in finishes and in tool maintenance and performance. Besides paste wax, I have bars of beeswax and canning wax (paraffin) for lubricating screws and drawers. I’ve melted wax in solvents to use as a resist when etching a logo into saw blades. I often make my own wiping varnish through mixing beeswax with turpentine and varnish.
Wax is not a perfect barrier to moisture, and it does wear off over time with use, therefore requires regular maintenance. I am blessed here where I live in that I don’t have to deal with high humidity that can make metals conducive to rust do just that, but even here rust never sleeps.
On its own on wood, wax is fairly poor finish – it’s too soft on its own to work as a permanent finish, and it’s low melting point (140 degrees) makes it vulnerable to local climate. However, it can be used to reestablish a luster lost to the ravages of time, and help a finish such as shellac resist accidental water spillage, at least long enough for you to wipe it off. It provides a “smooth touch” to the surface of the furniture for those that are admiring it, adding a bit of refinement to the experience. It can also help mask or block the odor of some solvent-based finishes. Don’t kid yourself – how a piece feels and smells is as important as how it looks – the quality and experience of a piece of furniture is affected by all the senses. Well, OK - maybe not so much taste… but you get my point.
Besides aiding in resisting rust, wax also helps in the performance of tools that slide on or through the surface of tools in contact with wood. That includes hand saws and planes – and also machine tools with a bed such table saws and jointers. With each, the performance increase is noticeable… A hand saw will glide more easily through stock, and not bind nearly as easily. A hand plane will glide more easily across the surface of the wood, allowing you to focus on the action of the blade rather than fight the tool. And, of course, stock will slide more easily across the bed of a given machine tool.
Most paste waxes you will use are quite similar, at least in the initial results given. The difference between them is measured in the durability and ease of use. These differences are accommodated by using a slightly different mix of materials.
Essentially, a paste wax is a mixture of one of (usually) four different kinds of wax, each one having different properties. These waxes are dissolved with a solvent to where they remain as a paste. Which kind of wax(es) along with which and how much of these solvent(s) used determine how the paste acts when used. To further understand how and why they work, I'll go through the different ingredients. First, the waxes...
As I mentioned, there are generally four different types of waxes used in paste wax Carnauba, Paraffin, Micro-crystalline, and Beeswax. A couple of other minor players are Ceresin (similar in properties to Paraffin wax) and candelilla
(a vegetable-derived wax) often used as a substitute for beeswax - which I find interesting because it is much harder, more like Carnauba wax. I won't go into those here, just know they are there and are sometimes mentioned in texts about waxes. In context, you will most often see Ceresin wax mentioned in older texts
, and candelilla where there are vegan concerns.
Carnauba Wax is vegetable based wax made from the leaves of the Carnauba palm, pictured at left. It is a hard wax that polishes to a very high gloss finish. It is very hard, and is too brittle to be used by itself. It is often mixed with other waxes as a hardener, allowing them to be buffed to a higher sheen and giving them more durability.
Paraffin Wax is derived from petroleum distillates, and is also been known as "canning" wax. You can always find it in bar form near the canning supplies at the local food market. On it's own, it is far too soft to be used as a finish... I keep a bar of it handy though, as it's great as a lubricant for drawers. I break off a chunk and rub it in the drawer slide pocket.
, also known as Cera Microcristallina, is another petroleum distillate wax - essentially, paraffin wax is refined further to where it forms crystals, and these crystals are what make up this wax. More information on this wax is available here
. Like Carnauba wax, Micro-crystalline wax is too hard to use on it's own for a polish. Also like Carnauba, it is often used as a hardener in other waxes. It is more pliable and at the same time harder than paraffin, and is the main ingredient in Renaissance wax.
Beeswax, as I'm sure you are aware, is a by-product of the honey making process of bees. It is a soft wax, too soft for use on it's own - but is often used as a medium for harder waxes, or as a an ingredient in homemade varnishes.
Beeswax is undoubtedly the oldest of the waxes used, and it is wonderful to have in the shop. I personally love the smell of it. I often use it to "lubricate" screws when turning them it - the friction causes the wax to warm up and lubricate the threads, then when it cools actually helps hold it in place.
Beeswax and Paraffin wax will dissolve in solvent at room temperature given enough time. Micro-crystalline and Carnauba wax must be melted first or they remain immiscible. The type of solvent used helps determine how quickly the wax will dry once applied. I've used three different types of solvents: Mineral Spirits (aka White Spirits), turpentine, and naphtha. Naphtha makes for the quickest drying wax, followed by turpentine and finally Mineral Spirits. I find the odor of mineral spirits objectionable, so my mainstays are turpentine and naphtha. Some commercial paste waxes use toluene, but as that can damage a finish (especially ones less than a year old) I avoid it.
Commercial paste waxes are (for the most part) a mixture of any number of the above, with the most common being a mix of either paraffin or beeswax with carnauba and/or micro-crystalline wax. Each will also utilize a form of either naphtha or toluene (or a similar solvent) to hold it in paste form. I've tried several, and find SC Johnson Paste Wax is my favorite, go-to can. As a matter of fact, I just bought a new one, after finally using up the last can I had for over 10 years. Johnson wax, according to their web site
, is a mixture of naphtha along with carnauba, micro-crystalline, and paraffin waxes.
is an excellent wax made from micro-crystalline wax (and some other polyethylene waxes), but I simply have never been able to justify the price - it's just not that much better than the others to make it worth it. It is less acidic than other paste waxes, which is what makes museum curators and antique restorers favor it.
Antiquax uses beeswax and carnauba, as is Briwax
is a Carnauba/Paraffin combination that works similarly to SC Johnson's offering. Liberon
also uses Carnauba and Paraffin, and mixes in some Micro-crystalline wax to top it off.
There are many other brands (and many, many other types of waxes
), but I think you can see what the differences will be. I can say that I've use Johnson paste wax
for 25 years, and I've yet to be sold on another brand - but I've not tried them all, so I always am looking for others' experiences. I hope this entry is of help to you in learning more about wax finishes.
I should mention here that automotive waxes are a different animal all together - I avoid having them in my shop as most contain silicones and other nasties that are not finish-friendly, causing finished to blush or fish-eye.
There are some great references on working with waxes available online: here's a few of my favorites:
I've started my own online store that has a small selection of recommended paste waxes available through it - please visit the Norse Woodsmith Online Store
for more information.
I've never used it but with those guys recommending it there must be something to it...