Finishing a project is just as important as any other step in building it. Proper finishing not only protects the wood, but also makes the grain stand out, showing off the wood’s true beauty. Depending on the finish selected, it can even help establish the mood of the piece, with a glossy finish attracting attention to the project, while a low-sheen finish being more peaceful and relaxing.
Fortunately, we have a lot of finishes available that we can choose from. Varnish is probably the most popular finish out there, but by no means the only one available. Some commercial manufacturers use lacquer, rather than varnish, due to its fast dry time and high gloss. But lacquer can be difficult to work with and must be sprayed. Since most home woodworkers don’t have a separate spray booth, they tend to avoid using lacquer. Then there are oils and waxes, both of which have a long history of use by professional woodworkers. In fact, true varnish is mostly boiled linseed oil.
When many of us think of wax and wood, we tend to think of wax furniture polishes, especially those in an aerosol can. But in reality, wax can be used alone as a finish, as well as being used as a polish. Wax brings out the grain in the wood, while protecting it, and even provides a semi-waterproof finish (it can’t be submersed in water) that won’t be damaged by condensation off of cold, wet glasses of one’s favorite beverage.
When we talk about waxing wood, we typically use beeswax and not paraffin. While paraffin is considerably cheaper than beeswax, beeswax is softer. This allows it to soak or be rubbed into the wood’s grain better, providing a better seal and helping to bring out the grain pattern even more. For open grained woods, like oak, beeswax has the additional advantage of working as grain filler, filling the pores and providing a smoother, glossier finish.
While the traditional color of beeswax is yellow, white beeswax also exists. The white is made from the yellow, simply by refining it further. Beeswax does tend to darken wood slightly, as does any other finish used on it. That’s actually not so much darkening the wood as bringing out its natural color by “wetting” the surface. Nevertheless, wood that is finished and repeatedly polished with beeswax will gradually darken over time. White beeswax slows this process.
Wax is not heat proof though; therefore is probably not the ideal finish to use on outdoor furniture, especially for people who live in hot climates. But then, that’s not something that is commonly done. Oils and oil-based stains are often used to protect wood outdoors, if the wood is not painted.
The one drawback to wax is that it can wear off over time. It is not a totally maintenance-free finish. But then, what finish truly is? pretty much any finish needs cleaning occasionally and it’s common to wax varnished furniture in order to maintain the luster. So adding more wax to a piece of furniture that has been waxed before really is no more work.
This “disadvantage” is also an advantage with beeswax though, as any light damage generally affects only the wax finish, rather than the underlying wood. Being a wax finish, it can be repaired in minutes, whereas a varnished or lacquered finish takes much longer to repair
Beeswax Over Other Finishes
Beeswax can also be used as a final finish on top of varnish; much like it is used as a furniture polish. The wax will fill minute scratches that remain in the surface of the varnish, allowing it to be buffed to a higher sheen than the varnish alone, giving more the appearance of a lacquered finish. This is an easy way to rejuvenate a varnish finish, only requiring one microscopically thin layer of wax. Adding additional layers actually doesn’t help, as it doesn’t build up.
When using beeswax, the wax should be applied with a soft, lint-free cloth. The idea isn’t to build up a heavy finish, as it would be with varnish or epoxy; but rather to use the minimal amount of wax necessary to achieve the desired luster. Most of the wax being applied is actually rubbed off.
Use the cloth to pick up a small dab of beeswax out of its container and then rub it into the wood, spreading it as far as it will go. Unlike paint, there’s no need to build up enough finish to cover the existing grain. Rather, the idea is to bring out the grain; so less is actually more. Once the wax is applied, wipe off excess with a clean cloth. The wax can either be buffed by hand or with a buffing pad on a random-orbital sander.
Applying Beeswax Finish
Beeswax can be applied as a sole finish to wood. When doing this, keep in mind that the wax will be soaking into the wood’s pores, so it will be necessary to use more wax. Use the color of the wood to gauge when more wax is needed, as the wax will be bringing out the grain, which tends to darken it.
Before applying the wax, the workpiece needs to be sanded smooth; but not too smooth. This isn’t the time for 600 grit sandpaper. Rather, sand it, using nothing finer than about 120 grit sandpaper and then raise the grain by rubbing over it with a damp cloth. Then sand it again lightly, removing the lifted fibers. If a stain is to be applied, do it at this point, before applying the beeswax finish.
When applying beeswax finishes onto carved wood or molding, the trick is getting it down inside the low points on the carving. This can be difficult with a cloth, so a soft toothbrush can be useful. Allow the wax a few minutes to dry after application and before rubbing it down. There will undoubtedly be some wax that sticks down in the crevices and low points in the carving, building up higher there than in other parts, but that’s not a problem.
Beeswax can also be tinted, allowing for it to be used for antiquing furniture or creating other finish effects. A white-tinted beeswax will provide a very quick and easy “pickled pine” effect on raw wood. sanding with a medium sandpaper or using a handheld wire brush on the surface of the wood will open up the pores, allowing them to absorb more wax and therefore more of the tint.
For antiquing, two contrasting colors of wax or wax and a stain can be used together, with one color filling in the low points and the other color on the high points on carved surfaces or moldings. Apply one color first, being sure to cover the entire surface and then the other is either used just to hit the high points or is applied to everything and then just rubbed off the high points. Part of the charm of this is the imperfections in how evenly the finish is rubbed off, making the antiquing process look more authentic, as if the piece is actually old.
Tinted waxes also work for restoring old varnished finish, which tend to crack. In this case, the preference is to use a wax that is tinted close to the color of the piece of furniture being refurbished. A light-colored wax on a walnut table will make those hairline cracks in the finish stand out; while a dark-colored wax will not only blend in, but enhance the look of the wood’s grain.
Making Beeswax Finish
While there are a number of manufacturers who provide beeswax finishes, including some who specialize in it, there’s also the possibility of making beeswax finish at home. This gives the woodworker the ability to make a finish that best suits their needs and working style, taking into account how heavy bodied the wax is, as well as any tinting requirements.
There are several different recipes out there for making beeswax polish, but they basically all say the same thing. The idea is to mix the beeswax with some sort of oil. This can be turpentine, food grade oils, linseed oil, or animal oils. But for the most part, mineral oil is the best for the money, while also being able to be used on projects that will be in contact with food.
To make the polish, start by melting ¼ cup of beeswax in a double boiler. Beeswax melts at 144 to 147°F, so not a lot of heat is needed. Once the wax has melted, add in ¾ cup of oil and gently stir until the two have fully homogenized. A few drops of lemon, lavender or other scented essential oil can be added as well, providing a nice aroma to the pieces that the wax is used on. Once melted and mixed, pour the wax finish into a wide-mouthed glass jar and allow it to sit two to three hours to cool and solidify. When solidified, it should have the consistency of lip balm.