Wax in Woodturning


Wax in Woodturning:
Mark Palma looks at expanding the use of wax in woodturning.

Applying wax to a sanded surface with a finger. The wax being used is non-toxic

Micro abrading the sanded surface with wax as a lubricant and finish

Wax has been used in woodwork for centuries and this simple substance can serve a valuable
role in the woodturner’s kit. Wax can be a stand-alone finish, a component of a finish, a surface protector to an underlying finish, an enhancer to a piece and a way to help maintain the lathe. Here is an overview of some of these uses. Wax comes from several sources; bees, as a petroleum derivative or from vegetables and nuts. In its natural state wax is a solid and has limited use. Most waxes are a mix of a base wax and
a solvent. Solvent is what is used to dissolve or soften the wax so that it can be applied to the work. When the solvent evaporates, the wax is left on the work.

Wax pros and cons
Why wax?
• Wax is fast, inexpensive, dries in minutes and feels good to the touch.
• Wax is effectively foolproof; it does not sag, run, drip or require personal protective equipment.
• Wax can be applied on the lathe or after work is removed, either as a stand-alone finish or as an enhancement to many other finishes.
• Wax can be used as a sanding lubricant.
• Wax can be used to add colour, enhance grain, instantly ‘age’ a piece or allow a range of expression.
• Wax finishes are renewable, so as the finish wears it can be touched up.
• Wax does not require expensive application equipment. Wax can be applied with steel wool, Scotchbrite pads, rags or paper kitchen towels. A brush, rag, kitchen towel or buffing wheel allows the wax to be brought to various levels of gloss.

A selection of wax finishes

Consider applying wax by hand after the piece has been removed from the lathe. It is safer and the process can allow you to experience how the piece will feel to the recipient. Put on some music and apply wax to a few pieces at once. After they dry for a few minutes take a shoe shine brush or soft cloth to the work and buff out the finish for a soft sheen

Wax can be used as a form of embellishment through the use of coloured waxes. Coloured wax allows you to fill in the pores, grain in certain woods or surface embellishments you added with a splash of colour. Apply the wax sparingly to the work while it is spinning on the lathe. Wipe off immediately with a soft cloth. Sometimes a little oil on the cloth will help soften stubborn wax

Applying wax from a tin does not require any expensive equipment. If you are working on stationary work or off the lathe, charge a cloth with some wax, apply it to your work and store the cloth right in the tin. After a few applications your cloth will become charged with wax and require little additional wax with each use. If you use steel wool to apply wax, a technique that will cut back a glossy finish, dedicate that tin of wax for steel wool only as the steel fibres will contaminate the tin

There are several different tools available to buff out the wax you have applied to your work. Buffing wheels come in several forms. They may be mounted to the lathe, a drill or a dedicated buffing motor. A paintbrush that you have given a ‘haircut’ makes an excellent tool for removing wax build-up from cracks and crevices. A stiff shoe shine brush works well to buff out your work off the lathe

Wax can be used as a sanding lubricant to effectively eliminate sanding dust at the lathe. Dedicate a tin of wax for sanding as the abrasive particles will invariably contaminate the tin. Dip your abrasive in the wax or apply wax to the work and sand away. As the wax is also being used to collect the dust, it will build up on your abrasive and in the grain of the wood you will need to change abrasives more frequently. This method can only be used on timber of a uniform colour. If you have a red coloured heartwood and cream sapwood present you will end up with a red sanding slurry that contaminates the cream sapwood. Please note, the wax and dust mix will remain in the wood and may impact your finish choices. You can add some oil and finish with wax for a great soft finish that is easily repairable

Wax isn’t perfect
• Wax will build up in voids, sanding scratches, cracks, tear out or any surface irregularity. You cannot ‘hide’ bad work under wax!
• Wax isn’t heat resistant, and although somewhat initially water resistant, it is not a durable finish.
• The soft nature of wax allows it to trap dirt. Wax pieces will attract dust in dirty environments.
• Some wax contains silicones. As many finishes do not react well to silicones, using a silicone wax may contaminate your ’shop and future work you do.
• Wax cannot be top coated. It is the last layer to a piece. If you do not like the result, you are probably stuck with it – unless you return or sand back to bare wood – so do not apply wax until you are sure all other finishing is complete.

Wax on raw timber
• Wax has its place, but it isn’t the perfect application alone. Consider oil or sanding sealer as a base coat before appyling wax together.
• Clear wax will not significantly change the colour of wood.
• Be careful when using wax on ‘open grain’ woods, as it will build up in pronounced grain. This build up will remain soft and attract dirt.
• On most woods, wax alone will result in a low sheen and make the piece appear to be raw wood.
• Wax works well on naturally oily woods, such as cocobolo and rosewoods that may be difficult to finish with some surface finishes and oils.
• Wax alone provides minimal protection to the work and is possibly the poorest finish from a strict protection standpoint.

Cocobolo vase by Mark Baker, finished with oil then waxed

Wax tips
• If you use a wax with steel wool – best done off the lathe – leave the steel wool in the can and only use that wax with steel wool. Metal fibres will contaminate the wax and scratch your work when you try to use it with a cloth or for other purposes. You can also sand with wax, but dedicate a tin of wax to sanding as the abrasives will contaminate the tin.
• Some people create a ‘bob’ to apply wax. You can also take a simpler approach. Cut a 75 x 75mm piece of sweatshirt and apply the wax with it. When finished put it in the tin with the wax. It seems to take very little additional wax to freshen this type of ‘bob’ before use. Cloth bobs are great when working on stationary work, but paper kitchen towel is better on work that is spinning on the lathe.
• Find a wax you like and stay with it. Each brand of wax may have different characteristics, solvents, wax formulas or cost.
• Glossy work can be toned down, and dull work can be made slightly shinier with a coat of wax. Paste wax dipped in steel wool can cut down a high gloss finish. This technique can allow you to ‘dial in’ a gloss level to match the look, shape and sheen of your piece into exactly what you want to convey and for the intended use.
• Wax can be used to protect metal surfaces.

A great finish is a function of many steps. Wax can enhance the beauty of a well-executed turned object such as this bowl. Wax will not disguise tear-out, poor sanding or bad finish techniques. However, it can impart a great capstone to the project

Wax – as long as it is silicone free – has other uses beyond your finishing kit. I purchased a table saw in 1990 and the cast-iron top has been maintained with a coat of wax every three months or so. Use wax to maintain your lathe bed, toolrest and even the shafts of turning tools


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