Hard Wax Polish: the original elbow grease


Hard Wax Polish: the original elbow grease:
If the finish outshines the timber it’s time to take action. Derek Jones mixes up a recipe for success with a hard wax polish to rival oils and shellac.

Derek Jones mixes up a recipe for success with a hard wax polish to rival oils and shellac

Long before I got properly acquainted with the wonders of shellac my finishing repertoire consisted of a
large 5L tin of P7 Briwax. The fumes from the petroleum-based solvent would fill the air in the tiny first floor workshop I shared and literally make my head spin. I don’t recall being given any particular instructions as
to how to apply it other than to go with the grain, which as I recall seemed to be the root of every finishing instruction. My remit at the time was to apply the finish coat to stripped pine furniture and I think I got very good at it. I was certainly quick!
As I recall, a fresh tin of wax was not quite as easy to work with as a half tin and an almost empty tin of remnants was so awkward to use it invariably got binned long before it was truly empty. Somewhere
in the middle of that 5L tin was a rich seam of wax of the right consistency that would work easily, leave behind a uniform layer, free from streaks and buff to a decent shine.
The Briwax I remember from back in the early 1980s was a single coat solution designed to turn an anaemic sow’s ear into a bronzed silk purse and there was nothing else like it on the market. The loose consistency meant it would spread easily and if you were quick, you could cover quite large areas before the solvent either evaporated or soaked into the bone dry surface of the wood. You could cover a typical full width drawer from a five drawer chest in a single two-finger scoop.

A definite knack to it
It was always best to avoid overlapping coats of Briwax as the stain in the wax would layer up and leave an uneven surface of stripes or blotches. The only way I found to correct such mistakes was to use a handful of coarse wire wool and rub hard, in the direction of the grain of course. On the few occasions I had cause to strip the wax from the surface completely, none of the paint strippers we had access to at the time seemed to touch it; yellow Nitromors being the most aggressive. This often required intervention from a cabinet scraper, an orbital sander and large quantities of abrasive paper to get back to bare wood.
I haven’t opened a tin of Briwax in the last 30 years so can’t really pass judgement on its qualities today but back then it was something of a one-trick pony, albeit in different shades. You couldn’t, for example, apply it on top of other finishes fearing that the solvent would disturb the underlying finish. I’m sure any antique pine dealer operating today will be able to fill in the gaps if that’s changed.

On open grained timbers like this ropala, one coat of hard wax is enough

Similarly inadequate
The other paste waxes commercially available had a turpentine or white spirit solvent and were generally harder in the tin than Briwax. For show surfaces they were only suitable for use onto an existing finish and weren’t terribly good at effecting much of a change in colour despite their names; dark mahogany, walnut, Jacobean oak, etc. Applying more than one coat usually resulted in a less than satisfactory finish. For the reasons just stated I’ve never really been that enamoured with off-the-shelf waxes preferring latterly to make my own with a range of predictable qualities that are more consistent with my expectations.
The latest blend I’ve been experimenting with is a hard wax polish that’s suitable for use on bare wood and also over an existing finish. I’ve had great results using it over water-based lacquers of different kinds as well as shellac, the former requiring at least five days to fully cure before applying a wax of any kind. Incidentally shellac benefits from being left to harden as well but in a warm workshop and applied in a thin coat generally not as long.
It’s worth pointing out that a hard wax polish is not necessarily harder or more resistant to knocks than a regular paste wax when it’s on the furniture. Neither will it offer any noticeable long term increase in protection from water although initial puddling can minimise the chance of water marks appearing on the surface, which begs the question, why use it at all? Simply put, it’s all about the feel and look of the finish and not the practicalities of the finish itself. Its best attribute being that when used sparingly in a thin layer it’s as if there’s no finish present at all.

French lessons
French polish, or to be more precise a shellac finish, has a reputation for being the king of finishes as, and if done in a particular way, it combines better with the material than any other finish I can think of, with the exception of wax. When we set out to French polish the first stage in the process after any staining is to fill the grain with a slurry that’s created by rubbing the surface with a cloth using a combination of shellac polish and a fine abrasive powder such as pumice. The process is generally referred to as ‘bodying up’ and there are various methods of doing it. Some texts suggest sprinkling the powder onto the surface of the wood while others advise applying it to the cloth. I think there are practical advantages to both methods that are perhaps more related to the nature of the project than the efficacy of one technique over another. It’s hard to sprinkle powder onto a vertical plane for example. Either way the principles are the same, the powder cuts tiny wood particles that combine with the shellac to fill the pores. The result is a surface that’s filled with a perfectly colour matched grain filler, giving rise to an effect that people often describe as being part of the wood itself.

Blood, sweat and patina
Many oil finishes, even ones that cure hard and dry completely, will darken the wood and there are those that continue to do so for a very long time such as linseed.  An alcohol-based finish will not suffer the same consequence, as any change in colour will be attributed to the shellac and not the solvent (even purple meths). And incidentally shellac is affected less by UV light than other finishes so it remains a constant colour for much longer. And we’re talking decades here if not centuries in some cases.
The good news is that natural paste wax shares many of these qualities; non-darkening, low opacity (highly transparent) and good adhesion. The bad news is that it’s not nearly as durable and through use will eventually wear away or combine with everyday grime to form a natural patina.
One traditional method of applying wax is to use a polisoir. This device is a tightly bound core of reed stems that form a dense bristle brush that’s used to apply the wax at the same time as burnishing the surface, and like the bodying up stage in French polishing, embeds the wax into the pores of the timber. This was typically done with raw beeswax and without the use of a solvent; heat generated from the rigorous action being sufficient to soften the wax. It’s hard work and difficult to maintain a uniform shine on large areas especially on close grained timbers. It can also be awkward to apply on small items or delicate sections because of the force required to level the wax and bring about a shine at the same time. 

What the butler and the cabinetmaker saw
My foray into hard wax as a finish came after seeing some examples of 17th century furniture finished with only wax, the way the original makers intended. Some months later I happened to buy a slab of genuine English walnut to make some marking gauges and decided to experiment with a hard wax paste to finish a few samples before deciding on a finish for a complete batch. The results quite nearly brought me to tears because for the first time ever I felt I was experiencing precisely what those craftsmen achieved more than 300 years ago; just wood and wax in all their natural beauty.

Beyond eureka
Although it was possible to fill the grain and get a full shine on the surface with just wax it was taking far too long to make the process commercially viable. To shorten the cycle I mixed up a very dilute solution of shellac sanding sealer from blonde dewaxed shellac and pumice and applied a couple of brush coats to raise the grain prior to sanding with some 400 grit abrasive. The next step was to make a polishing rubber with a core of cotton stockinette wrapped in plain cotton similar to that used in French polishing. The core was doused with white spirit to make it possible to transfer the wax from the jar onto the rubber and keep the bundle from drying out too quickly. The hard wax was rubbed hard across the grain and in circular motions to fill the pores and then straightened off with some light passes to remove any streaks.
I keep a plastic bottle of white spirit fitted with a fine nozzle on hand to moisten the rubber on the fly if things start to get too gunky. The following day the wax was buffed up with a soft cloth then a soft bristle brush. The results were incredible with just one application in most cases but a second really sealed the deal, and the grain.

50g shellac wax or carnauba wax
100g beeswax
150ml white spirit

Weigh your ingredients accurately for best results, 50g shellac wax or carnauba wax

100g beeswax

150ml white spirit

Melt the shellac wax or carnauba wax in a double boiler (bain marie). When it’s clear and completely melted add the beeswax and continue heating until the beeswax has also melted.
Remove the pan from the heat source and slowly pour in the white spirit. Return the pan to the heat if the mixture starts to stiffen and stir with a clean spatula until it becomes clear again. Decant into suitable containers and allow to cool. I’ve used a 50/50 blend of turpentine and white spirit before and the aroma is quite pleasant, to some people. Shellac wax does have a slight bitter smell when it’s melted so if you are blending a wax with a view to introducing a particular scent carnauba is virtually odourless. A more expensive option is to use an odour-free white spirit and add a few drops of a citrus oil or other fragrance.

Start by melting the shellac wax or carnauba wax in a double boiler

When the entire mixture is totally clear it’s ready to decant

Find some suitable containers with air tight lids

Once cooled the wax is hard and ready to use

I’ve found that beeswax is the most variable ingredient in any wax recipe with the more refined ones being softer and generally lighter in colour. In equal measures I’ve found that carnauba produces a harder wax overall than when using shellac wax as the hard wax element. Ultimately there is enough variation in just these three elements to create a number of different wax blends to suit a variety of applications. And if it’s that bespoke finish you’re after then blending your own could be the icing on the cake.


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