One of the themes in “The Anarchist’s Design Book” is about how I have turned my back on modern finishes that – even with precautions – are harmful to your health. During the last four years I’ve moved almost exclusively to using shellac, wax, milk paint and soap.
I’m no evangelist; if you like precat lacquer and other similar finishes stick with them (for as long as they are legal). I’m simply trying to say: There are alternatives to these finishes that work very well in an amateur or professional shop.
One of the recipes I didn’t have room for in the book was “soft wax,” a concoction I got via Derek Jones that originated with Yannick Chastain. I’ve made several batches of this stuff and love it for interiors, especially drawers and cabinets.
It smells fantastic – much more exotic that you would think with these basic ingredients. You can read Derek’s entire method here.
Here’s the recipe converted to Standard American.
Take 7 ounces of shredded beeswax and melt it in a double boiler (a glue pot will work fine). When the wax has melted, take it off heat. Stir in 3.5 ounces of mineral spirits and add 10.5 ounces of turpentine (the real stuff, not the fake).
When the mixture cools it will become a substance that is about the consistency of peanut butter. I keep it in glass jars in the shop.
Apply the wax with a soft, lint-free cloth. Let it absorb for about 15 minutes. Then buff it with a second clean cloth.
Oh, and if you need really good beeswax, see this entry in my gift guide.
— Christopher Schwarz
43 thoughts on “A Recipe You Should Try: ‘Soft Wax’”
Google “empty make up tins” for fancy containers. You can even print your own labels too!
You might talk to Kerry Pierce. He almost died of cancer that the doctors blamed on exposure to mineral spirits. I do think you are on the right track in trying to eliminate harmful finishes from your repertoire. I am looking forward to your new book.
I have talked to Kerry. What he said to me is that it is his belief that mineral spirits caused the cancer. And he admitted to “bathing” in it. Kerry said his doctor wouldn’t say it was the mineral spirits.
I have not seen an MSDS that shows it as a carcinogen. That said, it is a toxin and you should use gloves and a well-ventilated area. But I won’t jump on this particular bandwagon.
Not clear on why you need to use mineral spirits instead of using all turpentine (which would seem to avoid the problem Martino23 notes)? That would smell better, too…
Derek’s soft wax recipe is excellent. I used it to lubricate the tray runners for my Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and 12 months later they still run smoothly after only that one coat of wax.
I’m just curious: Do you mix your own shellac, and if so, do you use denatured ethanol or Everclear?
I mix my own shellac. Always have. Premixed shellac is like buying a Stouffer’s lasagne.
But here’s the funny part: I don’t have an alcohol problem. I have used both methanol and ethanol blends with no appreciable difference. If the flakes are good (I use Tiger Flakes from Tools for Working Wood), the alcohol will do its job of dissolving them and evaporating away.
I am sure that using everclear will help with marginal flakes. But I haven’t found a problem with all the home center brands.
I bought a pound of blonde flakes year ago, and they wouldn’t dissolve beyond a soft goopy mess at the bottom of the jar. I’ve been hesitant to mix my own shellac again because at least Zinnser is predictable. But it must have been a bad batch. Just annoying as hell because they aren’t cheap.
I’ll admit, on occasion, a Stouffer’s lasagna can be tasty. Like cheap Mexican food or a Coors Light.
This is a traditional wax that I and many other woodworkers have used for years. It is much easier to melt the wax in a microwave using a medium heat setting. I do not find I need to add any mineral spirits. You can add up to 30% by weight of carnauba wax which makes it harder and then very suitable for lubricating drawer runners or plane soles. I use pure distilled turpentine as the smell is wonderful and it does not give headaches to people who get them from undistllled. You can buy this from artist suppliers. Melt the waxes first then stir in the turpentine and continue stirring until almost set. Turps is flammable so do not add near a naked flame. Ensure the wax is stored in an airtight screw top glass container. Best applied with a “rubber” but with rather coarser weave fabric than used for shellac. When used as a furniture polish allow to dry and harden overnight before buffing. It can also be used to give a parade ground “spit and polish” shine to leather goods particularly with the maximum carnauba wax.
A slightly similar wax was developed by the British Museum to treat leather bound books. It makes the leather very soft. Anhydrous lanolin 25 gms, beeswax 2 gms, pure cedar wood oil 4 mls, distilled turpentine 15 mls. Cut back on the lanolin and increase the beeswax to use with stiffer leather such as belts. The cedar wood oil is biocidal so helps stop mildew etc.
I will try anything that comes out of yannick chastang’s shop or head. That guy is amazing.
Chris, are these amounts by weight? Or volume? Thanks!
Thanks …that’s what I was going to ask..
Am I understanding right that this is a polish? Would you use it in lieu of paste wax? To renew a wax coating?
Yup. I use it over paint or other base finishes.
Why did you not include boiled linseed oil as an acceptable finish? I mean the real kind, without the metallic driers.
I use that, too. Mostly for shop stuff. It seems to need more maintenance than other historical finishes (unless you go full gunsmith).
My go-to wax – both for polishing, for leather and long-term tool protection is:
1/3 Bees wax
1/3 Pine turpentine (balsam turpentine)
1/3 Cold-pressed Linseed Oil (I use either Albäcks which has had its proteins removed – which I think you can get in the US as well, or pure, cold-pressed that I have sun-bleached in my window sill).
All by volume-ish. I really haven’t noticed any difference from batch to batch though I just pour it in by eye.
Melt bee’s wax on low heat, take off heat, put in oil, put in turpentine, swish it around and pour into a suitable glass.
It’s a very traditional Scandinavian blend.
A bit harder when cool than a commercial paste wax. I guess you could add some carnauba wax to make it even harder/more durable.
Since the linseed is not BLO it dries slower, but here that only means it gets a chance to penetrate deeper before drying, and it never leaves blotches. The Turpentine seems to get held in the wax, so it smells of pine for a few minutes after application, then it’s odourless.
This oil is great for baking on steel as well (as in the recent benchcrafted method).
It’s a very, very cheap, and natural recipe.
So buy some good oil, some good wax and some good turpentine. It’s worth it.
I made a similar mix (with slightly less turps) to use as a waterproofer for my filson.
I use this recipe too. It works as well on leather as it does on woodwork.
This is the go to product that has been used on wood and metal for centuries. I use it on almost everything. It was even used to make raincoats water proof.
If you’re looking for a durable topcoat that’s a little less nasty than the usual suspects, I’ve been having really good luck with Vermont Natural Coatings Polywhey. It’s very low in VOC’s and applies well by hand or by brush, though the best results tend to be many, very thin coats applied by hand. It rubs out to a glassy surface. Dries as fast (even faster, it seems) as shellac without pulling and running like shellac can and self levels quite well. I’ve used it successfully as a toner with W.D. Lockwood Metal Complex powder dyes, although I usually apply it w/o dye over dewaxed shellac because I like the warmth shellac adds . I’ve also applied paste wax or paraffin on top of it either for a little extra scratch resistance or for things like drawer runners. The only thing I’m unsure of is ease of repair. I guess I should ding up a sample piece and see how well an extra few coats hides the dings, but they use another version of this as a floor finish and it’s held up well in projects I’ve used it on so far. I’d love to see if it sprays well. For that matter, I’d love to have a sprayer!
What is the shelf life of this in a heat controlled shop?
It will keep indefinitely but I find I use it up quickly because it is so good.
This recipe is functionally indistinguishable from paste wax purchased at the hardware or grocery store, a product type of which I have a variety of excellent iterations on my shelf.
Regarding the issues of toxicity: my understanding is that yes, mineral spirits and all related hydrocarbons including naphtha are not something to be used carelessly. But the literature is pretty clear that short of acute overdose (generally through literally drinking it) it seems the biggest concern for chemicals in this class (known as paraffins) is through long-term low-to-moderate levels of exposure. If I recall correctly, the definitive study of this issue involved commercial ship painters who used oil paints in closed spaces for years or even decades. In those cases there was an elevated incidence of peripheral neuropathy, or decreased sensitivity and facility with toes and fingers. In short the long term health issue was numbness and dexterity in fingers and toes. I know of no prominent studies identifying paraffins as primary carcinogens (causes cancer), teratogens (causes tumors), or mutagens (causes birth defects).
On the other hand, turpentine is, for a substantial fraction of the population, among the most virulent allergens you are likely to encounter. The manifestation of this allergic reaction ranges from mild discomfort of burning eyes or nasal passages to screaming, spike in the eye headaches, to almost leprosy-like dermatitis (I have experienced the former and witnessed the latter).
I’ll leave a discussion of alcohols, for another time. It is a huge and important topic.
Totally agree with you, I used this recipe for years and now banned mineral spirit and turpentine and switched to organic thinner mostly based on orange oil.
While turpentine substitute is an oil based substance real turpentine is 100% organic and comes from pine trees – thats why I like using it on wood.
I suspect the paste waxes sold at my hardware store (Johnson’s etc.) have a different wax mixture. They’re much much harder and don’t buff out as easily. So I do see a difference.
Is there a commercial brand that is 100 percent beeswax? If so, we don’t have it in our neck of the woods.
True, the wax blend is different in most commercial paste waxes, as is the solvent blend. Regardless, they are all high-solids/ultra-low-viscosity (read: zero) solutions whose technique of use is identical. That is why I used the phrase “functionally indistinguishable,” if I implied that they were “performance indistinguishable” I apologize. They are not.
The only sorta commercially available soft 100% beeswax that I recall is Clapham’s, which is a Pacific Northwest regional brand (Vancouver-ish?). Certainly the topic of wax finishes will be dealt with *extensively* in “The Historic Finisher’s Manual” or whatever it will be titled in the end. Stay tuned.
“…The only sorta commercially available soft 100% beeswax that I recall is Clapham’s, which is a Pacific Northwest regional brand (Vancouver-ish?)…”
I believe “Heritage Finishes” blends several soft “beeswax” finishes, as I suggested before. They work wonderfully…in concert with other modalities or by themselves…One can also just get the raw materials from them and blend themselves…
as I try to not use any polys or any other smelly stuff. I love the chalk paint made with latex paint and plaster of Paris and water.but you still need to wax it, I don’t like the store bought stuff. so I will be making this. never thought to use it in draws and inside of cabinets thanks for the tip.
What is a good source for “real” turpentine (as opposed to fake turpentine)?
I am sure I (et al) have brought this up before…
All I have used for thirty years in the way of my predominant finish is a blend of (food grade) flax oil, tung oil, pine rosine, beeswax, and citrus oil. Variations in the amounts render harder or softer finishes. I have never seen a reason to use “modern finishes.” The belief these modern finishes are “more durable” or “better” is shear subjective fallacy in so many ways it is often comical to read what manufacturers claim. Modern industry has yet to truly create paints and finishes superior (in most ways) to anything found in history. Heritage Finishes has been blending these natural materials for decades…and they play very nice with milk, lime, and egg based paints. The range of blends and applications of these natural materials is virtually boundless…
How ran you tell the real turpentine from the fake? Mine comes from an art supply store, but it’s the only place I ever bought some, so I can’t compare. I’m not especially fond of the smell.
Perhaps switch to citrus oils…??
This maybe more pleasant to work with, as it seems to be for many.
“Fake” has turpentine substitute on label. Pure says 100% pure distilled turpentine – its smell is not to everyones taste.
I have considered it before, and I’m still thinking about it. I use it to thin the varnish that I use, but I’m afraid of compatibility or drying issues. And at 40$ for an ounce of varnish, I’m tempted to stick with what works!
This was meant to be a reply to the above comment by Jay C. White Cloud.
Errr…Ummm…If “turp” works for you that’s great, but it can be less pleasant (subjective I suppose?) than citrus oil that works just as well, and perhaps better…Perhaps get some of both (quality forms that is) and compare??…I switched to citrus years ago, over turp…whenever at all possible…
Thank you! I still have a can of Johnson paste wax to get through. Now I am afraid to read the label.
I am interested in a small commissioned project, if you can take one on.
Johnson & Johnson publishes their wax formula here:
It’s nice they give us enough information to help us decide for ourselves. If Minwax has this, I couldn’t easily find it, the same for Briwax. I’ll stay away from them.
I do like Chris’s suggestion to use a soft wax, can’t wait to try it.
I came across this wax recipe back in the late 80’s from a Dover reprint of “The Cabinet Maker’s Guide”, ca.1827. I used it on a couple of projects, and was generally happy with it. I don’t know why I got away from it, probably just because pre-fab finishes are easier. But after reading this I’m going to mix some up and give it another shot.
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