My daughter Katherine has been making a linseed oil and beeswax finish as fast as she possibly can for the last few weeks. And she has been selling out within minutes of posting the jars for sale. As always, I am happy to share any recipes I can so you can make this at home. It’s not difficult. This finish was developed with some advice from Jeff Stafford, a woodworker and finisher in Indianapolis. The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall.
My favorite clear finish for chairs is a combination of linseed oil, beeswax and a little bit of citrus solvent. It is easy to apply, safe and is a lustrous finish that does not make a film barrier between you and the chair. It is easily renewed or repaired by adding more finish. This finish works for woods of all colors – from maple to walnut. It will add a yellow/orange cast to light-colored woods. So if you want a whiter finish, use soap instead.
You can buy a linseed oil and wax finish from many suppliers. Some of them are reasonably priced; others are extraordinarily expensive. I make my own because it’s easy and cheap, and because I am in control of the entire process.
I buy beeswax from Bulk Apothecary, which sells raw ingredients for people who make personal-care products. A pound of beeswax pellets costs anywhere from $5 to $10, depending on how much you order. A pound of beeswax pellets is about four cups by volume.
You can also get it from beekeepers, which is where I got mine for many years. The upside: it’s usually inexpensive or free. The downside: you need to refine it to get the insect parts out.
The second ingredient is raw linseed oil – not the commercial boiled linseed oil (BLO) at hardware stores. BLO has toxic metallic driers and is not what you want for this recipe. Raw linseed oil is also available from most hardware stores, but sometimes you have to ask them to order it for you. I pay about $10 for 32 ounces (four cups by volume).
People will tell you that raw linseed oil never dries. They are misinformed. Linseed is a drying oil. It takes some time for it to fully cure, but if you apply it correctly you can sit in your chair after a couple hours of applying this finish.
The third ingredient is just a bit of citrus solvent (limonene). The solvent loosens the mixture so it is more of a soft wax (like a lightweight peanut butter) and not a bar of soap. You can buy limonene from a variety of sellers and pay anywhere from $1 per ounce to $13 an ounce. I usually pay about $21 for 16 ounces (32 tablespoons). In total, a batch of this finish costs about $7 to $20 to make and will finish more than 10 chairs.
Linseed Oil & Wax Finish Recipe
2 cups (16 ounces by volume) of raw linseed oil
3/4 cup beeswax
2 tablespoons limonene
I make this finish in a metal quart paint can from the hardware store. Place the metal can on a hotplate, fill the can with the raw linseed oil and turn on the hotplate to between low and medium. Monitor the temperature with a cooking thermometer. Beeswax melts at 151° (F). As soon as the temperature of the oil reaches 151°, pour the beeswax pellets and limonene into the oil. Stir with a stick until the beeswax melts (it takes less than a minute). Turn off the hotplate and remove the mixture from heat.
Allow it to cool. It will become a paste after about an hour of cooling. Seal. You can use it immediately or keep it indefinitely.
Katherine spent the weekend making more non-toxic Soft Wax 2.0, and it is now for sale in her etsy store.
Shown above is Kitty, the oldest of our five cats. And you can see, Kitty is out of craps to give. But she still loves Katherine and Lucy (I am tolerated).
This Soft Wax is my favorite finish for chairs, and I use it on a lot of other projects when I was a low-luster finish that doesn’t create a film between me and the wood.
And yes, this stuff is safe enough that you can use it on your beard. More instructions below!
Instructions for Soft Wax 2.0
Soft Wax 2.0 is a non-toxic finish for bare wood that is incredibly easy to apply and imparts a beautiful low luster to the wood.
The finish is made by cooking raw, organic linseed oil (from the flax plant) and combining it with cosmetics-grade beeswax and a small amount of a citrus-based solvent. The result is that this finish can be applied without special safety equipment, such as a respirator. The only safety caution is to dry the rags out flat you used to apply before throwing them away. (All linseed oil generates heat as it cures, and there is a small but real chance of the rags catching fire if they are bunched up while wet.)
Soft Wax 2.0 is an ideal finish for pieces that will be touched a lot, such as chairs, turned objects and spoons. The finish does not build a film, so the wood feels like wood – not plastic. Because of this, the wax does not provide a strong barrier against water or alcohol. If you use it on countertops or a kitchen table, you will need to touch it up every once in a while. Simply add a little more Soft Wax to a deteriorated finish and the repair is done – no stripping or additional chemicals needed.
Soft Wax 2.0 is not intended to be used over a film finish (such as lacquer, shellac or varnish). It is best used on bare wood. However, you can apply it over a porous finish, such as milk paint.
APPLICATION INSTRUCTIONS (VERY IMPORTANT): Applying Soft Wax 2.0 is so easy if you follow the simple instructions. On bare wood, apply a thin coat of soft wax using a rag, applicator pad, 3M gray pad or steel wool. Allow the finish to soak in about 15 minutes. Then, with a clean rag or towel, wipe the entire surface until it feels dry. Do not leave any excess finish on the surface. If you do leave some behind, the wood will get gummy and sticky.
The finish will be dry enough to use in a couple hours. After a couple weeks, the oil will be fully cured. After that, you can add a second coat (or not). A second coat will add more sheen and a little more protection to the wood.
Soft Wax 2.0 is made in small batches in Kentucky using a waterless process. Each glass jar contains 8 oz. of soft wax, enough for two chairs.
Years ago I was in England with Roy Underhill (no, this is not a Penthouse letter), and we had to walk from our hotel to a restaurant to meet Peter Follansbee (I know this sounds like a woodworker’s wet dream, but, well… OK it was).
It was a long walk, and we had to pass through some woods and walk by a canal. And during the entire walk, Roy is pointing out all the names of the trees and plant life. “That’s a Grimblethorne – punicus polifficus! And look at the size of that Shandyback Fufflenewt tree – you never see them in a stand of three like that. Did you know the Fufflenewt tree was an important player in the Battle of Hastings? And that its bark was ground down in former times to use as a poultice for people suffering from dingleworm?”
And then I realized: I know almost nothing about living trees, except for the obvious species – oak, maple, walnut, locust, cherry. When my kids ask me: “What kind of tree is that?” My standard answer is: “Let’s kill it, and I can tell you.”
If you are like me, there is help for this problem. I recently found an app called Picture This that identifies plant life, and it really, really works. I’ve toyed around with a lot of other apps that identify trees, and none has made me happy.
Picture This is expensive for an app – $30 a year. But during the past week it has brought me more joy than even the weather radar app on my phone (ask Megan about how much I love my radar). I have spent many mornings identifying all the trees and bushes in our Covington neighborhood. And then reading more about them through the app.
Picture This also does a lot of other things that don’t interest me, such as diagnosing plant diseases and suggesting how to care for them. Sorry people, I still just want to kill trees.
The interface is pretty easy to use. While inside the app you point the phone’s camera at the tree and press a button. In a couple seconds it identifies the plant and spits out a bunch of information about it, including how to care for it, where the species grows, poems about it, symbolism it is associated with, etc. etc.
If you think I’m full of it, you can try the app free for seven days.
— Christopher Schwarz
Disclaimer: Nobody paid me for this blog entry. I bought the app with my own damn money. Blah, blah, blah.
The first batch of our new dividers are in the store and ready to ship. They are $110 plus domestic shipping.
These dividers are a top-to-bottom redesign of the tool. Lots has changed. They still work great, but they are built with a different aesthetic. Instead of being polished a near-perfect finish, these dividers are finished minimally off the mill. They are matte gray and there are small tool marks in evidence of how they were made. Our goal was to have the tool resemble what you would get from Stanley (or other top-line makers) in the early 20th century – not a custom tool.
But boy do they work well.
A special thanks here to mechanical designer Josh Cook and machinist/mad scientist Craig Jackson for figuring out how to make these just like we intended, and at an affordable price (for a small-batch U.S. manufacturer).
If we sell out, don’t despair, we’re making a lot more.
Editor’s note: The following is a short excerpt from “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall. Among all the how-to chapters in my books, I always try to add some chapters that add a psychological or historical dimension to the Part-A-into-Slot-B stuff. This is one of those chapters.
— Christopher Schwarz
With all the woodworking information available for free these days, it seems unlikely that there are still trade secrets amongst us.
But during 15 years of working with professional woodworkers to get their work published in a magazine, I had a lot of conversations that went like this:
“What kind of dye is that?” I’d ask.
“What brand? And what is the name of the color?” I’d ask.
There were also many techniques that were off-limits. The woodworker would say something like: “This is how I teach it, but it is not how I do it.”
These encounters troubled me. I thought all the secrecy stuff had died off with the European guilds. But apparently, I was wrong. In many ways, I sympathized with the professional. He or she was fighting a horde of amateurs who were willing to undercut the prices of the pros. Why should a professional offer aid or comfort to this amateur enemy?
On the other hand, as woodworker W. Patrick Edwards says, “To die with a secret is a sin.” How will the craft progress if we don’t share what we know?
As I plunged deep into chairmaking in the early 2000s, I found myself stymied by some operations relating to compound geometry. The techniques published in the books seemed entirely too awkward compared to what I knew about pre-industrial woodworking. There had to be a simpler way to do these difficult operations.
I took some chairmaking classes. These helped, but I felt like either:
The teacher was also finding his way in the dark.
They didn’t really want to tell me how they did it.
In 2010, I took a Windsor chairmaking course with Mike Dunbar at The Windsor Institute, along with my father and John Hoffman, my business partner. Dunbar, now retired from the school, had built a chairmakers’ terrarium. You started with the class on making a sack-back chair. Then you moved on to other chair forms. If you wanted to make chairs for a living, you could receive training on business, sales and marketing from Mike’s spouse, Susanna. Plus, the Dunbars, their employees and affiliates supplied students with tools, patterns and wood for amateur and professional chairmakers.
It was an impressive operation. Mike and his assistants were there at every step to help you move forward on your chair. The lectures were funny. The workshop itself was gorgeous.
There was one problem, however. The class materials. At the top of the handouts for the class was this warning:
Our students are authorized to use these materials for the making of chairs for personal use and for the making of chairs for sale. We do not authorize the dissemination, reproduction, or publication of these materials in any form and strictly prohibit the use of the materials in the teaching of chairmaking to others.
Again, I felt that same old conflict. There is the urge to protect what you know. But that same urge has caused a lot of knowledge to be stockpiled in the cemeteries.
During my week at The Windsor Institute, I filled a red notebook with all the details of constructing a sack-back chair. I also kept all the handouts from the class in a green folder – both now in my bookcase.
However, I never consult them. I’m almost afraid to read them because they might give me some ideas for making chairs that I am not allowed to pass on to others.
OK, wait a minute. I’ll be right back.
Good news, everyone. I went through the class materials and notes, and I didn’t find anything that was universally mind-blowing. Most of the juicy bits in my notes related to how to build that specific sack-back chair. Whew. I’m glad I don’t build sack backs.
Giving away knowledge has always been a part of my personality. I don’t like secrets. While it would be easy to assign that trait to my time as a newspaper journalist, I know it goes back much further. In fact, I remember the moment I became this way.
In 1977 I was in fourth grade at the local Lutheran school. That year, some of the kids in the higher grades were permitted to dissect sharks for biology class. So, one day when we were called for an assembly in the school’s common area, I hoped (against hope) we were going to see some shark guts or something cool.
Instead, there was some old dude standing in the center of the room, holding a regular piece of paper. We all sat down on the carpet around him, legs crossed. Waiting for the boring session about a dull piece of paper to begin.
“Let’s say we live in a world where ‘corners’ are the most valuable thing in the whole world. Can you imagine that?”
“Yeah, but I can also imagine some crazy dissected shark fetuses.”
“How many corners does this sheet of paper have? Yes? You? Why yes, you are correct! This sheet of paper has four corners!”
“You know what has more corners? Shark teeth. Rows and rows of flesh-ripping corners.”
“Now, what if a friend of yours came up to you and was really, really sad. Sad that she didn’t have a single corner in the whole world.”
“So, my friend is a circle?”
“What would you do? You don’t want to give up one of your corners. Because then you’d have fewer corners. But you feel really bad for your friend. And so, you decide to give her one of your corners.”
Then the guy holds up the sheet of paper. He rips off one of the corners and gives it to a kid in the front row. Suddenly I’m transfixed.
“Oh look, I gave up one of my precious corners. But now I have five corners instead of four. That’s strange, don’t you think?
“Then, another friend asks for a corner because he has none.
“Another one? How can I lose yet another corner?
“But I decide again to give up one of my precious corners.”
Rip. He hands a corner of paper to me.
“And look. Now I have six corners instead of five!”
The guy continues to rip corners off the sheet of paper and hand them out, increasing the number of corners with every rip.
No one had ever explained generosity to me in those terms before. And though I was only 9 years old (and I still haven’t seen a dissected shark), I was a different person from that day forward. Giving stuff away – money, time, possessions, corners, knowledge – always results in getting something greater back in return. The more I give away, the more I receive.
To this day, however, I sympathize with people who hoard their knowledge out of caution or fear. When you are in a dying profession such as woodworking, giving up your hard-won know-how seems like suicide.
But here’s what I’ve found. If the stuff you know is really good – truly excellent – you could end up like Garrett Hack, Christian Becksvoort or David Charlesworth. Amateurs and professionals will pay to learn what you know through classes. Publishers will pay for you to write it down. You might have a tip or trick named after you.
Or you can remain that bitter man in his shop up on the hill. Perhaps you know how to make buttons for attaching tables to their tabletops in one amazing swish on the table saw. But you aren’t performing that trick for just anybody.
It’s a great trick. One that could change the way everyone works in their shop in the entire world. Right? There’s only one way to find out.
The following chapters detail how I build stick chairs. I’ve tried to include every “corner” that I’ve acquired since I first started building these chairs. Also, I’ve tried to give credit to the people who taught me the trick or the operation.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few good tricks and the names of some chairmaking friends who have shared their knowledge along the way. If so, I apologize.
My hope is that you will refine these operations and make them simpler, easier and foolproof. And when someone asks you how you make your sticks or your arms or your legs, you’ll be willing to rip off one of your own corners and give it away.