The more I use soap finish, the happier I am with it. But many woodworkers are skeptical. And I applaud that. For too long companies have tried to sell us this, that or the other as the “miracle” finish that is easy to apply and will leave furniture looking like glass.
Well I don’t want my furniture looking like glass. I want it to be subtle and understated.
That’s where soap comes in. It leaves a flat-sheen surface that is soft to the touch. And it’s easily maintained. Today I noticed the top of this 48” x 48” worktable was getting a little scruffy. I whipped out the jar of soap and rubbed some on. Five minutes later I wiped off the excess and the top looked like new again.
My daughter Katy has an entrepreneurial spirit that is similar to when I started selling “bark jewelry” to neighborhood kids at age 10. Unlike me, Katy is committed to making something useful.
During the last few months, Katy and I have been making soft wax, packaging it in 4 oz. tins and selling it in the Lost Art Press storefront. We sold out of her first batch and have been busily making more this month so we can offer it online.
What is soft wax? It’s a traditional beeswax that is mixed with a significant quantity of solvents to create a wax that is soft and dissolves easily into raw wood. It is best used on the insides of drawers or casework. It imparts a softness and a smell that is pleasing. It also helps lubricate drawers and even wooden vise screws in the workshop.
How do you use it? Easy. Wipe the wax on with a clean cloth. The wax will absorb quickly into raw wood. After five minutes, buff the area with a clean cloth. You are done.
The beeswax provides a thin layer of protection against stains and spills. The solvents (particularly the Georgia turpentine we use) imparts a complex and earthy smell to the work.
All the soft wax is made here in my shop in Fort Mitchell with Katy in control. We melt the cosmetic-grade beeswax in a double boiler so it never reaches more than 140° (F). Then she adds the solvents and dispenses the wax into the metal containers using a turkey baster.
After the wax cools, Katy cleans the containers, adds the lid and affixes the label, which she designed herself.
Each tin is $12 plus domestic shipping.
While we hope you will try the soft wax, the bigger hope is that you will see its value and make it for yourself. That’s why we provide the recipe we use here. It easy to make.
If you are interested in trying soft wax before you make some yourself, Katy’s etsy store can be accessed here. She’s made about 40 tins in the last couple weeks. If we sell out, she’ll make more.
Thanks in advance for your business and your patience as Katy launches her first business.
In “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” one appendix is devoted to milk paint. As Chris notes there are plenty of milk paint recipes from the 1800s and provides a reference from 1836, “The Painter’s, Guilder’s and Varnisher’s Manuel…” by Henry Carey Baird. I thought 1836 was rather a late date. And I wondered if there was a recipe that was accepted as a standard and when the recipe came into use in America.
In 1774, an updated edition of “L’Art du Peinture, Doreur, Vernisseur” by Watin was published. This book took an orderly approach to the painting arts compared to the many ragtag publications that covered trade secrets that ranged from royal cake recipes to how to do your laundry.
About 20 years later, Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux, a French chemist (and friend to Ben Franklin), was experimenting with the distemper recipes in Watin’s book. He published his findings in “Feuille de Cultivateur” around 1793. This was followed by “Memoire sur la peinture au lait” published in 1800 or 1801 (depending on which month it was in the French Republic Calendar at the time of publication). Cadet de Vaux noted that his previous recipe was published at a time of public misfortune (the Revolution) and a time of shortages. Although distemper paint was inexpensive the cost and shortages of linseed oil led him to use milk instead.
In “Memoire,” Cadet de Vaux describes the advantages of milk paint compared to distemper: milk paint was cheaper, the recipe was not heated, it dried fast, did not smell of size or oil and when rubbed with a coarse cloth the paint did not come off. The recipe consisted of skimmed milk, fresh slaked lime, oil of caraway, linseed or nut oil and Spanish white. He explains that the “skimmed milk has lost its butyraceous part, but retains its cheesy part.” The cheesy part acts as a kind of glue and gives the mixture an elasticity.
Cadet de Vaux also provides a milk paint recipe for exterior work. In 1801, “Memoire” was translated and published in London in “The Repertory of Arts and Manufacters,” and you can read the recipe and the butyraceous remark here.
Cadet de Vaux’s recipe was repeated in “The Painter’s and Varnisher’s Guide…” by P. F. Tingry (a Swiss chemist) in 1804. Many more editions of painting and varnishing manuals with various titles and translations followed. Cadet de Vaux’s recipe appears to be the standard.
Somewhere around 1803-1808, milk paint recipes appeared in articles and almanacs in New York and New England and for the most part were from the English translation of Cadet de Vaux’s “Memoire.”
Now I get to write my favorite command in Franglish, “Fetchez la vache!”
Every time I build a tool chest for a customer or during a class, someone asks me this question: Why are you going to paint over all those beautiful dovetails?
My answer: Because it’s the best finish for a tool chest.
Historically, most tool chests were painted. I think I’ve seen only a dozen that have avoided the brush. And most of those were shop queens. But that’s not why I paint all my chests. Blindly obeying the historical record isn’t my thing. While the historical record usually wins, I am willing to question it.
So here is my propaganda paper on paint.
It is the most durable of all finishes. Good paint is nearly impervious to UV light. It forms a tough film that readily resists water, abrasion and other shop mishaps.
Unlike other finishes, paint looks better (not worse) after abuse. This is opinion, but a battered, torched and gouged paint finish looks awesome.
It is easily repaired – just add paint. With most modern finishes, repairing damage is difficult. Say you finish your chest with varnish or polyurethane. After a year of hard knocks and water damage it will look like something at a church tag sale. Fixing those clear film finishes is usually difficult. Fixing a paint finish is easy. Just add paint. (Note: Shellac, lacquer and wax are more easily repaired than varnishes, but they also are easily damaged.)
Paint reveals the form. Many modern woodworkers love the look of natural wood. I agree that the wood’s figure can really enhance a piece. But the figure can also be distracting or detrimental to the form. Because of all the dovetails and wild figure, the form of the piece can get lost. Paint reveals the silhouette.
A good paint job isn’t the easy way out. When I use clear finishes, I spray them on. So I can finish a big piece of furniture in a morning. Not so with paint. Choosing to paint a piece adds two or three days to the process. It takes skill and care to do it well.
Expressed joinery isn’t the point. This is another opinion, but when I see lots of exposed dovetail joinery in a piece, I assume the maker is trying to make a point about his or her skill with a saw or a router. So I’ll step back, squint my eyes to blur them and look at the piece again. Are the dovetails the “bread and circuses” of the piece?
It’s your tool chest, so finish it the way you (or your customer) wants. But know that someday, someone is going to take a brush to cover over your crazed, flaked and dented French polish. And that is the moment when your true workmanship will be revealed.