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A Word About Wax

There are a lot of misconceptions about what wax is and what it should and should not be used for. This article is only about natural waxes made from natural products. This is what is being applied over many lime-based venetian and other plasters and this is what I would like to address. There are some that are more dangerous than others and is up to the professional to make informed choices about which is best for the job at hand.

I'll try to also write about the new acrylic and urethane trowelable finishes as soon as I can find a knowledgeble chemist to explain them to me.

A natural wax is a solid that will melt below the boiling point of water and can be mixed or reduced with mineral based solvents. Any other claim is incorrect. So-called water-based waxes are acrylic polymer gels with some wax-like properties. "Varnishing Wax" by Polyvine is a varnish with a waxy feel and "Aqua wax" by Faux Effects is a thick polymer gel that will burnish, both are good products but neither is a wax.

You cannot build layers of furniture wax to any measurable degree. The solvent content in these waxes will re-solve each layer. The only thing that will give you an appreciable build up is any added oil paint that has driers in it (like artist oils or japan paint).

I have read articles that claim that "Faux Finishing Wax" distributed by McClosky's is a water-based wax. This is a misconception because of it's low odor. The chemist at H.F. Staples & Co. assured me that their wax is a solvent-based wax. Chemists are as chatty as housepainters as long as you are respectful of their profession and he gave me a good primer on waxes.

A popular finish (which actually has been around for hundreds of years) is "waxed plaster walls". I know that many people have been using the fancy furniture waxes such as Briwax and others because they are quality waxes and are easier to apply/burnish than the cheaper floor paste waxes. These are bad choices for a couple of main reason I will explain.

Many paste furniture waxes contain aromatic solvents such as toluene, zylene and others. These hot solvents are put in as cleaning agents to help break down old layers of wax and dirt and to revitilize wood furniture. Up to 80% of the wax product will evaporate leaving only the waxey residue. That's the problem. You have to breath those nasty solvents up close while doing strenuous work applying and burnishing the wax on large areas. In addition to being hazardous to breath, toulene is readily absorbed through the skin. This isn't so bad when you are working on small furniture but it becomes a big problem when you have to wax hundreds of square feet of wall surfaces. Not to mention all those hot solvent saturated rags ready to go off (spontaneously combust) if they are bunched together.
Besides having aromatic solvents in them, waxes such as Briwax require special hot solvents to remove them if that becomes necessary. These solvents are as dangerous to work with as paint strippers and have to be handled with extreme care.

There are several brands of wax that I am aware of that are designed for easy application and use low-odor solvents for thinning. The venetian stucco wax called CERA put out by Adicolor, the Faux Finishing wax carried with McClosky's products and Liberon's Black Bison Wax. The Adicolor wax has a sweet beeswax smell and is designed for easy wall application and polishing but it does need to be put in the freezer for a few minutes before using in hot weather otherwise it will leave "grease spots". The McClosky wax is more like a soft paste wax but has a very low solvent odor and is easier to apply than the typical floor or bowling alley wax. It can also be found under other names but it is manufactured by the H.F. Staples Co. Black Bison wax has a pleasant odor, remains solid in hot weather, has good build, does not leave "grease spots" and burnishes very easily

All natural waxes can be colored with oil-based paints such as artist oils, japan paints and others. They are also easy to mix with metallic, mica and pigments powders for special effects. A good tip for mixing a cup or more of wax is to use a whisk for smooth blending.

Don't get me wrong...all solvents are bad to inhale, but some are worse than others and will kill you quicker. If it makes your eyes sting and water, more than likely you are using a hot solvent wax and should look for another. I have tried to find Threshold Limit Values on various waxes but none are readily available. Try to limit yourself to no more than 4 hours of waxing a day...even with the low-odor waxes. Keep a positive air flow going in the room with open windows and fans. In winter, use a fitted resperator. Dunk all rags in water and spread out outside to dry.

Dean Sickler

March, 2001

---edited February, 2004---



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— Dean Sickler

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