For today's woodworker, a paste wax wood finish of any kind may not be the best choice for protecting woodworking projects. A paste wax wood finish looks great but isn't very protective. It doesn't do much at all to repel water, isn't hard or durable enough to protect the wood from dings and scratches, and with a low melting point of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, wax can easily melt.
Additionally, once the wax is applied, no other current finish can be applied to the project to help protect the look of the wax finish. Attempting to add lacquer, polyurethane, or any other topcoat to a wax finish is futile and can even ruin the piece.
Types of Wax
For centuries, woodworkers have been applying wax finishes to woodworking projects. For most of this time, formulas have centered around beeswax, followed later by slightly more durable varieties based on Carnauba wax—derived from the leaves of a particular type of palm tree. Beeswax is easily obtained and is easy to work with, particularly when it is warmed, but the benefits of using this natural wax are outweighed by the fact that a beeswax finish isn't very protective and must be regularly reapplied.
Paraffins are also inexpensive waxes that come from petroleum sources, but they are more often used in candle-making. Carnauba wax is more commonly found in two other non-woodworking applications: It creates a beautiful wax shine on your car and on a surfboard.
Is There a Place for Wax?
Although other finishes are now more practical in most situations, there still is a place for a paste wax. First of all, many older antiques were finished with wax, so a paste wax is the logical choice for refinishing such old projects. Also, a great deal of the rustic pine Mexican or hacienda-style furniture available in the Southwest U.S. is finished with paste wax. Repairing, adding on to, or modifying any of these types of pieces requires trying to replicate the color of the previous or existing wax.
A more practical use for paste wax for today's modern woodworker is to use it over an existing polyurethane, varnish, shellac, or lacquer finish, to give a piece an unmatched luster and shine. The wax will not provide a great deal of top-coat protection, but it will fill in any cracks, scratches, or minor imperfections in the finish of the piece, allowing light to reflect at a more even level, providing a beautiful, unblemished shine and luster.
Many wood waxes available today come in a variety of colors. It's best to try and closely match the color of the existing finish with the color of the wood. Apply the wax with a clean cotton cloth wrapped around the fingers, much the way one applies a shoe polish to a pair of leather shoes. Work the polish in a circular motion, focusing on working with the grain.
Since wax never really hardens, multiple coats can be applied without waiting a great deal of time, but the best results are achieved if you allow the current coat to sit for 24 hours before applying an additional coat. Unlike topcoats such as polyurethane, lacquer, and shellac, sanding between coats of a paste wax finish should not be necessary to get the desired results.