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 carnauba wax-based varieties. 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, as it is used both for creating a beautiful wax shine on your car or for those who live on the beach, carnauba wax is commonly found in surfboard waxes.
For today's woodworker, though, a paste wax wood finish may not be the best choice for protecting your woodworking projects. A paste wax wood finish looks great but really 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 top coat to a wax finish is futile.
Is There a Place for Wax?
That being said, there still is a place for a paste wax wood finish. First of all, many older antiques were finished with wax, so a paste wax would be the choice for refinishing such old projects. Also, a great deal of the rustic pine Mexican or hacienda-style furniture available in the Southwestern United States is finished with a paste wax. Repairing, adding on to or modifying any of these types of pieces would require trying to replicate the color of the previous or existing paste wax wood finish.
A more practical use for paste wax for today's modern woodworker would be to use paste wax 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 the wax 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.
Applying a Paste Wax Wood Finish
Many wood waxes available today come in a variety of colors. It's best to try and closely approximate the color of the existing finish with the color of the wood. Apply with a clean cotton cloth wrapped around the fingers, much the way one would apply shoe polish to a pair of boots. 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 we find we get the best results by allowing the current coat to sit for 24 hours before applying another 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.