Wax On, Wax Off

Are your furniture and wooden artifacts lacking the glow that they used to have?  The culprit is most likely an aged, worn, or damaged wax layer.  Wax coatings are applied on top of a finished piece of wood to act as a protective coating.  Without this layer, foreign particulates, such as dirt or soot, could accumulate and settle into the finish.  Old finishes are delicate and desirable and repeated cleaning of original surface can damage the patina.  Particles and dust will inevitably settle on the surface of a piece and then become embedded in the sacrificial wax coat.  The wax coat can then be easily removed without damaging the original finish.

The purpose of a wax finish is twofold.  Primarily, wax acts as a sacrificial layer which protects the polished surface from dust and smoke as well as impeding damage caused by liquid spills.  Secondarily, wax serves an aesthetic purpose.  A wax finish produces a soft sheen to the polished surface and saturates the color of older finishes which have become dull overtime. Conversely, wax can also be used to temper the appearance of a finish that is too shiny.

Prior to applying the wax, furniture should first be cleaned with the appropriate solvent to ensure that a particulate film is removed and does not get covered by the wax coat. The choice of solvent used is determined by the type of finish that the furniture has been given.  For example, a varnished piece will be cleaned differently than a piece that has been shellacked or oiled.  Cleaning furniture should only be undertaken by someone with appropriate training, as an improper solvent can lead to severe damage.  The best cleaning techniques will also rejuvenate a deteriorated finish before the wax is applied.       

Once the piece of furniture has been cleaned, any necessary structural treatment should be carried out. This could cover anything from loose veneers due to adhesive failure, to shrinkage splits or an unstable finish resulting from climate change. If necessary or desired, any areas of raw wood can be finished. In cases where your furniture is in good condition and not in need of a finish, this step can be skipped.

The final step is to apply a safe wax to the surface of the piece. The choice of wax is important as soft waxes like beeswax and some micro-crystalline waxes are easy to apply, however do not always provide a durable finish.  Our conservators prefer to use hard waxes that are researched and evidenced in the conservation community as better solutions than products on the shelf. While more difficult to apply, these hard waxes create a more durable surface. All in all, the time for this process varies depending on the size and complexity of the piece of furniture being addressed.

How often should a wax coat be replaced? The answer to this question varies and can be affected by external factors. Furniture in high traffic areas is particularly prone to showing evidence of heavy wear in the wax layer. Other factors such as dust and incense or candle usage could contribute to a layer of grime that may accumulate as well as other environmental factors. For example, places prone to plenty of visitors that would create dust, such as museums, hotels, or churches, should be cognizant of the state of the wax layer. Accumulated dust is often cleaned using a feather duster or soft cloth. While this is the correct approach for personal pieces, frequent dusting can begin to take a toll on the piece.

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to how often furniture should be waxed and the best way to assess the situation is through visual evaluation by a trained professional. If it appears dull or damaged, it is most likely due to the wax layer. You can preserve the longevity of the wax coating by careful, gentle maintenance as needed.  Under the appropriate conditions, a properly applied wax coat can last up to ten years with regular dusting. A stable environment where temperature and humidity do not fluctuate is also highly recommended. The Conservation Center suggests maintaining a temperature of 68-72 degrees and a relative humidity level of 45-55%.

As mentioned previously, this process should only be carried out by a trained professional in order to avoid damaging the finish or the piece.  Please visit our Furniture Department’s page to see more before and after examples.  

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