Will Paste Wax Damage a Finish? - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Will Paste Wax Damage a Finish?

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Will Paste Wax Damage a Finish

A can of Briwax paste wax with toluene.

A reader thought he remembered my cautioning against applying paste wax over water-based finish or latex paint. His memory was that I had said that paste wax could damage these coatings.

This is not true, of course. There’s no problem applying most paste waxes over water-based finish or latex paint. But the source of the confusion could still be me because I have said that one brand of paste wax, Briwax, could cause damage.

Traditional Briwax contains toluene (toluol), which is a strong, fast-evaporating solvent. Toluene will damage water-based finishes, latex paints and also varnishes and lacquers if they aren’t fully cured.

My experience with Briwax goes back before it became popular, maybe even before it became available in the U.S. An antique dealer across the street from my shop brought me back a can from a buying trip to England. She loved this paste wax because it dries so fast that it can be buffed out almost immediately – in contrast to other paste waxes, which require much more time for the solvent to evaporate. The fast evaporation, of course, is the consequence of the toluene.

More recently, Briwax has had to add a toluene-free paste wax to its line of products because of environmental concerns with the toluene. But this new version still contains xylene (xylol) in addition to naphtha, both of which evaporate slower than toluene. Importantly, these solvents, especially xylene, are still strong enough to cause damage.

So be cautioned if you like using this wax for its easy workability.

— Bob Flexner


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Showing 7 comments
  • alegr

    The law of unintended consequences sometimes get ugly. After California restricted VOC in finishes (because of smog concerns?), the manufacturers came with some very very nasty fluorinated aromatic hydrocarbon solvent for oil-based poly, which I suspect was much much worse in regard to smog (and possibly very carcinogenic) than old plain Stoddard. Luckily, that solvent seems not used anymore.

  • Longfatty

    Hi, Bob,
    Thank you for pointing out how solvents can vary between products, or even different versions of the same product. I think it’s ironic that environmental concerns are having a greater influence on solvent selection than the health of the person using the products. Reducing smog or other environmental improvements is going to have a positive effect on people’s lives, but for the person applying the wax I think it’s a wash. Xylene and toluene are about equally nasty and the guy holding the can is going to get the biggest dose of either.

    Some solvents are easier to work with than others, no question. With so many other alternatives, most with less nasty ingredients, I am glad I have options. This one isn’t for me. I can just wait an extra minute or two before I buff.

  • Pleasanton

    I used this same wax last week, an old can passed down from a relative. I think I have a lacquer finish on a ‘crate and barrel’ table that’s been damaged badly with casual use. Applying the wax quickly dissolved some embedded grime, but also (I think!) softened the finish? It streaked badly as I tried to buff it out… so I grabbed my stuff, hid it in the garage and hope nobody notices. I have used the same wax without issue over shellac and wiping varnish finishes.

    • Bob Flexner
      Bob Flexner

      Several thought.
      First, I’ve never experienced a problem with old lacquer or varnish, or shellac for that matter. Only with fairly freshly applied finish.
      Second, if you did your buffing with a power tool, you may have created enough heat to partially dissolve the lacquer, in which case the streaking has nothing to do with the wax. It’s too much heat.
      If you did the buffing by hand, I have no explanation with the information you have provided.

      • IrritableBadger

        Waxes can do weird things if they’re exposed to really cold (below freezing) temperatures or temperatures hot enough to soften the wax in the can. It’s probably a safe assumption that exposure and age are directly correlated.

        I think the core issue is simply that the suspension is destabilized resulting in separation of the components. The result being a bunch of chemicals with uneven distribution so you end up applying solvents heavy in some areas and solids heavy in other areas. It’s a can of stuff virtually guaranteed to interact poorly with anything it’s applied to. Wax solids without solvent can be nearly impossible to buff out without overheating the finish, so you get streaks. Concentrations of solvents in unknown ratios can make everything soft, so you get streaks (sometimes headaches too).

        It seems like exposure damage is cumulative so it’s effectively random because the effects of exposure today are directly related to the exposure of yesterday.

        It also seems like the further away you get from the waxes in yellow cans sold at big DIY retailers the more sensitive the waxes are to exposure (Which makes sense. Resilience is a really important thing for mass market products that are going to be handled and stored in unknown environments for extended times prior to being sold). That said, they still get wonky, it just takes a bit longer.

        The small shop where I work isn’t suited to proper experimentation. We’ve got to go with what is less likely to have unhappy customers calling about streaky wax. Over time we’ve identified a few products that meet that demand, but it’s still all anecdotal. The long term outcomes of a proper experiment of packaged wax stability in variable environmental scenarios would be very interesting (and valuable) but that would require a finish expert with the space, resources and willingness to run the experiment. I wonder if such a person exists and where they might be found?

        • Bob Flexner
          Bob Flexner

          That person isn’t me, if that is what you’re implying. Actually, the first finish article I ever wrote was on wax. I wrote it for Fine Woodworking, probably in 1988. Typically, they edited it heavily and changed some of the meanings, so that was the last finishing article I wrote for them.
          Popular Woodworking editors have always been a joy to work with. So I rewrote on the same topic, wax, in the February, 2004 issue. This article is reproduced in my book, “Flexner on Finishing.”
          Basically, the “research” I did using about a dozen brands of paste wax was compare them for scratch resistance, heat resistance, water resistance, shine and ease of application. I couldn’t find any noticeable differences among the brands except application differences. And this quality was governed entirely by the time it took for the solvent to evaporate. So Briwax was ready to buff out within a couple of minutes. Minwax wax wasn’t ready for 15 or 20 minutes, maybe longer.
          Of course, some brands come in colors (including Briwax) and this can be useful on old surfaces with dents and scratches that can be colored in by the colored wax.
          Since that time I’ve settled on Johnson Paste Wax as my favorite. It’s easy to use, meaning that it’s ready to buff out quickly, and it’s very inexpensive. (Google Johnson paste wax MSDS to see what’s in it.) The imported waxes are outrageously priced, in my opinion, especially when they don’t perform any better (except color, if you want this).
          Concerning the solvent in the paste wax being an issue for health, I’ve never found this to be a problem. There just isn’t enough of it to fill the air. But if you do have a problem, create an air flow to move the air away from you.

          • NativeWoods

            Well that answers a lot of my questions. Now I know I need to replace my now ancient can of Johnson’s and I understand why I get streaking on some places and not elsewhere.

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