By far the most frequent questions I get from people who are thinking about trying out the new furniture paints (chalk paint, milk paint, plaster paint) are regarding paste furniture wax.
They typically go something like this:
“Why do I have to use the wax?”
“Can I use something else as a topcoat?”
“What type of furniture wax is the best?”
“How do I put it on?”
“Will it be durable?”
So in an effort clear up some of the wax confusion out there, here is my Wax 101 post.
Furniture Paste Wax is not a new invention, but the popularity of chalk and milk paints have brought it to the forefront of the DIY furniture-painting world.
Why is that? Well, chalk and milk paint are flat-finish, porous paints. They thus require a topcoat of some kind to seal them and upgrade their finish to a more matte or satin appearance. Polyurethane has been the unofficial standard topcoat for many, many years, but it can be difficult to work with and may yellow over time (especially over light colors). It also chips off in large pieces (since it basically a dried piece of plastic laying on top of your paint), and so is harder to touch up.
Paste wax is then the marketed option for most chalk and milk paint projects. And while it produces a very different finish than poly, it’s a good option. There are ups and downs to wax though too, which I’ll talk about more.
Ultimately, the reason furniture wax is sold as the topcoat of choice for wax and milk paints is that, unlike poly, it will settle down into the porous paint finish and cure up over time. When scratched, it won’t flake off in big chunks like poly because in essence, it “becomes” part of the paint’s finish.
Is everybody following me so far?
Different Wax Brands?
Many brands of paste wax exist, from stuff you can buy at Home Depot to more “boutique” waxes sold with chalk and milk paint lines. From my personal experience, the main difference in the varying brands is in how environmentally-friendly their ingredients are and their softness or consistency.
Over these past 2 years, I have tried many different waxes and used many different waxing techniques. I know what I like and what I don’t like, what seems to generally work and what most often doesn’t.
In an effort to cut down on cost, I tried the lesser expensive hardware store brands, but was disappointed with them overall. In general, they were a lot harder to work with and had a very strong odor. For me, it’s worth it to pay a bit more for a brand that is easier to apply and that doesn’t have a strong toxic odor, so I tend to use the boutique paint brands for that reason.
How Do You Apply It?
Every painter has their own method of applying wax, and I believe really it comes down to preference. When I have a large piece to work with, I will brush my wax on with a wax brush because it is quicker. In smaller areas I often apply wax with an old t-shirt (light color shirt for light color paints, and vice versa). Both techniques have worked well for me.
Wax brushes are marketed and sold along with many boutique waxes, like these I have in my online shop:
I do love a good wax brush! But I’m the first to admit that they can be a bit expensive, especially if you only paint furniture every so often. If you aren’t ready to invest in a nice wax brush, you can use inexpensive chip brushes from the hardware store, just watch out for bristles coming out and sticking onto your finish.
The one time where a brush really does work better than a rag is when you are trying to apply wax into detail areas or areas with trim . The brush can push the wax into the cracks and crevices much better than a rag can.
After your wax is applied, allow it to dry according to the particular wax’s instructions, then if you choose you can buff it with a soft cloth to add more shine. Note, buffing is not the easiest task! It takes some real elbow grease, and don’t expect to create a deep shine like on factory-finished furniture.
Is it Durable?
Yes, I have found wax to provide a durable finish, but quite different from the durability a poly provides. What I like about wax is that it if you do scratch a small space, often a little more wax will fix the problem, or some small touch up paint to the spot. It’s harder to repair a scratched poly-coated spot–usually the whole area has to be sanded down, repainted, and a new layer of poly reapplied.
The problem I have found with wax’s durability is that the finished surface stays “soft” . . . meaning that the scrape of a fingernail or sliding an object across the surface will leave a mark in the wax that shows up in the sunlight. Wax is not going to produce the hard, glossy finish that poly will, so while the paint itself doesn’t scratch, the wax does.
This has been an issue for several of my clients, mainly because it’s not what they expect from a protective finish. If you want a perfect, spotless, hard finish–like the finish of manufactured painted furniture–then you should consider using a hard finish like a poly or varnish instead.
What About the Dark Wax?
Using a dark wax or antiquing wax product to add depth to a finish is a wonderful technique! If you want a full, step-by-step tutorial on how to use dark wax, you can check out this in-depth blog post I wrote on that exact topic.
I have found best way to achieve an authentic antiqued look with dark wax is to mix it with clear wax, brush on, then wipe off the excess. Go back with a brush and push a little additional dark wax into the corners and cracks of the furniture, to mimic the look of “dirt” collected over the years.
One can of dark wax will last you forever! It only takes a very little bit to make a big difference, so use it sparingly.
Do I Like Using Wax?
(update April 2015, I now use Fusion Mineral Paint in place of chalk paint and find it produces excellent results for a more affordable price, and it requires no wax…yes ,you heard me…no waxing required)
The answer is overall yes!
I find poly difficult to work with, so wax is typically my preferred option for a topcoat over chalk and milk paints. The more I use it, the more comfortable I get with it.
I really like the aged effect dark wax can give, and I like that a wax topcoat will not yellow or chip off in pieces like poly will.
BUT, paste wax has also ruined or almost ruined several projects of mine. I have found that it does not pair well with dark paint colors, as it tends to settle in the cracks and get streaky and cloudy.
The only way to solve that problem is to buff like crazy . . . but even with the strongest arms it sometimes doesn’t clear up. In the case of this black headboard above I had to repaint the whole piece and use poly as the topcoat instead.
My go-to solution for wax over dark colors is to now use Hemp Oil instead. It works perfectly over dark colors and won’t give you that cloudy look at all!
I also do not care for the sticky feeling that can sometimes linger with a wax finish, especially if you apply too much. Some products seem to cure up much better than others, with my current favorites being Fusion Mineral Paint’s Beeswax Finish and MMS Milk Paint’s Waxes.
In all honesty, I believe that most people tolerate wax because they love chalk and milk paint so much! It’s a good product, but it has its drawbacks, just like polyurethane. It really comes down to what you’re comfortable working with, and what final look you are trying to create.
I hope this has answered some of your wax questions and cleared up some of the confusion about how to use the product. Please feel free to ask any other questions you may have in the comments, or email me. I share from my own experience and do not claim to know everything about every wax product, so I expect that others out there may have differing opinions. Thank you for letting me share mine 🙂