Conservation & Design International

By Kate Wight

Antique furniture waxing
A Brief History

Waxes obtained from natural sources have been used in various applications for centuries. Perhaps the most widely known wax is beeswax, the wax secreted by the honeybee. Craftsman’s guidebooks of the 18th century indicate that beeswax was used as a coating for furniture made in France and other European countries. This use of the material found its way over to the colonies despite the fact that the honeybee was not indigenous to North America. Beeswax was often mixed with turpentine to create a soft material perfect for applying to wood.

When to Wax
Today wax is used to protect and lubricate furniture finishes. A dull piece of furniture can benefit from a good waxing, but wax should only be applied to finishes that are already waxed. You can tell when a piece needs to be waxed by the change in sheen; it will appear dull and absorb light. A piece of furniture that gets a lot of use such as a kitchen table might need to be waxed every month. In general, furniture with wax finishes should get a fresh coat of wax once a year.

When Not to Wax
If a piece of furniture is in need of restoration and has many lifting sections of veneer or damaged areas, wax can be extremely detrimental. Wax that works its way into unwanted cracks or splits prevents glues from adhering and makes quality repair almost impossible. Wax should not be applied to certain finishes like French Polish and certain exotic wood veneers, like crotch mahogany. The bottom line is “know your finish.” If you are unsure about the finish on you piece of furniture, consult a professional.

What Wax to Use
Synthetic waxes hit the market in the 1930s, are mostly petroleum based, and for the most part work just as well as old-fashioned beeswax. Nevertheless, it is still better to choose a wax that is at least 50% natural. Be careful to never choose a wax with silicon. Check the labels—if the ingredients aren’t listed make sure it says no silicon. Some good furniture waxes are manufactured by Briwax, Liberon and Antiquax. All three brands come in different “colors.” If you can’t match your furniture, or you’re unsure, just use clear wax or consult a professional.