Furniture Care: Help & Advice
In the workshop I have always taught our apprentices to apply it to one side of a chest of drawers at a time or one table leaf at a time, do something else for 20 to 30 minutes, then go back to buff the wax. It makes the process very rewarding. There’s no point in wiping it on and then wiping it off. The reason some manufacturers may recommend doing this is because there is so much oil and non drying chemicals in their polish, it wont dry no matter how long you leave it.
0000 grade steel wire wool
‘0000’ (four zero) steel wire wool is the best vehicle to transfer the wax to the surface. I know this may surprise you, but I can assure you that using cotton soft steel wool is not going to damage the finish.
When you ‘charge’ the steel wool (load the steel wool with wax), the very fine strands of the steel wool suspends the beeswax polish inside it, but doesn't absorb it, unlike a soft cloth. So when you apply the polish to the surface, the wax transfers from the steel wool far more easily and evenly. You can see me demonstrating this technique in many of our YouTube videos.
It's not a rule. If you want to use a cloth to apply the wax polish then carry on doing so.
The only times we tend to shy away from using steel wool is when the wax is being applied to bare wood or a highly polished (glossy) surface. Glossy surfaces shouldn't really be polished with a paste wax, there's no need. Bare wood grain can be fibrous, and the steel wool strands will more than likely tear and remain on the surface, so if you want to wax bare wood I would use a less absorbent cloth to transfer the wax to the surface.
While I’m talking about waxing bare wood, my professional advice is always to seal it first, and then wax it. It will give you a lovely natural waxed look with the benefits of saving a lot of wax and time. It will also give the wood surface much better protection. (I prefer to use a matt or satin hard wax oil, or a sanding sealer)
The biggest mistake made when wax polishing is buffing the wax off straight after applying it.A good quality brand of wax polish will instruct you to leave the wax to dry on the surface before buffing. The wax needs to evenly coat the surface and dry. Once dry, the wax can be buffed to a soft sheen. You're not rubbing the wax off, you're buffing the wax cells smooth, so they all lie flat on the surface. This allows the light in, to reflect the beautiful wood, at the same time as acting as a naturally enhancing and sacrificial layer. If your tin or can of polish instructs you to apply and then buff after a few minutes or less, you really are doing no more than just wiping it on, and wiping it off. I go into more detail about why these brands recommend this ‘waste of your time’ later on in this article.
Given that we now know that we are not buffing the wax off and we want to leave it on the surface, we need to use a soft cloth that doesn't heat up and melt it. This is why our craftsmen use an open weave cotton cloth that keeps the surface cool when buffing the wax, resulting in a more even and consistent sheen. These open weave cotton cloths will also last longer as hardly any wax will rub off on them. Tightly woven dusters and general cotton rags are okay but if used with too much enthusiasm they will very quickly heat the wax up, resulting in a frustrating, smeary finish.
I am asked this question almost weekly. But the answer is the same as above.. No, hand buffing with a little pressure using an open weave cloth will quickly give you impressive results. A machine buffer will heat up the surface quickly smearing the wax all over the surface.
Power buffers are bad, m'kay
A lesson learned by apprentice French Polishers...
It's all too easy to get carried away and apply the wax to multiple pieces with the intention of coming back later to buff them. Don’t do it! A high quality wax polish will dry hard on the surface if left for too long, and it's very hard to buff properly, a lesson I learned early on in my apprenticeship.
Apply the polish to manageable areas at any one time, A side of chest, a single leaf or plank of a dining table, one chair or a few drawers at a time. It’s very rewarding to do it this way.
If you feel you need to clean it first you can wipe over the surface with a warm soapy cloth (washing up liquid) and dry it immediately with a dry piece of towelling.
A cloth dampened with white spirit is the safest way to remove old wax. Again using a clean dry cloth immediately after. White spirit won't harm an old finish but will remove old wax easily. Don't use methylated spirits (denatured alcohol) as it may dissolve an old shellac finish.
“There is absolutely no substitute for a pure beeswax polish. It is the very best way to protect and enhance the finish on your furniture”
Pure beeswax in the frame
There are many manufacturers out there claiming their paste wax polish is the best for your furniture. With little evidence or regulation to substantiate their claims, how are you to know which one is right or what’s in it?
Is it even beeswax? ‘Wax Polish’ doesn't necessarily mean beeswax…
We have used most of the leading brands of polish in our workshop over the past 30 years but the question is what’s in them and where do the ingredients come from?
Many manufacturers will be using fake beeswax in their polishes. It’s a synthetic and very cheap substitute created by the chemical industry to mimic the properties of beeswax.
Petroleum jelly is also another cheap ingredient often used to create a paste wax polish. It won't dry on the surface very well, but with the ‘wax on wax off’ method it won’t really matter as you wipe it straight off!
How do we know this?... Since creating our beeswax polishes we are regularly approached by leading industry suppliers offering us fake beeswax.
Fake beeswax pellets
Avoid them at all costs. I understand that they are very convenient to use, time is precious to all of us, but pressurised spray polishes will only be harmful to the finish in the long term. It’s a liquid chemical spray with petrochemical, mineral oils, and the tiniest amount of wax you can imagine contained within it.
Over the past 30 years we have seen in the workshop the damage repeated use of these spray polishes can do.
Spray polishes are bad
Oil-based polishes should be avoided
Not to be confused with oil based finishes that are convertible coatings (they dry to a hard finish) such as Tung, Linseed and Danish Oil.
Oil based polishes that are marketed as a maintenance or cleaning polish, that are intended to be used in the same way as a traditional wax paste polish, should also be very much avoided. In the same way pressurised liquid spray polishes are atomised at the nozzle, hand pumped bottles that contain a very diluted liquid oil work in the same way.
The spray oil will darken the exposed wood on an old flaky finish, at the same time as attracting dust and dirt.
Big brands will often use very evocative language to encourage you to use their products. Here’s a few of them:
“Contains Nutrient Oils” - Wood doesn't need ‘nutrient oils’ if it has been finished. And 99.9% of all furniture sold will have been finished by the maker or manufacturer: Fact: If hand built furniture is left unfinished, even for a few days, it will start to move and if left for longer it may shrink, warp and twist. Sealing the wood almost immediately after it has been built is essential for it to be stable and hold its shape and form. So spaying a very diluted ‘nutrient oil’ will be of no benefit whatsoever and just smear over the surface.
“Replaces the lost oils from central heating” - Again this marketing statement has its obvious appeal but lets looks at how true it is:
Furniture is affected by heat but the biggest problem for period furniture is environmental moisture variations combined with temperature variations.
Historically antique furniture will have been kept in homes where the windows and doors are regularly opened allowing the furniture to maintain its natural moisture level with free flowing air.
If a period antique is shut in an airtight room with a radiator on, or in an air conditioned office, the entire carcass will be in great danger of over drying, leading to cracking and splitting. This is often seen on antiques that have a hardwood veneer laminated to a softwood carcass.
Can this problem be countered with spray polish or any polish? The answer is no. In our experience, antique or period furniture is only ever finished on the outside; the carcass and drawers are always left unsealed, exposing the wood to the open environment. So spraying the polished exterior with ‘nutrient oils’ will do nothing at all. The best way to try and balance any lost moisture from the wood is by opening the windows and letting the air in. If this is not possible, place a saucer of water underneath or close by it. You could even put a plant in the saucer!
Because modern furniture (100 years or less) was better all round sealed it is much less likely to suffer from heat and moisture shrinkage.
“Moisturising” - It's hard to believe that a spray polish could be moisturising and again this is nonsense. Only when a finish is disintegrating and dried out will a polish be able to ‘moisturise’ the finish, and this will only work with paste wax polishes.
Manufacturers understand how to make their products appeal to us. With convincing marketing and provocative imagery that implies its good for your furniture
Although they sound wonderful, they will coat your furniture with a thin layer of oil. Again it will look great to start with, but what you're actually doing is creating your own micro finish over the original finish. This can seriously damage a period finish and change the entire look and feel of it. Only ever use them if you know for sure that your piece of furniture was originally oil finished.
Often handed down by relatives or recommended by friends, these can be successful, but be very careful as they can be just as damaging as the oil based manufactured polishes.
The most common mixtures include a combination of olive oil, white spirit, methylated spirits, vinegar, lemon juice and a cleaning agent.
The most concerning ingredient from the above list is ‘methylated spirits’. Meths will quickly dissolve a shellac (french polished) finish. I would strongly advise not using it as it can be extremely damaging to antique or french polished furniture.
These recipes are often touted as an ‘all in one fix'. They contain a shiny finishing element which re-coats the surface (usually an oil), an antibacterial fragrance (lemon) and cleaning agents (vinegar, soap, meths), all mixed together as a magical mix.
You’ll find the concoction will separate out in the container like oil and water because they are not compatible with each other.
Homemade polishes can be extremely damaging
If you need to clean and revive a piece of furniture my professional advice is to do it using this very safe and easy to do technique:
Step-by-step video guide
Our restoration customers would often ask us “How do we look after the furniture once you have restored it?”
We would struggle to recommend a product because we knew that the ingredients were completely unknown and of such poor quality, also of unknown origin. As a nation we are all much more aware of where products and the ingredients come from, more so than ever before.
It is for this reason our craftsmen started to make our own beeswax polish. We were fortunate to be restoring some of the antique furniture for Buckfast Abbey, just ten minutes away from our workshop. When the beekeepers offered us the use of their precious beeswax we knew we had the very best primary ingredient for a perfect beeswax polish.
A good wax polish should have just the right content to provide a thin protective and sacrificial layer to the furniture, adding to the long term preservation and patination of it.
Following the basis of an age old traditional recipe we started to develop and create our beeswax furniture polish. Over many months we blended the hard beeswax with Carnauba Wax, Japan Wax, Myrica Wax, Berry Wax and Pure Pine Turpentine.
All of these natural ingredients are the best of the best, without any compromise. All of them are sustainably sourced and packed into every single jar of Gilboys Beeswax Polish.It took months of development and careful testing in the workshop to perfect the recipe but, many years later we now know that we have the right recipe, with spectacular proven results.
Using Gilboys polish will save you time and money because our polish has been developed using raw ingredients that have not been messed about with. A single application can last up to five years!
How often you wax polish will primarily depend on how much wear the furniture gets!
Our article BEESWAX POLISHING FREQUENCY GUIDE covers most types of furniture.
Simon's career began in furniture restoration in 1987. Leaving school at 16 and signing on as an apprentice French Polisher at Staverton joinery, he has accumulated over 30 years experience in the restoration of fine and antique furniture.
In 1994 Simon opened the doors on the first Gilboy’s workshop at the Riverside in Staverton with financial and mentoring help from The Prince’s Trust.
In 2015 after years of searching for a beeswax furniture polish that would befit the fine furniture Gilboys were restoring, Simon developed his own beeswax polish using only the very best of responsibly-sourced ingredients.
Simon says, "My intention was not to compete with anyone on price, but to simply make the best beeswax polish it was possible to make"
You can usually find Simon in the Gilboys workshops filming instructional how-to videos for the Gilboys YouTube channel, on help forums, or actively finding new ways to preserve the past for the future.