Using beeswax on wood – does it last?
Using beeswax on wooden products generates feelings of sustainable living, doing no harm, and being mindful of our footprint on this earth…. But is using beeswax the right thing to use as a polish?
After all it has been used as a treatment on wood for a long time and has gained a large following over the years but as you will see as you read on, there is a big difference between a finish and a treatment.
A finish is self-descriptive in a way. It implies an ending. Apply it once and you are good for an extended period of time; sometimes decades depending on the type of finish.
A treatment is just as descriptive. It treats something but suggests nothing permanent. It is something temporary and requires constant attention.
We should establish some base line facts before we go into the details up close.
Can Beeswax be Used On Wood As A Polish?
Yes it can but it has limitations that need to be understood first.
- It’s natural. This product has fantastic properties and multiple uses.
- It’s sustainable.
- It has no use-by-date. It can sit on a shelf out of the way for years and have no visible deterioration if kept from drying out.
- It repels moisture. It could be said to even be waterproof but this is very temperature sensitive.
- It is easy to apply.
- It melts easily. This should give warning bells when applying it as a wood coating. How long will it last on the surface? More below on this.
- It attracts dust and grit when soft. More on this below as well.
- When softened by heat it is easily removed from the surface.
In the late 1990s I was deep into learning about wood turning and had bought a second hand lathe from a local gent. There was no Internet then, and the available information was either word of mouth or books/magazines. There was also a limited variety of known finishes that were available near me so I erred on the safe side and started using pure beeswax as a finish on my turned items.
I would take a lump of pure beeswax and hold it firmly against the spinning item, typically a bowl or candleholder, and let friction melt the wax into the wood. I would then take a handful of shavings from the floor that I had turned away from the original wood blank and cup my hand around the item with the shavings held against the wood and this would remove the excess wax by transferring it to the shavings; the end result was a wonderful soft feel and finish to these items.
Many of those items are still with us in the home so it is good to have a reference on just how this finish has handled time and the occasional handling. For the most part the surface of these items is jaded and appears like something you would expect to find in a quiet little bric-a-brac store.
Time has generally not been kind. So this has prompted a search on the internet to see what the rest of the world thinks of this finish and I came away more confused than when I started.
Many, if not most, articles I researched told a far different story regarding beeswax finish to what my wife and I have actually lived and observed for 20 plus years.
As time has rolled forward to today, I am still at the lathe, still applying finishes to my turned items but have learnt a few things along the way by observing and living with my turned items from years ago.
This is what I have learned.
Beeswax as a finish is acceptable on certain types of household objects like endgrain cutting boards and wooden utensils. The downside of this finish is it is always disappearing.
Re-applying beeswax is a constant process as heat, soapy water, and general handling all take away the wax over time. One way to help prolong the coating is to mix the wax with a foodgrade mineral oil and this is the go-to treatment for quality end grain cutting boards as the wax/oil blend can be worked into the wood with a good rub. The grain orientation in these boards allow the blended wax/oil to soak deep into the wood and help protect it.
What is preferable to use on your wooden kitchen utensils is pure tung oil, but this is best applied when the wood is raw and unfinished. This allows the oil to penetrate and do its thing.
Applying tung oil over beeswax will not work as the tung oil needs to penetrate to be truly effective and the beeswax will act as a barrier to prevent this process. If your item already has beeswax on it, then it is most likely you will be resigned to continue applying it indefinitely.
The next issue with beeswax is the tendency to attract dust and lint when the weather gets a little on the hot side. This cannot be avoided and usually ends up with you taking a polishing cloth to the item and rubbing away at it until the surface is clean.
A large part of the beeswax has now been removed and the surface will appear dull and lifeless. The tendency then is to apply polish to it and if beeswax is what you have been using and you are not aware of the behavior of beeswax in heat, you will repeat the whole process each and every year.
This is not to say that beeswax is a bad thing, as it’s not. It is just not as applicable in many situations as some think. Some people like the lived-in-look that beewax can deliver and that’s fine, but applying it to well used furniture is probably not a good idea particularly if your summers are hot.
The idea of beeswax as a natural wood finish is the captivating part as it truly is a sustainable resource and should be used where it’s appropriate. We use the beeswax/mineral oil blend on our end grain cutting boards and have done since we started making them. It is a wonderful finish for these kitchen mainstays and is used the world over.
In an outdoor situation beeswax could be applied onto outdoor furniture and over the course of several seasons it will work its way deep into the wood fibers and help protect the piece, but the disclaimer here is that you will need to be vigilant and continue to apply it until the wax will not soak in any more.
This process is best done in warm to hot weather. Understand that the piece of furniture will be out of action during this time as the heat-softened wax will affect clothing if leant against or sat upon. And also be aware that this risk does not end.
Every hot day will possibly bring some of the wax to the surface and mark clothing. So would you apply the wax now, having just learned this information?
The solution here is to not use beeswax in outdoor settings if you are to be sitting or resting on the item, and that’s just the facts of the matter. Beeswax is not the cure to finishing wood by itself, but is has it’s uses as you will see.
All of the above has focused on the problems that arise by applying beeswax only to general items and now it’s only fair to provide alternatives and solutions.
The first one is to suggest that if you have a raw timber product that is in need of treatment and protection then use pure tung oil as the first coating. There is an article about it here.
If the item you have is already coated with another type of finish then by all means use a wax polish on it, but we suggest a quality blended furniture polish that has a portion of beeswax as an ingredient alongside several other waxes that are harder and will last a lot longer.
This will help avoid the dust and lint attracting habits of straight beeswax. You need some level of protection against the wax becoming soft and tacky in heat.
To be on the safe side, invest a little time and research how quality furniture restorers go about protecting their work after it has been completed. The professionals in these types of industries have already been down this road generations ago and have arrived at the most sensible way to get the job done.
What we have discovered over time is the ease of application of beeswax has been the main reason why people are attracted to it. It’s relatively inexpensive, it is food safe, it is very easy to handle and has no use-by-date.
Many people present beeswax as a great wood finish, but our data tells us that while most of the above is accurate, it falls down when applied to wood when a long life protective barrier is wanted.
It is fantastic if all you require is a short-term treatment, but it ranks poorly as a permanent solution.
In closing, I would suggest that if you want a natural safe permanent protective coating on daily used items like wooden utensils and bowls, then consider applying pure tung oil.
If all you need is a temporary treatment that will not be coated over by anything else then beeswax could be your best bet.
If you need to apply a coating over beeswax at a later date then I think you are in for a challenging time. There will likely be enough residue to repel any coating if it’s not another wax based product, and even then it may be a challenge.
Article written by Tim Blanch as part owner of Pickers Ridge Hardwood Designs. He is a qualified Carpenter/Joiner and has been turning for over 25 years.