The who, what, when, where, why and how of hardwax oil
Who is hardwax oil?
Who is hardwax oil? Okay, this structure might get old right from the start…
Simply put, hardwax oil is a modern twist on some classic finishes. Historically (and still today) many woods were finished with linseed, tung, or similar oils, and top coated with beeswax. The oils dry to form finishes of varying durability after many coats, and the beeswax adds a softer touch, sheen, and additional protection.
A hardwax oil, as the name suggests, is essentially a blend of these two finishes into one product. The difference between today’s finishes and those of yesterday, is the broader range of ingredients available to manufacture these finishes, improving their performance to make them a go-to choice for many workshops.
There are several manufacturers of these products, each with their own unique formula. This article is generalized to holistically encompass the product category.
What is hardwax oil?
Hardwax oil is a blend of… hardwaxes and oils (with a couple additional inputs). Combining these in one product simplifies the application process and creates an easy to achieve, easy to repair, satiny soft finish.
Most products today use a variety of plant-based oils, such as linseed (flax), safflower, sunflower, or soy. Using these as base materials drastically improves the environmental footprint of these products and is the reason most products in this category will trumpet their environmental credentials. The oils have varying degrees of performance, but when used in blends they are able to complement each other, and they receive a boost in performance from their friends.
Wax comes from a larger number of sources than might be expected. Everyone knows beeswax (and its wonderful smell) but people may not be as familiar with the other materials in use today. The most common “hard” waxes are carnauba and paraffin, but candelilla is often used as well.
Carnauba wax is harvested from palm leaves, paraffin is a derivative byproduct of petroleum production, and candelilla is harvested from the candelilla shrub. As might be expected, there is an obvious difference in the inherent sustainability of each of these. A petroleum product like paraffin is not sustainable by definition of its source. However even plant-based materials such as carnauba or candelilla can have sustainability issues despite being renewable resources. The monoculture that occurs in many plantations can be environmentally devastating, and depending on the producer, there could be human wellbeing issues at play as well.
While there are solvent-free products available on the market, most products still contain a solvent of some sort. The reasons could be as varied as the number of solvents themselves, from sheen, to viscosity, to how they make other components “play nice”. Most solvents used are petroleum based, however there are some plant-based options available. If unsure of what might be in the product you are evaluating, talk to the manufacturer. Most should be willing to discuss what they have used and why.
Depending on the producer there could be a number of other components present. Many manufacturers make use of a siccative, or drier, to accelerate the cure of the oil. Some will also use resins or other hardeners, making the product more akin to a danish oil (an oil varnish blend).
When to use hardwax oil?
One of the great things about hardwax oil is its versatility. Making something new? It can produce an extremely pleasing finish, aesthetically beautiful, and with a feel that cannot be beat. Restoring something? If the original finish has been removed, a hardwax oil can add some gusto back into most woods, with the same pleasing finish they have on new projects.
Where to use hardwax oil?
Just about anywhere. Typically used for interior projects, hardwax oil is a very popular finish for furniture, but its decent durability and extreme ease of repair make it a popular choice for hardwood flooring as well.
Why use hardwax oil?
In selecting a finish for wood, users often try to decide between a traditional penetrating finish, such as tung or linseed oil, and a film building finish, such as poly or epoxy. Hardwax oils fall somewhere in between. They have the warmth and beauty of an oil finish, but thanks to their wax content they also have some added surface protection and the ability to control the level of gloss based on application method.
Film-forming coatings will admittedly provide a more durable finish, however when it comes to repairability and ease of maintenance, not to mention their beauty, hardwax oils are hard to beat.
How to use hardwax oil?
The variety of application methods and how easy it is to produce great results make hardwax oils a vital weapon in the toolbelt of just about any woodworker, from the amateur through the seasoned professional. Excellent results can be achieved entirely by hand rubbing the finish into the surface with a finishing pad (white non-woven abrasive pad) and buffing dry with a lint-free cloth.For larger pieces and/or greater efficiency in application, using a powered buffing pad (wool or similar) can produce great results where the friction of buffing also generates heat that speeds the cure of each application.