Wax Over Polyurethane

lamdSeptember 18, 2010

I am stripping the finish off my vintage dining set and love the look of the unfinished oak. I would like to just rub a coat of clear briwax on it but worry that it won't be durable enough for every day use. If I put satin polyurethane on the table top only and then wax the whole table and chairs, will the table top look different from the legs/chairs? Is there something other than polyurethane you would recommend? THANKS!

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A wax finish is the closest thing to no finish that you can have. It offers virtually no resistance to water, stains, and abrasion. About the only thing I would ever use it on is a picture frame or carved objet d'art that would rarely be touched. The job of any finish it to enhance the beauty/appearance, provide protection and to make a cleanable surface. Wax only meets the first of these for a table.

On the other hand, a waxed finish is a film-forming finished that has someone has used wax as a polish. It will be the finish underneath and the wax will provide a little satin sheen to the finish and provide a bit of lubricity to the finish. The best waxed finish is where the wax layer is microscopically thin. When you have buffed out as much wax as you think you can remove, buff a little more and that will be about right. (Think about waxing a car, you don't leave it on thick) Left too thick, wax will tend to build up, attract dirt, and turn white with exposure to moisture.

To answer the second part of your question, yes a waxed polyurethane finish will look different from a wax-only finish.

> Is there something other than polyurethane you would recommend?
I personally think polyurethane is too often treated as the all purpose holy grail of finishing. That is, it's the default choice for many applications where other finishes would work better.

When you choose any product, in this case finish, you get all the attributes associated with that choice. You pick the product either based on shelf-space, or with a little knowledge of the characteristic you are choosing, then the product's other characteristics come along for the ride. Poly's main attribute (IMHO) is abrasion resistance. So it's great for floors and maybe for kid's riding toys. But it has issues with repairability, appearance (it can yellow a lot), has low UV resistance, and has relatively poor adhesion to itself and other things.

Your choice of Briwax is also interesting. Its solvent is toluene, that is a fairly strong solvent. Most waxes contain a much milder mineral spirits. Briwax is designed to be a restorative wax, so the toluene dissolves part of the top layer of finish while you are waxing. This works similar to the "finish restorers" though at a less aggressive scale. Applying Briwax to a freshly applied finish is likely to be too strong and damage the finish. It's really meant for cleaning up antiques with a bit of surface degradation. There is a Briwax 2000 product with mineral spirits that would be better choice, as would Minwax, Liberon, Antiquax, or Johnson's furniture wax.

There is a company that I do work for that sells what amounts to unfinished furniture meant for use as-is. I can't imagine what these are going to look like in a few years of exposure to food, beverage and body oils.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2010 at 12:50PM
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Thank you bobsmyuncle. Yes, I am aware of the tuloene free briwax and it is much better than the original! I used briwax for an distressed aged pine look on a table I have and loved the finish. Does what I am looking for exist? A finish that will not add color or much sheen and that will protect my table? I know poly is not ideal, but I am not aware of anything else that will not change the color/appearance of the unfinished wood. Thanks again!

    Bookmark   September 18, 2010 at 1:00PM
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You could try a dead-flat waterbased topcoat. They are used by faux finishers to protect delicate glazed effects without adding sheen.

A more typical water-based poly will add more sheen, but at least preserve the natural color of the wood.

Rubio Monocoat is a finish that provides some protection while leaving the wood looking unfinished. I don't know if "natural" changes the color, though.

A wax finish is just not going to protect a dining table that gets used.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2010 at 8:48PM
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