Finishing Over Wax

Advice on cleaning and priming waxed furniture pieces. December 1, 2009

I received five mirror frames, deeply carved, that were finished with clear wax over raw, white wood. The client wants them refinished with a dark stain and some dry brushed glazing. I took the smallest frame and tried to remove as much wax as possible with lacquer thinner, and then sprayed vinyl sealer over it, thinking it would dry and I could stain on top of the sealer. This didn't work. The frame now looks and feels like it was sprayed with corn syrup (thick, soft, sticky). Does anyone have any suggestions?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
Mix three tablespoons of Lye (sodium Hydroxide) crystal in water. Flood waxed surface. Wax will be turned into soapy compounds in a process call saponification. Wash with distilled vinegar to neutralize lye. Dye with water or alcohol dye and then vinyl sealer and topcoat. It works all the time if you can deal with the lye water turning the wood darker.

From contributor S:
With all the exposed end grain on carvings there is a good chance you would "burn" the wood with lye before you get it all off. That is likely to leave the frames with a very fuzzy wood surface if you are not real careful. Itís an absolute PITA to try to sand fuzzy off of carvings. If it is only wax it should remove readily with mineral spirits. It may take a few passes but will take less time in the end. Wax is tough to get out of raw wood completely. You can try dying it with a water dye, otherwise an alcohol dye. You can stain it also if necessary. Seal your color work in with a coat of shellac before doing any other finish coatings.

From contributor A:
Fuzz from the lye is easily removed with some steel wool. I would seal with penetrating oil and rub with steel wool while wet with oil prior to vinyl sealer if raised grain it a big concern. I use this method to burn off tool marks on CNC carvings. Stripping with solvent is an option but contamination is scary. If you go with contributor S's suggestion let me add that a few thin coats of dewaxed shellac sealer will coat in any residual wax that is left and allow for good adhesion of a topcoat.

From contributor P:
I agree with the mineral spirits to clean off the wax. A light sanding and I would stain with an oil base product, seal with spray lacquer, glaze and top coat. The oil base stain would help blend in whatever wax may remain. Let it dry well before using lacquer.

From the original questioner:
The thought of using lye kind of scared me, so we cleaned off as much wax as possible with mineral spirits, then sprayed the frames with two coats of shellac. Then we sanded, stained, sprayed vinyl sealer, glazed, and finished with lacquer. It came out better than I thought. Thanks for all the input!