Waxing Troubles on a Conference Table

A finisher wants advice on how to successfully wax a finished conference table, but what he gets is mostly advice on how to apply a rubbed-out finish that won't need to be waxed at all. January 25, 2013

After reading several finishing book sections and viewing YouTube videos about the application of paste wax, the central message is about how easy it is. It is easy to apply and get a nice shine. But - and perhaps it is my perfectionism getting in the way - I am unable to get the nice even sheen depicted in the book photos or what I know the waxed surface should look like. Mine always look blotchy when viewed with light shown at an angle to the work. This scenario is a bit lengthy, but I want to include as much detail as possible.

I have the same issue on water-based lacquer, shellac or rock-hard varnish. I really like the hand-rubbed luster of wax after 0000 steel wool. Let me review my latest finishing schedule and perhaps you can discover what I'm doing wrong and provide advice.

I just refinished a walnut board room table. I stripped it, washed it, sanded to 320, stained with Mohawk Van Dyke Brown ultra-penetrating stain-reduced 50%, applied wax free shellac, light sanded, sprayed Enduro satin water-based lacquer, sanded after coats 3 and 4 using 600 Abranet (this doesn't cut too much, because I always fear sanding through). My hope was that coat 5 would be perfect - no nibs, no imperfections. Of course that was not the case. So I sanded with 600 Abranet and rubbed with Liberon 0000. Any nibs, bubbles, and other imperfections were sanded out. The end result looked really great - so far.

I waited 4 days before I applied a coat of Moser's dark brown paste wax to a small (1' x 1') section using a very soft cloth, let it haze over, then rubbed with the grain with a soft towel over a felt block. It looked pretty good. But as I progressed, I could see inconsistencies in the sheen when viewed with light shown at an angle to the work. There were areas where it was perfect, areas where the wax swirls were evident, areas where clearly there was wax overlap from one waxed section to the next. I'm a pretty fit guy, but the sweat was really pouring out as I rubbed. I also used a wool bonnet on my drill in an effort to remove these inconsistencies, but to no avail.

After the application of the second coat, these inconsistent areas were less noticeable, but the surface still did not have a nice even sheen. Just as a point of information, before buffing with the cloth, I waited until the wax was just about dry, which was perhaps less than a minute. (One video I watched said to wait hours and even overnight.) If I waited too long, it was essentially impossible to rub out the inconsistencies without reapplying wax to dissolve the wax below. I reluctantly deliver the table and it is placed where a chandelier will be placed. This might either hide these imperfections or enhance them.

Now that I have 2 coats of wax on the table, what should I do to get the uniform finish we all desire? Any help will be greatly appreciated since I can't afford the time nor anguish.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
The simple solution to your problem is: off-the-gun finish! This is not grandma's tilt top tea table that does not get any wear or traffic. Briefcases, laptops, pizzas and projectors are hard enough on a conference table top without your scratching the hell out of the finish to make up for a poorly applied finish. Sorry, I know not everyone has the setup or the skill to spray out a flawless film finish, but that will take time and practice.

If the conference table requires a high build, piano rub out, we will do that, but that is not what you're attempting. I have rubbed out conference tables in the middle of the night, for a Monday morning delivery, when I have had silicone contamination that could not be sprayed over. The trick with any rub out is to start with the lightest wet dry paper to remove the damage as quickly as possible without rubbing through. All work after that is to remove the damage that the subsequent paper or abrasive did.

Your 600 grit may not be heavy enough to pull out your imperfections and your 0000 steel wool is about 400 grit dry and about 500 grit dipped in wax. If you really want a waxed rub out finish, and I have no idea why, you need to start with either 400 or 600 depending on how bad the finish is and take the surface up to 1500 grit (on a flat platen air sander preferably). You want to squeegee after every grit and look across the surface and not see any low or shiny spots. Once done with a clean uniform scratch pattern, I would buff it out with light auto compound, then a glazing compound. This will give you a clean, next to no scratch, and a high gloss finish that can be abraded down with 0000 in a straight line, no hooking to your pattern. If you want to use Guardsman concentrate as a lubricant for the steel wool, you will get a final finish that is not full of paste wax smears and should be about 40 degree gloss that will dull down to about 25 degrees over time.

Your water base finish will need to cure (70 degrees temp, 24 hours and day 7 days) so you can get a decent rub out. Until that time it is way too soft. The easier approach is to spray two coats of a vinyl sanding sealer with a shot of smoothie. Bust sand with 280 on a quarter pad sander, then spray on 4 wet on wet coats of a post cat. Acrylic 30 gloss and walk away or more appropriately deliver and collect your money! Sorry, I am lazy and we charge $125 a linear foot for Friday to Monday morning delivery. Shellac and wax finishes have their place, but that is not on a partial board and veneer table.

From contributor C:
I read your post and was all ready to respond as I make lots of conference tables. Then I read contributor M's detailed response and he said exactly what I was going to advise! Follow his comments and you will not only be less frustrated, but you will also have a client who won't be calling to ask you to re-wax that table every 8 weeks!

From contributor J:
Yup, contributor M has given you a lot of good advice already. I also have not had any luck with waxes and avoid even playing with them anymore. I do rubbed finishes very, very rarely, but in a similar way to contributor M with a couple small differences.

First I start out with a hard finish. Last one I used MLC's EuroBuild on, and it is really nice (although pricey), for this kind of application. I scuff between every coat and for a flat surface I start with 320 grit. Yup, it's coarse, but on a flat surface it cuts fast. If you're nervous you can start with 400 (what I use for edges and profiles, etc.), but 600 is just way too fine to get anything done. I sand through to about 1000 grit, but I'm not going for gloss finishes, so no need for higher. I then finish up using a buffer and compound to get the sheen I want.

I also think you may be rubbing out too quickly. Water based finishes take a long time to fully cure. Another reason to avoid rubbing finishes out, especially on WB finishes.

From contributor I:
I agree with the comments above. I have a counter attached to the desk in my office that gets similar use to a conference table. I finished it with oil and wax because I really do like the look and feel. All I can say is that maintaining it is too much of a hassle!

I set my coffee down on it every day, and you can see plenty of evidence of that. Even with light to moderate use, I found myself having to re-wax so much, I gave up applying paste wax and started using a product made for butcher block countertops that I could apply casually every time I clean it.

I am eventually going to strip it and spray it. I regret not doing that in the first place.