Removing Paste Wax from Furniture

Some detailed information about wax, solvents, and cleaning before refinishing. June 18, 2013

I have inherited a project from someone, and I believe that they didn't sand after the first coat of applying a water-based stain, and then they applied a furniture wax. I want to try to get a better (smoother) finish, but not sure how to do that. Can I simply sand to remove the wax and also sand the stained wood, apply another coat of stain, and then add the wax once? I am sure the grain isn't standing up from the stain (if so I just sand again correct)? I am definitely not up to speed on finishing technique. Definitely appreciate (in advance) any guidance folks can provide.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
Try using steel wool instead of sandpaper.

From contributor F:
The problem is the wax. It must be removed before you can proceed. It has to be stripped and maybe more than once. After it is gone, you can check to make sure you removed all the wax by wiping down the surface with Naptha and blowing air over it. If the wax is gone the Naptha will disappear instantly. It will stay wet where wax remains. After youíre sure the wax is removed you can then sand the surface and make a glorious finish.

From the original questioner:
I figured that the wax application was indeed going to be the issue. Thanks for confirming. Now my next question is what is the best way to remove the wax? Is there a specific stripper or solvent that should be used?

From contributor F:
Any stripper from Home Depot or Lowes will work. Make sure you rub the surface with a red ScotchBrite and lacquer thinner. Then scrub the surface with a new ScotchBrite and naptha. If the naptha does not flash off immediately you must repeat above steps.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the clarification. I will look into it and give it a try.

From contributor B:
Naphtha will dissolve most paste waxes, as will virtually all petroleum distillates (ranging from kerosene, gasoline, paint thinner, toluene, etc.) and other solvents such as turpentine.

Paste waxes are typically made of one some combination of beeswax (expensive, but used in small amounts), minimally refined petroleum distillates such as parafin, and carnauba wax (from the Brazilian Copernicia palm tree). The first two waxes melt at around 135 degrees, carnauba melts at about 180, so it's too difficult to apply, thus is mixed with the other two waxes.

Naphtha (naphthalene) is a by-product of the crude oil refining process, and is formed in a step that produces parafin and small amounts of butane. Since it's a brother to parafin it can dissolve (or, blend with) parafin with ease. Another trait of naphtha is that it evaporates quickly. For this reason it's often better to use a slower evaporating solvent such as paint thinner. Paint thinner's molecules are different, meaning you'll work a bit harder, but it gives you a longer working time.

Certain waxes (BriWax) will dissolve better or quicker with toluene that with naphtha, but as with the paint thinner example above, naphtha will dissolve the wax - you'll just have to worker harder and longer.

From contributor F:
I guess no matter how many times you go over a waxed table top naptha alone will not remove all the wax, as it stays in the pours. I was originally trained on antiques and mostly French at that. Some pieces I remember were two or three hundred years old and the only finish ever applied was wax. It was so hard to get out sometimes I had to strip a piece 3 times.

From contributor F:
I do not have fond memories of those tables. I think some of them had as much as a 1/4 inch of wax on them. I never knew what kind and I could never ever get it all out. That was back in the day when you could have the local chemist mix up any percentage of methylene chloride you wanted. Itís a wonder I have any brain cells left. After three attempts and the naptha did not flash off immediately it was several spit coats of shellac.

From contributor B:
I know your pain. I've done similar work. I used to have to place flannel cloth over old oak and use a clothes iron to melt the wax into the cloth. Boss would raise hell when fisheyes would later appear after all stain or finish solvents had evaporated.

From contributor F:
I also remembered that 90% of those tables maybe ten or so the finish failed after three-five years. After several spit coats of shellac they were shot with nitrocellulose lacquer. So that just goes to show even with my most diligent efforts and the strongest chemicals known to man at the time. I could not remove that wax. I am not even sure it was all wax.

They were all farm tables almost all were cherry. A very enterprising man would drive around France to farms and when he found a house with an old table he would offer them a brand new table for theirs. I think everyone took the deal. That man would resell them at a big profit.