Wax as Protective Coating for Paintings

Although wax has been used for centuries as a wood finish and sometimes as a finish for pictures, wax does not provide the same protection as a resin varnish. However, wax has been used on top of a resin varnish film to reduce the surface’s gloss and protect the varnish from dirt. It is also useful as a protective film on paintings that are not typically varnished, such as tempera or watercolor.

Advantages of Wax as a Final Coat

Wax is very resistant to acids. With strong alkalies, it may form soaps and an emulsion. It does not oxidize, as do fatty oils, and it does not turn yellow and lose body. It has been found unchanged in ancient remnants of paintings (Doerner 1949, 141). Of all surface coatings, it is the least permeable to water, water vapor, and gases (Rosen 1934).

Wax coatings scratch and mar easily. Because of their relative softness at high ambient temperatures, they may retain dirt.

Waxes of all types are stable materials that remain soluble in their original diluents. Removal from the surface of a varnish film does not pose problems, provided that the resin varnish was not or is no longer soluble in petroleum distillates.

Wax has an indefinite theoretical lifetime. Although shrinkage and brittleness of artifacts composed of beeswax have been reported (Clydesdale 1994), such problems have not been reported for wax varnishes.

Many believe that pure beeswax is the best choice among paste waxes. Today, however, synthetic waxes provide a greater range of cost, color, slip resistance, and hardness. Often natural and synthetic waxes are blended to make a paste wax that is harder and, in many other ways, superior to pure beeswax. Waxes like carnauba and microcrystalline are much harder than beeswax but are too hard to be used alone without blending with other softer waxes.

Use in Conservation

Since the 1930s, formulations of wax have been used as surface coatings on paintings that could not be varnished with solvent varnish solutions, as protective coatings (from dust and dirt) over spirit varnishes because of ease of removal with mild solvents, as local applications to even gloss of other varnishes; as additives to other varnishes to control (usually reduce) reflectance; as consolidants; as lining adhesives; as fill material (perfect for very shallow losses that are difficult to fill with other fill materials).


Wax varnishes have a low luster sheen that can be somewhat controlled by buffing the surface and by choice of wax used (i.e., generally, the harder the wax, the glossier the sheen; carnauba wax is the hardest natural wax and may be buffed to the highest shine of any of the natural waxes).

Wax is often rubbed or wiped onto the painting surface as a very thin layer. They become opaque when dry. The drying time varies with ambient conditions but is usually of short duration. The surface is buffed with a soft cloth to attain the desired sheen.


Conservators recommend using wax as a coating on top of a resin varnish film to reduce the gloss of the surface overall or to protect the varnish from dirt. The wax may be removed and replaced if necessary without disturbing the underlying varnish. Wax may be used as a final coating for a paint film that has a rough surface that was unintended and could not be eliminated by other means. The low luster appearance of the wax would eliminate the highlights on the elevations (Bradley 1950). The local application may be made with a finger or cloth to matte down overly glossy areas of a varnished painting.

A survey of painting conservators indicates that wax alone is little used as a separate final surface coating. However, it is commonly used as an additive to the final spray coats of many natural and synthetic resins to create a matte surface or a more even surface sheen. Conservators who occasionally use waxes alone as a final coating often use microcrystalline waxes to create a matte surface or even out already applied varnishes.

Conservar Wax

Conservar Wax is a soft paste of microcrystalline wax and aldehyde resin in mineral spirits. Conservar Wax’s non-yellowing mixture of resin and wax protects surfaces by sealing out dirt, air, and moisture. Conservar Wax improves the luminosity and clarity of colors.

Conservar Wax can also be used as a final coat on paintings, metal sculptures, wood carvings, and antiques. Since it is made with microcrystalline wax, it is also the best final treatment for fine wooden furniture and woodwork, both antique and modern,

Conservar Wax can also be used to reduce the gloss of varnish. Mix directly with the liquid varnish before applying it to the painting. No heating is required. It can be buffed to a gloss finish and thins with turpentine or mineral spirits.

How to Apply Conservar Wax

  1. Dip the center of a square of soft, lint-free cloth in the can of Conservar Wax. Fold the cloth into a pad so the wax is at the bottom and clean folds are on top for gripping.

  2. Rub in circular motions, one small region at a time, moving across the painting until the wax is applied over the entire surface.

  3. After the surface becomes dull, remove the surplus wax. Use another soft, clean cloth and turn it over as often as possible.

  4. Continue waxing and wiping until the whole furniture piece is done. If you see a streak, continue wiping to eliminate surplus wax.

Helpful Hints

Conservar Wax is easy to apply and maintain. Here are a few helpful hints:

CLEAN: Before applying Conservar Wax, brush the surface with a soft-haired brush or a soft, lint-free cloth. If dirt and grime are not easily removed from the surface, please consult Best Practices for Cleaning Paintings.

APPLY THE RIGHT AMOUNT: The biggest mistake when applying paste wax is applying too much. Wax is very soft compared to resin films, so it is easily abraded and, when built up in thicker layers, will produce a hazy surface.

USE THE RIGHT CLOTH: Using a clean, soft, lint-free cloth, apply Conservar Wax by dipping the cloth into the can of wax.

USE THE RIGHT METHOD: Rub the wax in a circular motion over the surface. Rub firmly without using excess pressure to spread the wax thinly. Apply only enough to cover the surface in a thin layer.

Buffing Conservar Wax

After applying the wax, the next step is to buff Conservar Wax. When is the right time to do that? Wait for the solvent in Conservar Wax to evaporate. Conservar Wax contains fast evaporating solvents, so it usually can be buffed in about ten or fifteen minutes after application, depending on your local environment, such as the temperature, relative humidity, etc., all of which affect the drying time and how the wax buffs out. If all the conditions are correct and the proper amount of wax is applied, you will know the wax is ready to buff when it looks dry or hazy.

When Conservar Wax is ready, take another clean cloth and buff the surface. Buffing lightly will produce a satin sheen, while more vigorous buffing can produce a higher sheen or even a gloss. If you try to buff the wax too soon before the solvent fully evaporates, you will likely strip the wax from the surface. This is why a poorly waxed surface appears to have shiny and dull areas. If the solvent in the paste wax has not fully evaporated, the buffing cloth will pick up the solvent and remove hardened wax as you attempt to buff the surface. It is harder to buff out if the paste wax is left on too long without polishing. In any case, you should not be alarmed; this can easily be corrected by applying another coat of Conservar Wax.

How Often Should You Apply Conservar Wax?

That depends greatly on how often the surface is dusted and cleaned. Every time a waxed surface is “wiped,” minute amounts of wax are removed. Eventually, there is not enough wax on the surface to provide an even shine. This is when a new coat of wax should be applied.

Maintaining a waxed surface is easy. It must only be dusted with a soft-haired brush or soft, lint-free cloth. A slightly moistened cloth may help remove dirt if the waxed surface becomes dirty. If that does not work, remove the wax by buffing it with a soft, lint0-free cloth. Reapply Conservar Wax.

Where to Buy

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