Back in the day when I first began painting furniture I was totally uneducated about the products I was using. I started with latex paint, and then upped my game and began using milk paint and homemade chalk paint, both of which needed a topcoat of wax (or something). At the time, I assumed all furniture wax was created equal. I purchased some SC Johnson paste wax at my local hardware store and figured I was good to go. And I spent a summer using that wax out in my carriage house workshop. The wax had a nasty chemical smell sort of like paint thinner, but I figured all waxes had that smell. When I wanted to experiment with an ‘antiquing wax’ I ordered some dark walnut Briwax online and mixed that with my SC Johnson wax. It definitely did the trick and created the look I wanted, but if anything the Briwax was even stinkier than the SC Johnson. That only confirmed my misguided notion that all waxes smelled bad.
Fast forward to winter. Back then I usually took a break from painting furniture in the winter. But I had an adorable little wash stand that I really wanted to paint. I figured I could paint it indoors and then wax it on my enclosed front porch. It was warm enough out there, but even with the door shut between the house and the porch, that stink made its way inside the house and it wasn’t pleasant.
So much for winter painting!
But then I discovered Miss Mustard Seed wax. Eureka! It has a scent to it, but it’s very mild, not a harsh chemical smell. I could wax inside the house all day long and not feel like my house smelled like a workshop.
However, it definitely costs more than the cheapy stuff.
Since I’m a cheapskate, I was determined to find a cheaper choice. As a result, I’ve tried many different brands of wax and guess what? They didn’t really save me any money at all because I’d open up the can and realize I was back at stinky wax. As it turns out, you get what you pay for. Sometimes. But other times even the more expensive ‘name brand’ waxes are just as stinky.
Initially my decision to ‘splurge’ on the Miss Mustard Seed wax was really just based on the lack of smell. But recently it occurred to me that I do A LOT of painting. I should really be thinking about what kinds of chemicals I am subjecting myself (not to mention the environment) to on such a frequent basis. This really is about more than just dealing with an unpleasant odor, what about repeated exposure to unknown chemicals? Just what exactly is causing that stink?
I tried to do some online research into the ingredients in various brands of wax, and guess what? For a lot of the brands it’s really hard to find that info. Apparently back in 2009 Senator Al Franken helped introduce a bill called the 2009 Household Product Labeling Act which would have required paint manufacturers to list all ingredients on their packaging, but it did not pass. But honestly, even if the ingredients themselves were listed, would you know what they are? I know I wouldn’t.
So I went straight to my source, Homestead House Paint Co, and asked the simple question “hey, how come your wax doesn’t stink?” and I got a nice email back from Loree Pringle with lots of info about beeswax and carnauba wax, and about how they need a solvent to allow them to be spread into a thin layer. Then she put me in touch with Roger Clapham, the co-president of the company that manufactures their waxes. He gave me a bunch of really science-y info about atoms in a chain and whether or not they hold hands (or something like that) that was way over my head. But basically he explained that there are two kinds of solvents that can be used for this purpose, aromatic hydrocarbons and aliphatic hydrocarbons. The aromatic hydrocarbons have that chemical smell like paint thinner, and include Toluene or Benzene. And guess what? Aromatic hydrocarbons are considered carcinogens. Yeah, that means they have been shown to cause cancer. Both the Miss Mustard Seed waxes and the Homestead House waxes contain no aromatic hydrocarbons. Instead they use aliphatic hydrocarbons.
So I followed up with the next obvious question, why would any wax still contain aromatic hydrocarbons if they are so bad? According to Roger, the aliphatic hydrocarbons are weaker solvents than aromatic hydrocarbons. Products made with aromatic hydrocarbons require less of them to do the job and those products can be more durable and provide more shine. For example, he does not believe the Homestead House wax is durable enough to hold up to foot traffic on my stairs (although I’m going to try it anyway one of these days).
As Roger says himself, he has a healthy respect for aromatic hydrocarbons and their usefulness as long as people understand what they are working with and take precautions. If you still want to use one of those products, Roger gave me some safety tips: Buy a mask specifically designed to protect against aromatic solvents (OSHA certified) and wear it while working with them (changing the filters as directed). Toxins can be absorbed through the skin, so wear rubber gloves. Pay attention to air circulation, apply the finish outdoors or use a fan and open the window. On the plus side, the danger is gone once the solvent has evaporated. So a piece of furniture that has this type of wax on it is no longer hazardous at that point, once the smell is gone so is the hazard.
Since we can’t rely on a label to tell us what kind of solvent a wax product uses, I say rely on your nose. Give your wax the old sniff test. Does it smell like paint thinner?
If so, ask yourself if this is really something you want to be working with on a regular basis? And are you using the proper precautions?
As for me, I’m not a fan of gloves and gas masks. Working outdoors is only an option about six months out of the year here in Minnesota. So I finally tossed all of those stinky waxes and am going to stick with the non-smelly stuff!
Now for the fun part! Here is your chance to give the non-smelly stuff a try yourself. When I told the people at Homestead House that I wanted to post about this subject, they graciously provided me with a truckload of free samples to giveaway.
I have 8 small jars of wax and I thought I’d give them away in pairs, so 4 lucky winners will each get 2 jars of wax. I have a variety of different waxes including Miss Mustard Seed White Wax, Antiquing Wax and Furniture Wax, Homestead House Furniture Wax in clear, Espresso and Black, and a couple jars of Salad Bowl Finish. I will draw 4 names at random from the comments left on this blog post by Sunday, January 29 at midnight (central time), so all you need to do is leave a comment to get your name in the running to win. Best of luck to you!
Note: the Safety Data Sheet for SC Johnson paste wax lists Ethylbenzene and Naphthalene as ingredients (both aromatic hydrocarbons). Briwax contains Toluene, however they do offer a Toluene free version of their product, but I was not using that version.
Also please note that I have not been paid by Homestead House for this post but they have provided me with free samples of their waxes and other products including Fusion paint, Homestead House milk paint and Miss Mustard Seed products. In addition they provided me with the waxes that I am giving away with this post.