After I finished building a pedestal table based on the Hancock Shaker Table, I thought I'd try a finishing system I hadn't used before. I went with the 3-part oil-and-wax finish made by Masterpiece Wood Finish. Here I'll share my experience with it.
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Deciding if This Finish is Right for Your Piece
First off this isn't a highly durable finish, and not maintenance free either; if your furniture will get a lot of heavy use then this may not be the best solution, or you may want to combine it with a varnish topcoat or something similar. For this table it will be fine, as it won't see more than a vase of flowers or the occasional paperback book.
The real winner about this type of finish are the oil basecoats that sink into the wood and give it that depth of color and natural luster. I built this table from some beautiful Walnut that already had lots of contrasting purples, tans and chocolate browns in it as well as a bit of curl figure on the central column. I knew the oil would highlight this character well. The addition of wax gives the woodworker the ability to adjust the shine of the finish while still keeping that depth and close-to-the-wood, finished look and this seemed like the perfect thing for my lovingly created table.
How Does This System Differ From DIY Oil and Wax?
As best I can tell, the Masterpiece system, while not terribly different from a can of Linseed oil and some paste wax, does simplify some elements and make the application pretty idiot proof. I haven't been able to get a clear answer on what "blend of oils and waxes" they employ (trade secret no doubt) and how this makes their finish superior to the DIY method, but the step-by-step instructions and premixed jars of finish do make the whole thing a lot easier with no guesswork. So if we assume the actual finish is no different, then I think this system still comes out ahead in application ease. But I'm getting ahead of myself, lets break down the process:
Step 1: Two coats of the oil basecoat
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This is the money coat! The dry wood is very thirsty and will soak up the oil quickly. You want to apply a very wet coat, and give each about 20 minutes to penetrate then wipe off the excess. Then allow at least 24 hours to dry between each coat. It doesn't get any simpler than this. I even rubbed it on with just my fingers (with gloves). Immediately it brought the wood to life.
Step 2: Two coats of oil and wax blend
I do think the midcoat step here is a plus over the DIY oil and wax finish, as it acts as a pore filler to give you a ridiculously smooth final surface. If your project is using a closed-grain wood like Maple or Cherry then this may not be a big deal to you, but with a semi ring-porous wood like Walnut, it really leveled and smoothed out the surface nicely.
Unlike the basecoat, this step is more like applying a really viscous wax. It is even a bit grainy in texture. I found this step worked best if I heated the jar a bit in my glue pot water bath; it allowed the finish to flow more readily.
You slather on a heavy coat, let it soak in for 20 minutes then come back and wipe it off. Allow another 24 hours to dry between coats here as well, as there is still oil in the mix and without proper drying time the surface will be tacky. Don't panic it goes on in a white, waxy, pasty mess and covers up your beautiful oil finish; you might immediately start to panic thinking you just ruined it, but when you come back and wipe it down with a paper towel you see the magic come to life.
Use a little elbow grease here to build up some heat and you will start to see a lovely warm luster spring up out of the wood. One coat at this phase would probably work for most species of wood, but I found the second coat to be an insurance policy to make sure I had a perfectly smooth surface for the final step.
Step 3: One coat of wax
The final step is all wax, and it looks and applies just like you would expect it. The key here is less is more. Wipe too much wax onto the surface and you will end up with a hazy white-ish surface later on.
The process is to wipe on the wax, let it dry, then buff to the desired luster. The drying time really depends on how thick a coat you apply. Again, err on the side of a really light coat and you can expect it will be dry and ready to buff in a few hours (or to be safe, twelve hours later). If you find that you didn't apply enough wax, you can always apply another coat, but I can't overstate how you want to be careful how much wax you apply.
I actually waited almost 36 hours for the wax coat to dry (life intervened) and buffed the surface to a nice satin finish just using a paper towel. I then waited another two weeks for the finish to fully cure before going back and buffing again. If a high gloss finish is desired I would definitely wait at least two to three weeks before attempting it as you want the wax to be dry and hard. Though if a high gloss is your aim, then perhaps going with a different finish altogether is a better option.
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There is no question this is a labor intensive finish; expect to take at least five to six days to complete the finishing process. Then add a few more weeks to the mix for that curing time, during which you want to put the piece in a well-ventilated area and put nothing on the surface. The results I think speak for themselves; the hand rubbed finish looks nice but most importantly feels incredible. This is a good thing because the finished look begs to be touched and you will find everyone who sees it immediately reaches out to run their hands over the wood.
Another nice factor of this specific finishing system is they provide you just enough to complete a typical project. For my small little table I had about half of the volume left over but I imagine a chest of drawers or a chair or table would use up the entire amount as designed. I would plan on having topcoat left over and for at least an annual reapplication as needed to maintain the luster. This is one of the drawbacks to a wax finish, as ongoing maintenance may be required. A lot depends on where the project sits and what kind of use it gets and how it is cleaned. Some dust products have oil and wax in them while others actually strip away wax.
If more durability is required, then you might skip the topcoat of wax and apply a varnish top coat. If you are worried about adhesion after the oil and wax midcoat, then a wash coat of 1/2- to 1-pound cut Shellac will ensure a good bond for your topcoat. I would use a super-blonde Shellac too, so as not to impart any additional color.
In the end, I have a mixed review on this finish. It worked as advertised and I have no complaints, but the lazy woodworker in me was not happy with the amount of work and the long application period. As someone who mostly uses Shellac and is used to applying several coats a day this process was painfully slow. I don't think that is a reflection on Masterpiece Wood Finish, but just a commentary on the type of finish.
However, looking now at my finished table I am really glad I took the time and effort to create this wonderfully touchable finish. Now my table sits in a corner with its best "come hither" flirtatious look. Put it this way, this is the first piece I have built that my wife noticed and commented on without me having to solicit her opinion.
This "Hand Tool School" series is provided courtesy of Shannon Rogers, a/k/a The Renaissance Woodworker. Rogers is founder of The Hand Tool School, which provides members with an online apprenticeship that teaches them how to use hand tools and to build furniture with traditional methods.