Which Wax?

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I had someone ask me about a particular product being sold to aid in pipe restoration. I won’t mention the actual product here because I have never used it. But I suspect that it is a type of microcrystalline wax. So this got me thinking about wax, carnuba, and other things people put on their pipes in the hopes of making them shiny. It is actually a fascinating topic (well, interesting… maybe). Waxes are some of the most complex chemical mixtures we encounter in day to day life, and their properties can be fine tuned to suit many purposes ranging from polishing pipes to raising the meting temperature of chocolate bars.

Wax with the correct properties makes an ideal coating for briar pipes. It is waterproof, hard enough to offer some protection and repel dirt that would otherwise stain the wood, and can be polished to a gloss finish. Carnuba really shines (pun alert) in all of these properties and I’ll get into those sorts of details below.

Waxes are defined as being organic compounds (i.e. carbon based) that contain long alkyl chains. There can be some other stuff mixed in like lipids (fats) or alcohols (booze) but we are going to ignore that and focus on the alkyl chains since they determine many of the important properties of a wax. Alkyl chains are basically hydrocarbon chains and they can be long straight molecules or they can be filled with kinks and branches.

AlkylChains

The straight chain example above shows 2 alkyl chains linked by an ester (that oxygen “O” at the far right of the structure) This is typical of naturally occurring wax made by plants (e.g. carnuba) or animals (beeswax). The branched chain example is a pure hydrocarbon (i.e. only contains carbon and hydrogen) and this is typical of wax derived from petroleum (e.g. paraffin).

The melting point (the temperature at which the wax becomes a liquid) of wax is highly correlated with the length of the alkyl chains. The longer the chains, the higher the melting point. Also branching and kinking of the chain impacts on the melting point. This means that wax can be engineered to melt in a particular temperature range. The other important feature of wax is the hardness which is largely determined by the other stuff like lipids mentioned above. For example, the addition of a bit of mineral oil to hard paraffin wax can produce a softer wax like that found in ChapStick. ChapStick is a more complicated mixture, but that is the basic idea.

Beeswax

Beeswax is a natural wax made by bees in the construction of hives. Like other natural waxes, it is a complex mixture of long chain alkyl esters, with Triacontanyl palmitate being the primary component.

BeesWax

Beeswax melts at around 145○ F and is relatively soft. It is an incredibly versatile and useful wax that shows up in everything from candles to surgical wax. It is waterproof and can be polished to a gloss finish, but it is not hard enough to provide a lasting protective coating on pipes. It is handy as a tenon lubricant when used in very small amounts, however you should do this with great care as any significant buildup of wax at the tenon-mortise junction can lead to a cracked shank on the pipe. For this reason, the use of beeswax to tighten a loose tenon by applying a larger amount is discouraged.

Carnuba wax

Carnuba is a plant wax derived from the Carnuba Palm (Copernicia prunifera). It is a complex mixture of long chain alkyl esters such as Myricyl Cerotate with chain lengths as high as 30 carbon atoms long.

Carnuba

Carnuba is a very hard wax that is prized for its protective properties. It is used in a number of products including car waxes and coating of tablets in the pharmaceutical industry. The melting point of carnuba is around 185○ F making the highest melting point natural wax. Carnuba checks all of the boxes for briar pipes. It is waterproof, highly durable, and can be polished to a high gloss. Unfortunately the high melting point of carnuba necessitates the use of a buffing wheel to apply the wax to the pipe. The wheel creates enough friction to melt the wax such that it can be applied in a thin uniform coat. This puts it outside of the ability of many pipe smokers to use despite it being a superior finish.

Microcrystalline wax

Paraffin wax is a product of petroleum distillation and is primarily composed of straight hydrocarbons. When paraffin wax solidifies it forms a macrocrystalline structure (i.e. it s composed of large crystals of wax molecules). Other products of petroleum distillation include isoparaffinic (branched) and napthenic (cyclic) hydrocarbons. When wax composed of these compounds solidifies, it forms a microcrystalline structure.

Microcrystalline

The structure of these waxes leads to some interesting properties. However I need to add a caveat here that there are many formulations of microcrystalline wax and the properties can vary dramatically. For the formulations that would be useful for pipe use, they tend to have a higher melting point than paraffin and the value can be as high as 200○ F. They tend to be very hard and can produce a hard coating. And because of the microcrystalline structure, they can be applied by hand. Essentially, the microcrystals spread out into a uniform coat without melting. However, this can also be a negative as the coating can also be rubbed off with relatively little effort. These properties make it a reasonable wax for pipe maintenance and restoration in that it creates a protective waterproof coating that is relatively durable and can be buffed to a high gloss. However, the coating will not last as long as carnuba. These waxes also tend to have an unpleasant odor taste. Some people find the odor offensive enough that they will not use the product, and the taste issue makes microcrystalline was a poor choice for protecting ebonite stems.

Despite these issues, I successfully used both Halcyon II and Renaissance wax for pipe restoration for a number of years before investing in a buffing station. They provide a reasonable alternative for home use, and while there is a bit of an unpleasant odor associated with the products, I find that it dissipates in a few hours. I still occasionally use Halcyon II on rusticated pipes when I want a less glossy finish. If you want to repair and restore pipes professionally, or you want to get serious about maintaining your own pipe collection, then I highly recommend investing in a variable speed buffer that will allow you to use carnuba wax. But if you are just starting out, the microcrystalline waxes are an excellent alternative.

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2 thoughts on “Which Wax?

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only person with an interest in waxes! The idea of using natural waxes, especially beeswax, as finish or a component of finish for woodwork is very appealing to me. I recently made a very inexact finish using beeswax and mineral oil for some animal calls. I was quite pleased with the result. I’ve also finished calls in pure, melted beeswax followed by additional sanding and buffing. The feel of the wood is incredible, but not very glossy.
    Carnuba is excellent for the shine, no doubt! My regular finish for calls is always sealed by a coat of carnuba!
    As usual, a very interesting and well researched blog.
    Thanks!

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    • Hi Brian, glad to know another wax aficionado 😉 I have used that mineral oil/beeswax type of finish on a few items including a cutting board and I agree, there is something very tactile that the finish allows to come through and it reminds me that it is a piece of wood. Thanks, Mike.

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