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Removing Wax from wood and burls

Sometimes, particularly with imported and exotic burls, we find that our latest treasures have been coated in wax. When this is milled turning stock with flat sides and no live edge, the wax can be planed or cut away easily. But when dealing with a piece with live edge, the wax cannot simply be cut away and preserve the live edge. To remove this wax, we must either scrape it away or melt it off.

Scraping away wax can be a tedious endeavor and may not give suitable results. Using a flat tip screwdriver, plastic scraping tool, stiff bristle brush or wire brush may remove most of the wax but could potentially damage surface of the live edge. Wax may also become trapped in small cracks or crevices within the wood. Much of this can be removed with the use of a pick, however it may not be possible to remove all the wax.

If the wax is melted on the surface of the wood in an oven or by any other means of dry heat, the liquid wax will become absorbed in the wood itself potentially ruining the piece. To avoid melted wax being absorbed into the wood, the best method of removal is to boil the wax off. As the heat from the water melts the wax, the wax will float to the surface of the water. This pulls the wax away from the wood before it can be absorbed. Only water can do this on the entire surface area of the wood. Wrapping the wood and paper towel might soak up liquid wax, however it will not be in direct contact of the entire surface and therefore some wax will be absorbed into the wood.

Boiling Wax Off a Burl

Although there may be some cases where you might wish to boil wax off a piece other than a burl, preserving the live edge on a burl is the most common reason to use the boiling method. This section will focus primarily on burl but the process is the same for any piece.

Step 1: What you need

First, you will need an old pot of suitable size to hold the piece or pieces you want to de-wax. This should be an old pot, a special “shop” pot from a secondhand store, or anything other than your wife or mother’s cooking pots. Nothing will ruin the experience and enjoyment of a new project faster than having to explain why the dinner pot is covered in wax.

The second thing you will need is a way to hold the burl (or other) submerged underwater. An old plate, an old potato masher, or any other way to prevent the wood from floating can be used, as long as it can take the heat.

Step 2: Setup

Second, place your burl or other wood in the pot. Position the burl with as much of the live edge facing up as possible. This will help prevent the melted wax from becoming trapped in pockets and pits on the live edge. The bubbles that form at the bottom of the pot when the water boils should be enough to agitate the water and move wax on that bottom flat cut face of a burl cap so that it may float to the surface. **Pro Tip** While a small plate might be a suitable way to weigh down a burl, I have found that it will often trap pockets of wax. Use of a metal clothes hanger or other ways to hold the wood down without trapping pockets of wax underneath may be best. Once you are satisfied with the position of the pieces, fill the pot with water no less than one inch above the highest surface of the wood. Be sure there is enough room left in the pot so the water will not boil over.

Step 3: Boiling the wax off

Paraffin wax will melt at a very low temperature, therefore we do not need much more than a low boil. Once the water has begun to boil, continue to boil for at least 10 to 15 minutes. If you notice the water level dropping too close to the wood or see wood become exposed, add a little bit of water and continue to boil. Once you’re satisfied that the wax has been melt off the wood you may remove from heat so that it can cool but do NOT remove the wood.

Step 4: Removing the wood

Although I have seen suggestions to skim the wax off the surface of the water before it has cooled, I do not recommend this. It is very unlikely that you can skim all of the wax off the surface of the water and would therefore be putting wax back on your wood if you attempted this method. I recommend leaving the wood completely submerged until the entire pot has cooled and the wax has solidified on the surface of the water. The solid wax may then be pulled out and the wood removed. If you try to remove the wood before the wax completely solidifies, then you will simply re-coat the surface of the wood with wax, kind of like dipping a candle.

When I am removing wax from large pieces or in large volume I often use an old turkey fryer. Although a pot of that size does not cool very fast and the wood will remain in the water often for many hours at a time, it makes doing multiple pieces easier. In order to speed up the process I might add ice to the pot or place the pot in a large tub of cold water full of ice packs and ice. This is only so that I might go about my business and get on to other projects quicker. While the wood will soak up water, this is not contained water. The free water absorbed in the wood does not become trapped within the cells and will very quickly evaporate once the wood has been removed. This will not affect the drying time of the wood or cause any harm to the wood.

Once the wood has been removed and allowed to dry, you may notice some very small amounts of wax on the wood. This happens when the melted wax remains stuck to the wood from surface tension or has become trapped in a way that does not allow it to float to the surface. In every case I have seen so far, this has been very easy to remove with a soft brush. Something like a brush for washing dishes or an old toothbrush is often all I need to remove any wax that remains. 

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