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Step by Step: Applying a Wax Finish on a Wood Floor

By Daniel Boone
August/September 2007
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Wax finish is an old-fashioned look for wood floors—the way contractors did it in the old days before the urethanes came out. Through the '40s, '50s and '60s, wax was very popular, and today, it's coming back. Many architects and designers have jumped on the bandwagon of waxed floors, especially because wax goes so well with the hand-scraped and distressed floors that are popular. About 30 percent of my jobs now are waxed floors. Another reason I like a waxed floor is that the homeowner can maintain it themselves. With a prefinished or job-site-finished urethane floor, the homeowner has to call a professional, but the waxed floor can be touched up with a white pad on one of those little rental buffers. And, while some people may disagree, I think a waxed floor is also a very durable floor.

Following are the steps I use to do a waxed floor with two coats of shellac and two coats of wax. The pictures are from a demo I did at the NOFMA/NWFA Wood Flooring Basics School last March, where we did half the panel with paste wax and the other half with liquid wax.

SUPPLY LIST

  • shellac (amber or clear)
  • denatured alcohol
  • natural or dark brown paste wax OR natural or dark brown liquid wax
  • lambswool applicator or 6-inch China bristle brush
  • rags
  • buffer
  • 1/4 - or 3/4 -inch white pad
  • steel wool (1/0 to 4/0, depending on sheen desired)
  • small steel wool pads for edges
  • maroon pad

Step 1

Sand the floor as you would to prepare for any finish and apply stain, if desired. Mix shellac and denatured alcohol in a 50/50 mix. Because you're using shellac, take all precautions with any type of electric or gas ignition, and use an OSHA-approved respirator.

Step 2

Apply the mixture with a lambswool applicator or a 6-inch China bristle brush. You'll get about 500 to 700 square feet per gallon of the mixture. The shellac dries quickly, so apply it evenly and at a steady pace. If you aren't used to applying it, practice before doing it on a job (especially with amber shellac), or you'll have streaks and applicator marks all over the floor, and you can't buff them out.

Step 3

Before applying another coat of shellac, buff the floor using a 16-inch steel wool pad (choose the grade depending on the sheen you want) or a maroon pad. Buffing between shellac coats helps eliminate grain raise, bubbles and debris in the finish. You'll need to wait about two hours if drying conditions are good or possibly until the next day (always check the manufacturer's recommendations) before buffing the first coat. Then, clean the floor and apply the second coat of shellac.

 

Step 4

Now you want to smooth the floor. Use a 16-inch steel wool pad backed with a thick white pad or a maroon pad backed with a thick white pad—either way, you want it to be real forgiving. You'll need to use smaller pieces of the same material by hand at the wall lines. After buffing, clean the floor by vacuuming or sweeping. Then you're ready to apply the wax.

Step 5

You can use either paste wax or liquid wax, just make sure it's a wax made specifically for wood floors, not kitchen wax or bathroom wax (for liquid wax, skip ahead to Step 8).

For paste wax, use cheesecloth or terrycloth white rags like the ones you buy at the hardware store. Whatever you use, the rag should be porous so it allows the wax to flow out evenly. Scoop out a clump of the wax and wrap it up in the rag.

Step 6

For strip or plank floors, rub on the wax in the direction of the flooring. On pattern floors like the fingerblock shown here, rub it in a circular motion. If you rub it straight on parquet, you can leave streaks or lines. Do rows of about 2 feet at a time.

You can either immediately buff in the wax or allow it to dry for one hour (again, check the manufacturer's recommendations). (If you buff it in right away, allow the wax to dry for one to two hours before polishing it.)

Step 7

Use a white pad or a steel wool pad to buff in the wax. What you use—the white pad or the different grades of steel wool—depends on the sheen desired (see "A Few Tips" sidebar below). For a parquet floor, buff it north and south, then east and west. Let the wax dry (about 10 minutes), then buff the floor again to get the lustre you want. Use a clean or new white pad or steel wool pad; you'll need to change it frequently because it loads up (when it does, it just smears the wax rather than polishing it). Skip ahead to Step 10.

Step 8

If you use liquid wax, you can go from Step 4 to this step. Pour out the liquid floor wax, then use a soft terrycloth rag or another rag that will hold a lot of wax.

 

Step 9

Just as with paste wax, you want to apply the wax straight on strip or plank floors and in a circular motion on parquet floors. Let the liquid wax dry for one to two hours before buffing, or buff it in immediately and then let it dry for one hour before polishing (check the manufacturer's recommendations).

Step 10

Use the buffer to buff in the wax and then to polish it to the desired sheen, as discussed in Step 7. Even if you're going to apply another coat of wax, make sure you get the first coat to the lustre you want. You can always make the floor less glossy on the second coat, but you can't make it more glossy, so keep that in mind when you buff the first coat.

Step 11

Now apply a second coat of whichever type of wax you're using.

Step 12

After the second coat of wax is dry, buff it again to polish it to the desired lustre. Here we're using a white rag that's almost like a flannel material or the inside of a sweatshirt to polish the floor to a semi-gloss sheen. You can also use wool carpeting remnants or a fine or super-fine polishing brush made for the buffer.

Step 13

If the floor is polished out to the sheen you would like and the conditions in the house are good, you can move the furniture back in when you are finished. If it is humid, wait at least 24 hours (always follow the manufacturer's recommendations). Be sure your customer understands how to do spot repairs and maintain the floor.

A Few Tips

Whether you use paste wax or liquid wax is a matter of personal taste; there's a difference in the look of each. Paste wax goes on thicker and you get a faster build, but applying it takes longer. Liquid wax goes on quicker and smoother but also thinner.

You can get a wide variety of colors depending on whether you use clear or amber shellac and natural or dark brown wax. You can also use universal tints that mix with denatured alcohol to affect the color.

You can get dozens of sheens depending on the buffer technique and the material you use. For example, just a white pad will make the floor semi-gloss to shiny. A rougher steel wool like 1/0 will make the floor rougher, while the finer steel wool like 4/0 will make it shiny.


Daniel Boone is president at DeLand, Fla.-based Everwood Floors Inc.



Wax            Finishing            Distressed        shellac    paste wax    liquid wax   

 Comments:

Hello! It's great to hear that waxed floors are back in style! I always thought it was easier to finish and maintain them myself rather than bring in a professional. However, this time, my second time refinishing them, I am having an issue with white streaks on some parts of my floor. The streaks seems to be more near the edge of the floor where the floor meets the wall. The white areas appear after the wax has dried and don't disappear after buffing them out. The stain seemed to have gone on evenly and the floor looked great until I waxed it! Can you tell me why this happens and what I can do to fix it? I used Minwax stain, gave it about a week to dry and a paste wax over that buffing it out with an orbita sander (lambswool bonnet). Thanks!
Laura  White streaks on waxed hardwood  2/26/2011 2:26:36 PM

GREAT ARTICAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sprigg Lynn  Floorman  3/7/2011 6:19:20 AM

Laura, I had a similar issue with white streaks. I found that if I heated the area with a heat gun to melt the wax the streaks would go away. Dave
Dave  mechanic  4/24/2012 7:04:45 PM

I don't understand why you need the shellac. What happens if you just wax the wood directly? Isn't that an option also used?
Thomas    5/5/2012 6:32:11 PM

I'm wondering too,why the shellac?...what about waxing only...I'm interested in low toxicity and shellac fumes seem like a bad idea...
janet    7/18/2012 2:59:11 PM

I've been using Trewax Mahogany stain wax on the floor in my room and I'm excited to see the final results. Doing all the work the old fashioned way....with elbow grease and a ratty old towel. I've pulled more splinters out of my hands than I care to admit....but the work is worth it.
James    9/16/2012 7:53:31 AM

I use button shellac, which is harder and richer in color than Bulls Eye hardware store shellac- it goes on easier and blends with previous layers much better. Check out shellac.net for a great selection of colors. I put the buttons in an old blender to crush them, then let them soak in alcohol for 2 days (but longer is better- 1 month works great). Keep in mind that shellac is incredibly safe for animals and children. In fact, it is often used on children's toys, pills, and fruits and vegetables. The fumes are only as harmful as Ethanol alcohol, which go away quite quickly. I would guess that the paste wax is more harmful than the shellac.
John   Restorer  10/17/2012 4:17:30 PM

I'm looking for some advice. I have old, nicely ambered, maple 1.25" strip floors with some nice details in them (borders and strips that follow the direction of a bay window). Unfortunately, the floor will only take one more sanding (if I'm lucky). The boards are cupped and the last person to sand did so perpendicular to the grain. I want to sand them, to the extent that I can, and then finish them with shellac so that I can, overtime, maintain a finish and not have to sand again. I have two questions. First, if I am unable to take down enough wood to remove the cupping, will that pose a real problem for finishing with shellac (I imagine it puddling in the center of each board). Second, if I follow the shellac with wax, how do I remove the wax to fix the shellac when the time comes to do so?
David  DIY  11/26/2012 5:57:08 PM

David, don't know if you've tackled your floor already or not. If you have, maybe this'll help the next visitor. I can't answer your second question about repairing waxed shellac (I came to this page looking to find out the same thing). But as to what you asked first, about preventing your shellac from puddling in cupped boards . . . from experience I can tell you you can avoid that by laying the shellac on board by board with a brush. I used a 2" flat Golden Taklon watercolor wash brush from an art supply store. They're soft, they don't shed, and they come in a variety of widths. Get one to match the width of your floorboards, or a little narrower. Brushing takes longer than anything you can do standing up with an applicator on a stick, but the results are a lot better. Oh, yes-- for even sanding in your circumstances, do it 45 degrees across the grain. If you've got the wood thickness left, it'll get rid of a lot of the unevenness.
Kathy  DIY  2/16/2013 5:57:15 PM

Hello! Has anyone ever had success with applying paste wax over liquid wax, without having to strip the floor first? I have 60-year old unsealed hardwoods. For various reasons, I cannot strip the whole floor right now. Down the road, for sure . . . I have a small buffer with pads, brushes, sanding discs, etc. So I do have some tools at my disposal, just can't re-door the entire floor anytime soon. Thanks very much.
Margaret  Honey Does  3/27/2013 1:52:42 PM

I have oak hardwood floors in my home which had a manufacturer stain and wax finished when we purchased. We put these floors in our home about 1990. For years we were able to purchase the recommended products for cleaning/stripping and then restain/waxing the floors. I think the it was a Bruce product which is no longer on the market. Will the above Stain/waxing work on my floors? I need help - no one seems to be able to tell me what to do for my floors. They are beginning to look really bad in places. I am concerned about using shellac you recommend. Please someone help me - putting sealers over the wax won't work - it would just peel off.
Barbara  Home - stain and wax hardwood   4/12/2013 3:07:14 PM

For Barbara: I have a similar floor, pre-stained, baked-in wax finish. Bruce no longer makes the Dark Liquid Paste Wax, but Lundmark does. It's Dark & Beautiful Heavy Duty Liquid Paste Wax with Cleaners for all woods, wood paneling, for oak and maple. It comes in a 1 qt. container. Lundmark's contact info: Lundmark Wax Company, Addison, Ill 60101, www.lundmark.com. I don't see a phone number on the container, but I believe you can get it off their website. Good luck!
Gayle  Retired  10/18/2013 12:28:58 PM

Hi, we bought some reclaimed maple flooring and installed it in place, sanded it, applied Lubricon Floor sealer and finished it with Lubricon Floor wax. The result is really nice except for one problem. We have a large door with much light coming in. just in front of the door where the light reflects in the floor, you see marks on the floor. They don't show anywhere else in the house, just where there is a reflection. We tried to figure our from where these marks are coming as they were'nt there when we applied the wax. When someone, wearing a tennis shoes, drags his feet you can see a mark on the floor. They are not black scuff marks, just a mark with a different sheen from the rest of the flooring. but there are really visible. Is there a way to avoid this, apart from not dragging your feet :-)
Bernardette Muscat    3/21/2014 10:15:25 AM

I'm selling my house and want to wax and buff the wood floors. But they are lacquar finish. Is it alright to wax and buff them? I need to do the easiest refresher.
Laurel    4/10/2014 7:28:24 PM


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