Wax or Varnish on Chalk Paint – All you need to know.

Read this first! You May Be Making Work For Yourself – Don’t make “another fine mess” with your choice of finish.

Wax or varnish over chalk paint, Laurel and Hardy mess

I wanted to write about something that has been a burning issue for some time on our Facebook group. Is it better to use varnish or wax over chalk paint?

This may be a controversial issue and many of you will have your own opinions and that’s great because I definitely want to hear them but we’re going to tackle the great debate on whether you should wax a piece of furniture or use a varnish.

What we’ll cover:

  • What’s the difference between using a wax or varnish over chalk paint ?
  • What actually is wax anyway?
  • What are the benefits of using either.
  • What are the downsides?
  • Can I mix the two?

Before we get going I should point out that I’m just writing this guide to be used in conjunction with Annie Sloan chalk paint decorative paint as its the only paint I currently use for any of my projects. And don’t forget that the rules also apply when painting and waxing or varnishing our beautiful mouldings. Just in case you didn’t know about those, pop over to have a look at our amazing range here.

The same principles of using varnish / wax will apply to any of the paints on the market that require some form of sealer finish coat. You each know which paint you enjoy using, I just prefer Annie Sloan Chalk Paint decorative paint. I will say though that the effect of waxing a latex paint such as Farrow and Ball Estate Eggshell will offer a completely different experience to a chalk or a milk paint. Latex paint doesn’t dry to a porous finish so any wax or varnish that you may apply over latex will effectively ‘sit’ on the surface and will not lastingly bond with the paint.

I cover many of the fantastic benefits of using Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in another post which you can read here.

I know that Annie is a great advocate of using wax to finish a project, but we’re going to have a look at the pros and cons of using wax and varnish to get the best and most durable finish for our projects.

In order to decide whether to use wax or varnish over chalk paint there are a few things to consider.
Required finish look.
Working environment.
Available time.
Required durability.

Okay, lets begin our comparison.

What’s the difference between the two? and why would you rub wax on a painted cupboard?

Before I started painting furniture the only thing I’ve ever expect to rub wax on as a protective finish is my car. In fact I have a great passion for car detailing, it’s one of my pastimes when I’m not painting furniture. Believe it or not the same debate rages within the car detailing industry: Should I finish with a wax or polymer sealant?
In many ways the reasons why you would use one or another are exactly the same for car as it is for a piece of furniture. You see many car enthusiasts believe that wax delivers a much warmer and deeper shine, the downside is that the finish doesn’t last more than a few weeks and needs topping up regularly.
Whereas those who prefer to use a synthetic polymer sealant like the fact that it delivers a much sharper and crisper gloss and also lasts a great deal longer as well as offering a greater level of protection than a wax as it bonds at a molecular level to create a hard-wearing invisible coating that will repel dirt for a decent amount of time.
So bringing this back to furniture, Should we be looking for the authentic vintage finish of a wax? or the crisper, less authentic but more durable finish of a varnish, or can we combine the two to get the best of both worlds?

Surely wax is too soft to be of any real protection?

This is the nerdy bit, we’re going to have a look at what wax actually is and how it protects your lovely new painted piece of furniture. The main active ingredient in a good wax is carnauba. Carnauba in it’s raw form is actually harder that concrete and is only found on the leaves of the palm tree known as Copernicia prunifera. These plants are only found in a few northeastern Brazilian states. As carnauba is naturally so hard it has to be added to other solvents in order to make it workable. These can generally include beeswax and turpentine. As the wax is applied these solvents evaporate leaving the carnauba to set hard and seal the porous paint surface as it cures. This offers A very tough and resilient finish that should stand up to most daily wear and tear under normal circumstances. So why would we look for an alternative in varnish? Are there any benefits to using a varnish?

Well the main issue with wax is that it can be tricky to use. Many folks still seem nervous about using it as there are many instances of waxing over a pristinely painted project has sullied the appearance of the finish and resulted in the need for re-painting. There is nothing worse that this I can tell you. I only ever want to do a job once.

Wax can be prone to marking fairly easily from items such as cups leaving water rings and will only repel a light sprinkling of water. Moisture should never be left to stand on a waxed finish.

It can also be a little unpredictable as variants such as temperature and painting technique can make a dramatic difference to the finished result. Apply your paint too thinly and you can find that you are left with a mottled finish that you are unhappy with, or you may experience differing levels of shine.
Waxing and buffing can also be rather laborious, especially if you are inexperienced and apply too much wax.
Many of these issues can be overcome with experience in painting however and there is no substitute for getting to know just how a product will react by using it regularly.

Annie Sloan doesn’t have a regular furniture varnish in her range and I know she would endorse the use of wax on just about all projects. Annie is a true artist and has the enviable ability to look at just about anything through an artists eyes.
I know that Annie, given her artistic demeanor would always much rather have an authentic and charismatic finish for her projects every time and I truly respect that.

What about the projects that us ‘everyday painters’ embark upon though. The table and chairs that we know are going to be kicked to death by the kids, or the coffee table that will have hot and cold beverages stood on it and spilled on it?
That ultra fussy client that isn’t quite happy with the authentic look because it “looks different to the one in Argos!”
You know what I mean, we all get them!

Can an argument be made here for offering our less discerning clientele an alternative that is more durable and predictable?
I’m not going to answer that question for you, you have to make your own mind up!

So, if it’s more durable and quicker, why wouldn’t I use a varnish?

Aaaahh! the debate begins!

Many would argue that a truly fine piece of furniture should evoke an emotion based not just on the way that it looks but also on it’s character.
It should convey a warmth and be pleasant to the touch.

While many varnishes can certainly be durable, they can leave things a little plasticky and flat to the touch. Especially many of the budget brand varieties that are currently available. This is why most of us steered away from shop bought furniture in the first place, because we wanted something with more character.

So it’s probably fair to say that most folks would like the durability and ease of use of a varnish with the warmth and silky touch of a wax.

How about using both?

Well that is certainly an option. There are a couple of draw backs though. You see when you apply wax to Annie Sloan Chalk Paint something of a chemical reaction occurs where the wax will penetrate the porous paint in order to create the seal coat.
If one applies a varnish first, this will inhibit the wax’s ability to be absorbed into the paint and it will effectively sit on top of the varnish. This means it will take longer to cure and may remain greasy to the touch for longer, incurring finger marks etc in the meantime.

Likewise if you apply the wax first this will almost certainly inhibit the varnishes ability to stick to the surface, unless the wax is fully cured and hardened, and this can take up to 30 days.

So does a decent compromise exist?

Well if you feel like you would rather use a varnish than a wax, the closest thing that I have found that offers all the benefits of a decent varnish with the warmth of a wax is the wax finish varnishes from Polyvine. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be waxing your furniture here, but if you are going to use a varnish on your furniture, this is the one to go for as the finished article will be much truer to the waxed look and feel than other acrylic varnishes. It is available either as a dead flat matt or a satin finish and has been formulated to emulate that silky waxed feel when it’s dry. It’s as close as you will come with a varnish.

Incidentally, if you do decide to try a varnish, make sure it’s acrylic. Don’t use a oil based varnish on your piece as will yellow in no time flat.

I will confess to using the Polyvine wax finish varnish on many of my projects as I love the user experience. It brushes on so smoothly and offers me a beautiful even finish. It can also be applied by roller for larger flatter areas. The only thing really to watch with a varnish is that if you have a stain that may be prone to bleed, a varnish will ‘pull it through the paint’ more than a wax, so a good stain blocker is a must.

So which finish is the winner?

Yo people, I lay it for Y’all to play it out! Tell me what you think by leaving a comment below. Please share your experiences, good or bad for both. That way I’m sure a winner will emerge based on your feedback. Who would have thought that using wax or varnish over chalk paint could have been such a difficult choice? If you want to do some tests with both techniques, small projects such as tissue box covers, picture frames and light switch surrounds are a great place to start. And don’t to forget to check out our range of mouldings – they are a great way to jazz up any project big or small.

Don’t forget to leave a comment. Let battle commence!